Wednesday, March 9, 2016

William Whyte and Houston: Revisiting Houston Center - The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

As I begin to prepare to take the AICP exam, the American Planning Association's professional institute, I was again reminded of the fantastic work of William H. Whyte (1917-1999). To those outside of the urban planning field, the name might not ring a bell, but, you've probably been influenced by his work. He spent much of his life studying corporate norms and organizational structures. While writing for Fortune Magazine, Whyte coined the term "Groupthink". After releasing his 1956 book The Organization Man, Whyte turned his attention to cities.

Whyte took to studying how people use our cities; how they interact with one another, with their environment. The Project for Public Spaces notes that "What emerged through his intuitive analysis is an extremely human, often amusing view of what is staggeringly obvious, but often goes unnoticed, about people’s behavior in public spaces." I agree.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

In his work The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte studies how New Yorkers use plazas and open spaces. These were plazas that were provided by builders in exchange for increased floor area ratios. Builders installed more plazas, but what resulted was empty spaces. Whyte is famous for his quote, "It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished." Turns out, there were many spaces that were built that actually repelled people. The same holds true today.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces: William H. Whyte from Nelly Oli on Vimeo.

Some plazas did have lots of people though. So, Whyte and his research team went to work to figure out what made them work. The Planning Commission of New York City claimed that if Whyte and his team could create a set of factual claims, that they would alter the open space requirements contained in the city's zoning code.

We’re reminded that small public spaces offer places to gather and rest, but almost more importantly, draw our attention and eyes to the city. They’re welcoming, unlike a great deal of urban buildings that brutally reject the cityscape with solid, blank walls. The main activity in plazas and open spaces, claims Whyte, is simply people looking at other people.

Whyte’s team set out to provide recommendations to New York City’s Planning Commission regarding open spaces. Their first recommendation was to provide sittable space in open areas at the rate of one linear foot per 30 square feet. At the 13:28 mark, Whyte gives a snarky description of a bench:

This artifact is a design object, the purpose of which is to punctuate architectural photographs. It has some utility as a bench, but it is usually placed in isolation. And the dimensions are exquisitely wrong. Not just for physical reasons, as important as they may be.  Small benches are socially awkward. If there’s a crowd, people will sit, but they’re not very relaxed about it.

It's not an intellectual bombshell, as Whyte quips, but people tend to sit where there are places to sit. And for that matter, people tend to gather where there are places to gather. Whyte's first recommendation to New York's Planning Commission was that there be one linear foot of sitting space per 30 square feet of open space.

Whyte’s team also considered a concern of the New York City Planning Commission: How many people is too many in a plaza or open space? “If plazas were made more inviting, might not they attract so many people as to be foul?” So, they studied 10 places. They found that each place had its own effective capacity. People could instinctively tell how many people were too many during normal use. (This rule can be thrown out the window for special events). They also noted that plazas and open spaces should not be sunken. There may be some activity, but most occurs at street level.

Houston Center

At the 25:18 of Whyte's film, he comments on Houston's Houston Center. At this time, it was a newly completed structure. The claims of the development of the Houston Center likely rival what Whyte thought was important in cities. Houston Center was billed as "what a city should be", a self-contained "total environment" complete with "high-rise and low-rise buildings, two 1,000 room hotels, 3-5 motels, apartments, commercial facilities, public plazas and building support uses. It was intended to incorporate "all forms of public and private transit, both vertical and horizontal."

Whyte comments:
We’ve been looking at places that work with the street. Now let’s look at a directly contrary approach; the self-contained mega structure. These are a sort of urban fortress. Their common denominator is that they take you away from the street. Here, at Houston Center, you’re going up, up, up. The plazas and the terraces are two and three levels above the street. From the street you are completely insulated. You can drive from the suburbs in the morning, into that garage there, walk through the skyways to the office, and spend the whole day without ever having to set foot in Houston at all. This is its streetscape. No stores, no windows. Not many pedestrians, either, for that matter.  Street level is for cars. The one activity is a bank window for people in cars.

Whyte's criticism for Houston Center is warranted. It is a fortress and isolated from street level. There's a near brutal rejection of the street. It was, however, designed as part of a larger Houston Center that was imagined but never (thankfully) realized. Other parts of downtown Houston do provide inviting public spaces. But, it seems the number of those that do is less than those that do not. Entire city blocks devoted to parking or a single building do not readily offer an inviting public experience. It'd be interesting to see what Whyte would have to say in the present day. He'd probably be surprised to know that the bank at Houston Center is still in operation. And, somewhat ironically, there is record of people sitting out in front of the bank on its planters.

