2. Watching the Crowds Go By

Whyte's research revealed the dimensions of the ideal sitting opportunity.

William H Whyte was not a social scientist by training or profession—he considered himself a writer with roots in journalism and sometimes said he felt like an amateur sociologist—but he knew that, in order to convince people,  advocates had to do better than merely advocate. Holly (to his friends) could count and did so to make clear what he had painstakingly come to believe about how people behaved in urban public spaces, what they liked and of equal significance what they did not. His laboratory was those places specifically designated parks or plazas as well as the ubiquitous pavements or sidewalks without which cities could not exist.

Whyte wrote of truths in ways that reassure readers that this man can be trusted. He theorized that “a sense of enclosure” at the popular Seagrams’s plaza in Manhattan “contributes to the enjoyment” of that plaza, adding, “I certainly can’t prove it.” Introducing his research, he blandly confesses that “I will pass over the false starts, the dead ends, and the floundering arounds.” He adds without evident shame, “Let me also note that the findings should have been obvious to us…Opposite propositions were often what seemed obvious…We arrived at our conclusions by a succession of busted hypotheses.” Referring to his recommendations to repair the standing city rules governing plaza designs, he said the final document was “disciplined by adversaries”, meaning that designers and developers were comfortable with the profitable rules by which the city had awarded substantial incentives for providing what often proved to be public spaces the public didn’t like. The reader instinctively believes the author.

He consumed three years watching and measuring human behavior in the public realm, using time lapse cameras to extend his reach and to record measurable activities. His suggested changes were ultimately adopted by the city, producing dramatic changes in the places intended for public enjoyment. In contrast to the bleak and lonely set backs on Sixth Avenue designed under the prior rules, the later redesign of Bryant Park, to which he was an active contributor, showed the city and the world how one could substitute fun for fear, a new formula for successful civic life. The remarkable new public spaces recently created during the Bloomberg era are the beneficiaries of Holly Whyte’s observations and planning changes.

When he began, the conventional wisdom placed crowding high among urban ills afflicting Manhattan. It was widely believed that there was too little land for too many people. Whyte, however, quickly noted “lack of crowding in many of these areas. A few were jammed, but more were nearer empty than full.” Whyte noted that the amount of public space in Manhattan was increasing, partly because of the zoning bonuses. Every new office building provided a plaza or comparable space, totaling 20 acres of the world’s most expensive open space.

Some worked well. Seagrams plaza in Midtown and 77 Water Street Downtown were clear successes. They were comfortably crowded.  At another location, however, the count on a sunny day at the lunch hour peak averaged four per 1000 square feet– “an extraordinarily low figure for so dense a center. The city was being had,” Whyte noted. Zoning bonuses were benefitting developers, but were mainly producing places men and women rejected.

Here are some of his findings:

  1. Location—How far will people walk to urban parks? “The effective market radius is about three blocks”.
  2. “Supply creates demand”—The more quality parks, the more users
  3. Sociability index – The more groups, the more people. “The high proportion of people in groups … is often because they have decided to go there.” Choice is one measure of success. Groups of people attract more people than singles do.
  4. Women—“If a plaza has a markedly lower than average proportion of women, something is wrong…Women are more discriminating.”
  5. Peaks—“80% per cent of the total hours of use will be concentrated “ between 11 am and 2 pm.
  6. Off peak uses are revealing—When there are lots of sitting choices, those picked reveal what is most popular.
  7. Men—Tend to take the front row seats.
  8. Lovers—Also out tend to sit in front.
  9. Self congestion” – “What attracts people most…is other people”.  People speak of “getting away from it all” but “what people do reveals a different priority.” People hold conversations in the middle of sidewalks, “they sit in the mainstream” of plazas. They favor crowded places.
  10. Other Cities —Behavior in the largest cities (eg. Copenhagen, Tokyo, Milan) reflected New York’s findings.

Whyte studied 16 plazas producing  simple charts revealing measurable differences and similarities.  One ranked them in the average number of people sitting, 12:30-1:30, in good weather, another in terms of square feet of open space, a third  in terms of “sitable space” and the final one illustrates relative density of use—number of people recorded per 1000 square feet of public space. “The two places people cite as the most pleasing and least crowded, Paley Park and Greenacre Park, are by far and away, the most heavily used per square foot.”

Seeking explanations for success, sunshine  availability was shown to be important, but did not explain the differences in use (some people sought shade). Nor, to the distress of design professionals, did aesthetics, plaza’s shapes or their size (in some cases, sheer space can deter users). “Sitable space” proved important, but the most important factor was reflected in his principle test of success: “People tend to sit most where there are places to sit.”  He summarized his conclusion with another “obvious” observation. “The most attractive fountains, the most striking designs, cannot induce people to come and sit if there is no place to sit.”

