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Public plazas part one: people sit where there are places to sit

June 26, 2010 Books, Plazas 6 Comments

I’ve been a huge fan of the late William H. Whyte since I bought his book City: Rediscovering the Center when it was published in 1988.  It would be many years later before I would read his 1980 book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces or see the companion film of the same name.  I had hoped to show you the film but the six YouTube videos that someone had posted have been removed due to copyright infringement.

The book and film are brilliant.  New York City had passed zoning changes that allowed developers to build taller buildings if they provided public plazas.  A decade later Whyte and his team meticulously studied numerous public plazas to determine why some were heavily used and others stood vacant. In the coming weeks and months I’m going to take a closer look plaza spaces here in St. Louis and use Whyte’s findings to see if they apply and how our plaza spaces might be improved.

One important finding was that “people sit where there are places to sit.”  Sounds obvious right? People would sit on steps and any place they could and not necessarily where the designers wanted them to sit.  “People attracted people” was also a finding, people watching is better when there are others to watch.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "6 comments" on this Article:

  1. Alfred Fickensher says:

    Wow! $21 bucks plus shipping is the lowest price foound for a used copy on BOOKFINDER dot com (I don't know if your blog comment protocols accept URLs) so that book apparently has some demand.

  2. Dave says:

    damn, we had it for $10 at the university bookstore when i was in college (6 years ago when i bought it). i always thought the book was full of the obvious, so i never really read it that closely. maybe now that it's not required reading i can enjoy it. now where did i put it……

    • Yes, much seems obvious but at the time the findings weren't obvious to all. They led to NYC changing their zoning code with respect to plazas.

  3. Doug Duckworth says:

    Don't forget Life Between Buildings!

  4. arkiben says:

    I had forgotten about that great film, thanks for the reminder. Unfortunately its hard to watch for free and even harder to buy. Looking forward to your plaza analysis, Steve. Saint Louis city has a similar zoning ordinance downtown, you can build taller than 200 ft if you provide a useful public plaza, the definition of which is left to zoning's discretion. In STL it hasn't been a big factor, it could only have been applied to about 20 buildings built since the code was established. Most of the resulting plazas are not particularly successful. Some of the ones in Whyte's film are amazing, the one I'm thinking of, I think its called Paley Park, the deep thin space with the waterfall at the back. It's so good that it's worth a pilgrimage visit when you're in New York. One of Whyte's observations was that people don't necessarily go to sit in the plaza at their building, but are willing to walk some number of blocks to find one that they like. (Any downtown worker can tell you that. But smoking breakers do tend to stay near their building). Considering city park space is within 3 blocks of most spots downtown, there are lots of better options than sitting in the sun with the smokers. So I think the value of little throwaway plazas at every tall building is questionable.

    • Yes, the value of numerous low-quality should be questioned. Paley Plaza is such a great space — I got to experience it in 2001. It was not created as an offset to higher construction.


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