Last summer Newsweek published a list of 50 recommended books to help understand our times. The list is fascinating to look through and consider why some of the books were chosen. To encourage a conversation about the books, Amy at My Friend Amy, started a reading project asking people to read one book, write about it, and then share the link on her website to spark conversation. I chose City: Rediscovering the Center by William H. Whyte for two reasons: It was one of the last books available on the list and I knew my husband, Keith, the real estate attorney, would find it fascinating. This is his review of the book:
Why are some cities vibrant, visually dynamic, and filled with people on the move and engaged with each other, while other cities lack many of these characteristics? What makes one section of New York a fantastic place to walk around, but other areas of the City appear unfriendly or menacing? Is it a matter of location and infrastructure or is it the result of city planning?
I always thought that city planners went to school and learned their craft attending lectures, and then on the job by sitting at their desks and analyzing plans. Maybe some do. William H. Whyte’s book argues that in order to make good planning decisions, the types of decisions that will positively impact the way in which people live in their cities, planners must go out onto the streets and understand the raw data of how people interact in public spaces. City describes how Whyte’s team studied interactions on city streets and translated this information into discernible patterns. They set up a number of cameras in different locations on a street and recorded the day-to-day interactions. Whyte dissected how people traveled the streets, where they visited, how they interacted with each other and in conjunction with the street’s infrastructure (bus stops, buildings, window ledges, etc.). Whyte drew conclusions about what makes a street work and how cities can improve the population’s experience. One of my clients, who worked on the development of retail stores for the Walt Disney Company, told me that Disney studied many of these elements when deciding where to locate their stores. He recalled being quizzed by Michael Eisner, the then-CEO of Disney, on very specific details regarding pedestrian patterns and how the street traffic worked before Disney decided on the location of a new stand-alone retail store.
Some of Whyte’s observations are readily apparent. If a city wants more street level pedestrian traffic, make sure that the retail stores have entrances and windows on the street, and not large expanses of blank or solid walls. Other observations are more nuanced, he cautions against diverting pedestrian traffic above street level on to raised walkways or into promenades.
Currently, the downtown area in Los Angeles has been undergoing a renaissance over the last few years. City leaders approved the renovations of buildings on Broadway and Spring Street, in Little Tokyo, and other adjacent areas. The goal is to get the residents out of their cars and walking, shopping, eating and interacting on the streets. Whyte’s message is that we need to get granular in our understanding. Strings of big box stores with acres of parking do not promote the creation of healthy urban areas, but isolated moments of driving, parking, shopping and more driving. In a time that many people are at least thinking about reducing their individual “carbon footprints,” we need our cities to successfully promote the development and use of interesting city centers where the streets are designed to promote healthy interactions on a pedestrian-based scale. City shows us that the best way to do that is to analyze what is happening on the street level.