To Whyte, sitable meant physically and socially comfortable. It means choice. Searching for standards to flesh out the proposed new zoning rules, his research turned up the observation that “people will sit almost anywhere between a height of one foot and three.” Comfort is important, if often overlooked by architects. Whyte wrote that designers seem to have  “forgotten the human backside”. Whyte’s rule: “ledges and spaces two backsides deep seat more people comfortably than those that are not so deep”.

Whyte analyzed the contributions made to park popularity by sunlight  (it is strongly attracting in early Spring), trees, water (“should be accessible, touchable, splashable”) and food. When vendors are shooed away, “a lot of the life of the space goes with him.”  He observes the problems caused by urban winds caused by tall buildings, plazas below grade (“dead spaces”) and building managers’ misplaced fear of fear.

“Fear proves itself”, he wrote. Corporations that made their plazas uninviting to loiterers, made them uninviting to the general public. Fear favors empty places. “The best way to handle the problem of undesirables (winos, homeless, the most harmless of the city’s marginal people, in his view) is to make a place attractive to everyone else”. Popular places are largely “self policing.”

He argued for moveable seats because his observations revealed people’s widespread tendency to move them. People wanted their immediate park space to be organized to fit their preference at the moment, rejecting the immovable chairs and benches widely prescribed by designers. Whyte predicted the low rates of theft and vandalism (Paley Park recorded five minor crimes in six years: a flower urn was stolen; a man tried to carve his initial in a tree). His findings guided the purchase of hundreds of folding chairs when Bryant Park was redesigned.

In planning Paley Park, it was assumed that guards would be required.  Whyte noted that whatever reassurance was required was produced by uniformed cleaners. Successful and far less expensive than a separate corps of guards, a lesson that would save business improvement districts a large share of their annual budgets, if followed.

While some indoor spaces are “dreadful”, Whyte saw the Crystal Court in Minneapolis as “the best in the country.” Regarding “megastructures”, such as Renaissance Center, Detroit, Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta and LA’s Bonaventure Complex, Whyte observed that these vast, internalized environments were unconnected to the outside world with vast blank, concrete and windowless walls. Designers believed that the formula lure the middle class required fortresses stuffed with guards and security cameras. After construction, there was usually a lot less downtown with which to connect. Empty sidewalks raised fear levels.

Never at a loss for punchy words to underscore a point. The draft Miami Beach plan was “bad”. Architects were often “so wrong”. Lincoln Center is “empty”, a damning judgment in Whyte’s vocabulary. “Lousy sunken plazas” are “terrible mistakes”. Atlanta is the “capital of blank walls”. Lincoln Center, “Looks sort of crummy.”

Whyte sought formulae that would be widely applicable and he examined scores of cities in the US and abroad toward that end. Because they lacked the density to produce popular urban spaces, some large cities, such as Houston, and most small ones were not realistic candidates for his conclusions. “Cities in the 100,000 to 200,000 range are not just scaled down versions of large cities. Four story commercial buildings produce a far different environment than one where buildings average 20 stories. He notes that parking lots often consume more than half of a commercial center’s total land.

Why is Holly Whyte’s work, dating from the 1960s and ‘70s important today and tomorrow? First, the Twenty-first Century has seen unprecedented population growth in our densest communities. There are more people within walking distance of parks, more people lacking accessible parks and more people to provide the volume of users required for success.

Second, recent research on the ingredients of population growth indicate that those with the most favorable concentrations of amenities, including urban public spaces, evidenced the greatest growth. People are moving to  or remaining in places despite weak job markets because they want to enjoy urban life.

Third, Whyte’s writings offer much to teach the subsequent generation of business improvement district planners and administrators. Urban BIDs, for example, spend vast sums on uniformed security personnel; Whyte’s studies suggest that the cleaning staffs could do as well.

Finally, although Whyte’s recommendations revolutionized New York City’s zoning and contributed greatly to the quality of the new public spaces subsequently created there, the availability, content and use of public spaces elsewhere suggest that some cities should challenge their assumptions regarding how best to serve their populations in providing these amenities. Indeed, the architectural critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer in May, 2010 roasted developers of two high rise towers whose added density was supposed to be offset by new  public space. In fact, one is fenced off from the sidewalk and the other is an empty concrete pad “large enough for two delivery trucks”—they produced space, but not public space.


  • Whyte, William H. “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”. Conservation Foundation. 1980.
  • Hall, Stephen S. “Standing on those Corners, Watching all the Folks Go By”. Smithsonian. 1988
  • Saffron, Inga. “Deals to build tall towers offer tiny payback: Philadelphia Inquirer, May 14, 2010.

William H Whyte used time-lapse photography to accumulate evidence of how people behave in public spaces.

Elaborate and expensive urban parks can’t overcome the disadvantage of insufficient users within ten minute walks.

Holly Whyte's observation that people like to be able to move chairs-- even a small distance-- to suit themselves, marked the end of the reliance on concrete benches in many new and altered public spaces.

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