How to Wait for the Bus (and Why)

1.

Public spaces are the bulwark of every city’s identity. Parks, buses, and sidewalks are home to the quintessential interactions of city life. Anyone from tourists to mayors contending how friendly or dirty or vibrant a city is will most likely cite anecdotes from public spaces. They describe, flatteringly or not, food carts, street performers, peddlers and swindlers. They might also mention eccentric panhandlers, chess players, and soapbox preachers. And there are inanimate features as well: majestic elms, stadiums, bridges; alongside abandoned industrial façades, tenements, and polluted rivers. How “friendly” the city is perceived to be also depends on public spaces—the disposition of pedestrians, drivers, and subway riders.

Cities, then, have every reason to maintain and improve their public spaces—but their efforts are all too often counterproductive. William H. Whyte (1917-99), godfather of the study of urban living and erstwhile editor of Fortune magazine, was among the first to pursue a quantitative understanding of the dynamics of city life. In his 1988 study City: Rediscovering the Center, recently republished by the University of Pennsylvania, Whyte argues that municipal governments frequently underappreciate their public spaces. “It is difficult to design an urban space so maladroitly that people will not use it,” he writes, “but there are many such spaces.” Whyte’s examples include parks walled off from the city, steps built too narrow or too low for sitting, and street lights timed poorly for pedestrian traffic. The consequence of such poor design is not mere inconvenience but a real degradation of the quality of life. The more opportunity we have to interact with fellow city-dwellers, Whyte believes, the more happy and comfortable we are in the urban environment. Thus every feature which impedes interaction detracts from the vitality of the city.

During the sixteen years Whyte spent conducting research for this book, a peculiar anti-urban movement was emerging in America. Not only were suburbs expanding at the expense of tight, efficient metropolises, but many urban planners embraced the notion that density was bad. Whyte describes municipal governments tearing down plots and blocks—not to make way for museums or parks, but simply to reduce crowding. Under Title One of the 1949 Housing Act, cities began acquiring areas considered to be “blighted,” hoping to redevelop them—a trend that continued through the 1980s. But Whyte felt these planners were being hoisted by their own petards: “Many of the areas were not truly blighted, but the expectation was self-fulfilling. Once an area was declared blighted, maintenance ceased… Sometimes the redevelopment phase never did come about.” And the effect was not cleaner, brighter cities, as the designers had hoped, but urban wastelands.

Whyte’s contention that hustle and bustle were almost universally beneficial to city life ran contrary to the conventional wisdom of the time. City, however, advances his position with an impressive collection of empirical observations. Pedestrians in a conversation are likely to move toward the center of sidewalk traffic, not away from it, revealing a native tendency toward clustering. Open parks draw much more traffic than walled parks meant to provide a tranquil refuge from the surrounding city. Whyte’s catalogue of street activity paints a glowing picture of crowded city centers, where public spaces draw all manner of edifying and entertaining activity. Art and commerce thrive side by side. Whyte does not discuss the political importance of these spaces as gathering places for movements, marches, and protests (perhaps because his research predominantly concerned Manhattan rather than Washington, San Francisco, or Paris), but this faculty should be of no less concern to us.

Much has changed in the two decades since City was first published, but its themes are relevant enough to have warranted its reprinting. One reason for its continuing value is made clear by its own observation that the effects of technology on city design have always been limited. The physical elements of the modern city center—”streets, buildings, and places to meet and talk”—have changed minimally from the ancient Greek agora. It is remarkable how little we have utilized emerging technology to improve our cities’ efficiency. Despite generations of futuristic visions from the likes of Ledoux and Le Corbusier, urban design has made few accommodations for new modes of transportation and communication. For example, though we now rely on cars, trains, and bicycles to move us around the city, Whyte notes that the width of modern pedestrian walkways remains close to the twelve- to eighteen-foot range prevalent in most ancient cities. Perhaps this is no accident, but a reflection of the perdurance of fundamental human needs.

Whyte’s utopia is designed not primarily for commercial efficiency (though he does suggest improvements in that respect) but for quality of life—and while the infrastructure required for commercial efficiency responds quickly to technological innovation, the infrastructural requirements for quality of life are more or less static. Experiments with municipal reorganization, like imitations of Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin, have met with scorn and now regret (think of Castle Village in New York). Despite everything, Whyte writes, “Increased communications and travel have not obviated face-to-face interchange; they have stimulated it… The city is still the prime place. It is so because of the great likelihood of unplanned, informal encounters or the staging of them.”

The fact that commercial development has fortified in American cities rather than migrating to suburbs helps validate Whyte’s hypothesis. Already in the 80s he had observed the signs: “It had been widely forecast that [financial institutions] would move out en masse… A lot of the back-office work has been relocated. The main business, however, is not record keeping and support services; it is people sizing up other people, and the center is the place for that.” Judging by population alone, the trend seems stable—the percentage of Americans living in urban areas increased from 74% in 1970 to 79% in 2000. The population of central cities also continues to rise, with 30% of Americans dwelling there.

To the extent that he is an empiricist, Whyte’s laboratory—the city itself—is too complex to permit reduction to theory. But he does venture quite often into the central issue of why the experience of public spaces is so powerful. One telling example is New York’s Lexington Avenue: “Why do people persist in using this street? …Many [pedestrians] could use less tacky or crowded routes if they wished… People love to hate Lexington, and they have terrible things to say about it. Some actually do avoid it, but it does appear that many of the people on Lexington are there because they want to be.” And why? Whyte offers three compelling reasons.

