Street Life – Why People Do What They Do In Public

November 22, 2012

Reposting a link and post from Stefan Adler on Facebook because I like his comments on the video William H. Whyte:  The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

I would add Portland to his list, below, of cities that paid attention… and also just mention how much I have enjoyed seeing urban social spaces change, and the improvement that has come with it, over the last 25 years.  As examples, think about our new mini-parks, the renovation of Union Square, The Ferry Plaza, Pac Bell Park,  – all direct or indirect outgrowths of this research.

(And if you do watch the film, and have been to NYC lately, the urban renewal that has occurred since it’s filming is immediately evident (there are too many renovations to list, but in the late 80s and early 90s, Bryant Park and Herald Square were renovated with moveable furniture and were transformed from empty/creepy to full and welcoming almost overnight.)

From Stefan Adler:

…: “Why do city and town spaces work? Since the mid-70’s, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces has been influential by studying how people interact in public and how public design affects them. I found a link to this film (there was also a published report with the same title) when some or the other commenter posted it. I just watched it for the first time in 20 years. It’s nearly an hour, and it was totally worthwhile. Watching unobtrusively and counting to gather objective verifiable information is the foundation for amazing insights. Simple steps like counting people in different parts of a plaza or different kinds of chairs, and following these tests over time of day and time of year, taught the researchers what people liked, and found engaging. Then they told people how to do repeat it in other places. That was 35 years ago, and cities and towns that listened mostly did better well. It doesn’t fix everything, it’s just a piece of the puzzle that can help New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle immediately come to mind as cities that started making some of these changes early, and had an incredible booms. I’ve been to a lot of small and medium sized towns in the last 20 years that have seen once dying downtown areas blossom based on these rules. I took a lot of hooey in the 70’s and 80’s for saying that Brooklyn and Oakland had the bones and people to really explode. I was proven obviously right about Brooklyn more than a decade ago, and it’s becoming undeniably clear about Oakland now. Setting my touchdown dance aside, both of those places are still going amazing places, and should tell us that it is possible in other places. We are reinventing older cities, towns and suburbs. I for one am unwilling to give up on the history and culture these places embody. Detroit comes to mind. There are beautiful high rises from the 20’s that cannot be used for offices based on changes in use patterns. They are being reborn as residences. Small commercial, social and artistic community places are encouraging new residents and new kinds of uses. An emphasis on lively urban space will only help the residents build a brighter future. A lively downtown Detroit will only improve the outlying areas. I don’t know how Detroit will be made great – that is up to Detroiters. I only know that betting against them is foolish. These places need to adapt, and this video helps show a more productive path.”