As Whyte goes on, he mentions a key person in public spaces: the undesirable. Whyte says “It is for fear of him that spikes are put on ledges, benches made too short to sleep on. In actual fact, these people are harmless and sometimes very well-behaved. Most often, they are to be found in the places that other people are not.” (I suppose this has some reflection on the design of our city’s small public spaces. Ledges also receive those bumps to prevent skateboarding.) Related to this topic, Whyte suggests that spaces be open to the street and without a fence. With these, there's a feeling of entrapment.

Then there are the people who do odd things, like drumstick. In many ways the odd people do a service for the rest of us. They reassure us of our own normality. In well used public places people are tolerant of the odd ones.  Life goes on with little fuss or trouble.

Here is a pigeon lady: every square should have one.

Effective Ingredients for a Successful, Social Public Space

Whyte highlights a few things that every public space should have:

Sun – Successful spaces should have a warmth about them and be naturally lit, as much as possible. Many times this can be indirect due to reflections off of other buildings.

Water – The sound of it, accessibility to it; either way, have it! Fountains, sprays, brooks. Opening up our downtowns to waterways (San Antonio’s Riverwalk) can pay dividends. Houston certainly has not taken advantage of its position near Buffalo Bayou, but there are a great number of fountains or pools downtown breaking up the noise of the city.

Trees – Whyte asks "Why haven’t we planted more?" Trees reduce glare index and cool our cities. The recommendation is to plant them in small groves, creating a defined canopy. Thankfully, Houston has a great deal of street trees, even within our downtown.

Food – If you want to see a place with activity, put in food. Almost every lively plaza, you’ll find a pushcart vendor. The vendors provide a service that people want. This is similar to Houston’s food trucks. It wasn't until 2014 that they were allowed to operate Downtown (where a large number of people are). Houston still does not allow food push carts (except ice cream treats). It’s not to be forgotten, as Whyte notes, that these food stations not only provide a service that people want (food), but a social rendezvous. “People who eat usually attract far more people.” Now, Jones Plaza in Downtown Houston is hosting the Theater District Houston's Food Truck Tuesday. Jones Plaza will now have many more people in it on Tuesdays, all thanks to food trucks.

Triangulation – This is a characteristic of a public space that brings people in, brings them together. It could be a mime, a street performer, a sculpture, public art, something of the sort. Whyte features Jean Dubuffet’s Group of Four Trees sculpture in New York’s Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza. People are drawn to the sculpture. They touch it, walk under it, stand around it. Again, much like food carts or trucks, sculptures provide the connection between a public space and its people. If the Group of Four Trees looks familiar, it’s because Houston is home to a Dubuffet piece, Monument Au Fantome, which is found at the eastern end of Discovery Green. A bit hidden near the parking garage of Discovery Green, the sculpture will surely see a greater number of visitors.

Many of the recommendations made by Whyte and his team were included in the zoning ordinance of New York City. Of note, the zoning ordinance mandated that 50% of a building’s frontage must be for retail activity. Plazas could not be set more than 3 feet above or below grade level, easily accessible to all. These were factors that Whyte found created spaces and places people would use. Not to be forgotten, Whyte covers the idea of scale. The sprawl of squares or public spaces can render them useless.

Whyte closes with a thought from Frederick Law Olmstead, noting that Central Park should be a great gathering place for all kinds of people, then goes on to highlight some of the country’s best public spaces. Cincinnati’s Fountain Square is billed as possibly the best public square in the country, as it has a close relationship with the surrounding streets. It is well-enclosed by surrounding buildings and provides a variety of choices of sitting spaces, activities and food options. But, the most important thing about this plaza is its relationship to the downtown district as a whole: it’s in the center of town, not on its periphery. It’s a unifying place.

In a recent Strong Towns article, Charles Marohn sums up the wealth that is found in experiences, which is applicable to our cities. Marohn says:

"When we focus exclusively on stuff – landing the new big box store, building the new interchange, how many cars we can park – we meet a certain human compulsion for advancement. It feels like progress to the cold, rational parts of our brains. When we focus on experiences, however, we bind people to a place. And to each other. 
When we make that park pleasant to stroll through, when we make that street safe to cross, when we make that public building impressive to look at, we’re connecting our civic improvements to the more powerful parts of our brains, the part that values experiences over material goods. And these bonds run deep, last forever and are easily transferred to others. 
In short, when we build a city worth experiencing, we’re building a place that has enduring wealth."

Houston is doing a much better job in creating the type of places that attract people. But we need even more sticky places! For what it's worth, I think that Jones Plaza, when compared to Fountain Square in Cincinnati, could be the same for Houston. This is especially true if the park is ever able to re-create itself as presented by Houston First.

We've looked to our bayous as conduits of activity and vitality. We're rightfully restoring them, attracting a variety of users. William Whyte would also contend that the same should be applied to city streets. He says, "The street is the river of life of the city. They come to these places not to escape it, but to partake of it." 

Below are screen captures of Houston Center from its inclusion in "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces". Following those are some pictures from the present day.