The first he calls “messiness,” or the “mishmash of activities”—the whole sum of the sensory experience of the street. As an illustration, he relates the observations of a blind man who frequently navigates the street. From the odor of the newsstand to the dripping air conditioner to the record store’s loudspeaker, every foot of sidewalk seems alive and vibrant, an environment that could engross any pedestrian. Second is something Whyte calls “second storiness.” By this he means the jungle of merchants visible from the street but elevated above it, including, in one three-block stretch, an impressively diverse list: “Dance studio, Palmist, Haircutting parlor, Doll hospital, Karate academy, Chinese restaurant, Nail studio, Mattress store, Record shop, Clock repair shop.” These merchants, a visual feast in their own right, support a large number of pamphleteers on the blocks below, as well as directly drawing pedestrian traffic of their own. Finally there is the opportunity for window shopping, an activity best practiced in dense areas where merchants have the greatest motivation to catch the eyes of passerby with flashy displays. Together, these features form a resplendent urban ecosystem of obvious appeal to sidewalk crowds.

2.

While the essential design elements of our cities and public spaces may be timeless, the way we relate to them is not. The two decades since Whyte published City have witnessed what may have been the quietest revolution of urban life. Most technological innovation since the aqueduct has affected city life only superficially, making certain activities faster or safer or more convenient. But thanks to the inexorable prevalence of personal mobile technology, it is now steadily easier for city dwellers to isolate their senses from their environment, plugging their ears with headphones or gazing at a digital screen.

Much ink has been spilt on the psychological detriments of mobile phones and the like, but relatively little attention has been paid to how this technology changes the character of our public spaces. Whyte’s study illuminates just how indispensable these spaces are to civic life, and there can be no doubt that the prevalence of mobile devices has affected their function. Walking a city block used to entail exposure to a complex array of stimuli, from architecture to hawking merchants to sidewalk graffiti. This exposure is no longer necessary. Pedestrians are increasingly likely to use their travel time for other purposes. It is not safe anymore to assume that your compatriots on the sidewalk or in the bus stop or on the park bench are conscious of their surroundings. They may be listening to music or checking email or browsing the web.

Whyte could not have imagined the great isolating power of new technology. To be sure, cell phones and other mobile devices can make it easier for people to assemble. They ameliorate barriers of distance and information exchange. Creative people have used these tools to facilitate completely novel activities in public spaces. But in common usage, these tools also distract from the world they should be opening up. We are all familiar with the texting pedestrian, the mp3-playing jogger, and the web-surfing subway rider. This is not to say that city dwellers haven’t always sought distractions from their environments—books, newspapers, and twiddling thumbs. But these diversions have never been as prevalent as microprocessors are today, nor do they monopolize the senses to nearly the same degree.

If an axial theme emerges from Whyte’s study, it is the indelible richness of urban environments. Though the book takes the guise of sociology, City is really about stories—encountering people and events that are worth thinking about. We don’t have to share Whyte’s passion for urban landscapes in order to enjoy, and learn from, what we can see and hear on any street corner or in any bus stop. As William Zinsser recently put it in an address at Deerfield Academy, “I don’t want to walk around New York talking on a cell phone to someone who is somewhere else; I would miss too much. I would miss seeing and hearing—and overhearing—the things that give me an interesting life.” Taken individually, each wait for the bus might seem better used for catching up on the news, or emailing a friend, or reading a blog. But over time turning a blind eye to the imminent world undercuts the vibrancy of urban spaces. And it may undercut the vibrancy of democracy itself: Cass Sunstein writes in the Boston Review that “people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself.”

A recent cell phone commercial reveals how bizarre our cultural obsession with mobile technology has become. A young woman walks down a city street using her phone. As she walks, the city around her transforms in fantastic ways, changing walls into speakers for playing music or screens for streaming video—presumably mimicking the features available on the phone. The visual effect is entrancing, even beautiful. Yet for the ad’s duration, the woman’s eyes never leave the text message conversation she is having. She is studiously oblivious to the world she passes by, engrossed in a digital fantasy.

The phone company seems to promote this scene as the ideal use of their product: to enhance your environment while separating yourself from it. Far from concealing the insidiously isolating effect of the multi-purpose mobile device, the commercial embraces it. This is the good life, it seems to proclaim; that beautiful world in your palm—the world of your friends and your preferences—is everything you want and need.

As I have written, new media do not necessitate poor expression. The tools at our disposal do not in themselves make us worse at anything. Quite the contrary—the intellectual and social advantages of our newfound access to knowledge and ease of communication can hardly be overstated. Yet when employed in certain ways, these tools exact a penalty. Through them we have the power to alienate ourselves from the compelling characters and narratives which populate our public spaces—a power increasingly exercised. And habitual use of mobile devices in public spaces not only sterilizes the personal urban experience, it inhibits users’ own contributions to the vitality of the spaces they traverse.

Whyte offers stirring (though never sentimental) accounts of street people—”undesirables”—whose eccentric presence enlivens city life. Eliminating these characters, if it were possible, would dampen rather than improve quality of life. Eliminating the undesirable necessity to spend time in their presence—and the presence of society at large—is now entirely possible, but more dystopian than utopian.

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2 Responses to How to Wait for the Bus (and Why)

  1. Pingback: The Glorious Painted Life of New York | Like Them that Dream

  2. Pingback: The Glorious Painted Life of New York

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