In the 1970’s, a man named William Whyte documented the behavior of individuals to gauge the desirable aspects of public spaces. Whyte placed cameras around the plazas and streets of New York City to observe how the unassuming moved. The study is essentially a prerequisite in today’s planning school, and we learn to integrate his findings into our awareness of urban design: the relationship to the street is important, the option to sit comfortably will cause people to linger, fenced off places with low visibility will attract undesirables, and in the cold months, people like to sit in the sun.
Whyte not only documented where people went, but watched people watching people. In addition to these placemaking conclusions, Whyte records people reacting and responding to one another: walkers quicken or slow their steps so as to not bump into a passer-by, and those loitering tend to watch others around them. There’s a memorable sequence of the film where Whyte projects an aerial view of a public plaza and the unplanned magic of pedestrians going their own ways at their own pace without any accidental physical interaction comes into relief. Like ships in the night, pedestrians glide by one another, never touching. This scene of graceful passing was my first thought when I saw the 2011 YouTube video of a girl walking through the mall, texting, and falling directly into a fountain pool. I doubt there is any greater example of how human behavior has changed.
The actions of the walker or waiter are different today than they were in the 1980’s. As inferred by the fountainwalker, we simply don’t look up as much as we used to. We often use those moments of waiting or transit to check emails or update our status. If we’re early, perhaps we’ll call a friend for a quick chat rather than wait at the bar alone. Rarely do we allow ourselves to put the phone away and freely watch others — every moment must be occupied, every moment we must interact.
Our addictions to our personal devices detract from our desire to see beyond our world and to watch what is going on around us. These days, we seem to participate in less people watching, and as a result there’s more ‘bumping.’ Walking into people, falling down stairs, getting hit by cars — typing “texting walking fail” into YouTube brings up 9,600 results. Our public space interaction has changed to that of less looking, less watching, and more immersion into our own worlds of self-importance. This leaves a new task up to cities — integrating the self and the cellphone into the public realm to try and maintain our willingness to wait, to sit, to populate.
Cities have responded creatively with the integration of current day amenities to fit our tendencies and technological dependence. While much of Whyte’s physical findings continue to influence public spaces (for example, moveable chairs), several cities have become creative in the social aspect of things. The design of new street furniture doesn’t just give us the option to sit, but to sit and work, put our feet up, or play differently with our surroundings. Perhaps the most on-point installation was the potential of turning corners into coffee shops through charging station locations. Small tables and places to plug in our cellphones would force us to spend time in one place and in close proximity to others, thus encouraging interaction in a non-forced, yet facilitated fashion. Shying away from the structural world, art installations have also become interactive. A traveling exhibit called TXTual Healing allows passers by to send SMS messages for display on a public wall. This has allowed us to travel from our downturned eyes and put our messages into the minds of others.
So while the physical planning elements may hold true, we can’t lose sight of the people for whom we plan. It isn’t my job to restructure the human tendency to look at a glowing handheld device, but it is my job to figure out how to get you to want to look up again.
Below are some of my favorite street furniture links: