Assorted Notes from the Social Life of Urban Spaces & A Pattern Language
issue 05 - two very good books on spatial design!
Milky Cities is a newsletter about building happier cities through good spatial design.
William H. Whyte put a bunch of time lapse cameras in 16 NYC plazas and 3 NYC parks, observing human behavior. As a result, he noticed many complex spatial nuances that seem trivial. To me, his book The Social Life of Small Urban Places attempts to explain why the ~vibe~ of some places feel so right, while others feel unnatural.
I put together a list of bullet points that stick out to me (noted with a 📖 emoji) along with some personal discoveries after running my own events and my last trip to NYC.
Social Life of Urban Spaces
📖 Enclosed spaces offer a unique privacy that open spaces can’t attain.
I noticed this while running the Contrary Whiteboards and Waffles sessions at Cal. Participants huddled around one long vertical room, and I think this orientation plays a huge role in how the room feels. I suppose they’re better compared to a large horizontal room because you can still “mimic” multiple rooms with long vertical rooms.
Why? You feel protected, warm, cozy, unexposed → private feeling
Examples around the world:
Narrow cobblestone streets in Paris
Night markets in Taiwan
Streets can also use trees and lush greenery to create the feeling of privacy when not possible.
📖 The space where the street and plaza or open space meet is critical. The transition should be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
New York’s Paley Park is one of the best examples. The sidewalk in front is an integral part of the park. Trees extend over the sidewalk, with flowers and sitting ledges sprawled along the edge. You can typically find people looking for someone else, a “convenient rendezvous point”.
“Whyte’s team went on to investigate everything from the ideal percentage of sitting space on a plaza (between 6% and 10% of the total open space, or one linear foot of sitting space for every thirty square feet of plaza)
📖 Triangulation creates social stimulus —> strangers are motivated to talk to one another
📖 Pocket parks stimulate our interaction with the city—which is probably why people are so fond of them, and why NYC is such a great city.
📖 The length of a step seems so trivial but it influences our experiences intensely. The low, easy far-apart steps in Paley Park pull you in, encouraging you to take in the environment. You have the choice of pausing and people-watch, or move forward—each choice is arbitrary.
In another chapter, Whyte considers the problem of urban “undesirables” — drunks, drug dealers, and other uncomfortable reminders of how our own lives might turn out “but for the grace of events.” Here, too, Whyte’s findings debunk conventional wisdom with an invaluable, counterintuitive insight: rather than fencing places off and flooding them with surveillance cameras (which he finds are of little use in outdoor spaces — something that would delight artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei), we should aim to make them as welcoming as possible
The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else. … The way people use a place mirrors expectations.
Following up on this ^ pedestrians will naturally cluster around places where there are people. No one wants to be isolated in a park, street, or center. Therefore, the way we make sure places feel safe is by making it a space people flood to naturally.
I’ve noticed that the various hot dog carts, coffee trucks, news stands, and convenience stores sprawled throughout NYC naturally attracted clusters of people
Indoor areas need to have proper sound insulation for good conversations to happen. Additionally, you can use sound to communicate feelings of privacy. Pitch silent rooms → more intimate.
📖 The most used plazas are the ones that encourage people to sit in 2’s and 3’s
📖 People rarely stop and talk to people at the center of the plaza and always look for edges or move towards the edge.
Very little chains and small cafes/flower shops/boutiques instead give the place a lot of character
How well a place is lit (especially at night) changes my perception of the safety immensely
Moveable furniture enables space to adapt to people’s needs. Bookshelf on wheels, tables on wheels, benches on wheels, etc.
Right now, I’m reading A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander as well. Here are some of my starting notes. If you’d like to read it too, an online version is here
A Pattern Language
📖 4-Story Limit
📖 Is it natural for density configurations of a town to be random?
E.g. a typical town has high density in the center and lower in the outskirts. However, there’s no recognizable structure in the city
Alexander proposes that this randomness of density is really bad for the environment. Why?
the high density areas are incapable of supporting intense activity because they are too widely spread
the low density areas are too diffusely scattered so can’t offer the intense quiet that is possible when they are clustered together
result is town has neither intense activity or intense quiet which is ultra important for a town. Instead, a solution is…
📖 Density Rings
The innermost ring would be the most densely populated, with residential, commercial, and other activities all happening in close proximity to one another. The next ring out would be less dense, and would typically contain things like parks and open spaces. The outermost ring would be the least dense, and would usually be reserved for things like farmland or nature reserves.
The idea is that by creating these different density rings, you can create a city that feels more organic and human-scale, while still providing for a variety of different activities and uses.
Must attract minor and major paths of a town
Smaller squares are much better than large squares (in order to keep activity concentrated). The book suggests 45 x 60.
Communal functions need to support each other
church, cinema, kindergarten, and police station in 1 square = bad because different people go to them at different times for different reasons
in order to achieve intense social activity, same kinds of people at same times need to be someplace.
e.g. put places good for nightlife close together
e.g. kindergartens + small parks + gardens = attract families
📖 Promenades are needed in every city, a place to see and to be seen, or “street theaters”
10-minute walk = good promenade
enough pedestrian density is critical for a promenade to work — it is a bustling part of the city
📖 Make high places physically difficult to get to
Another interesting point on how changing the flow of movement can affect people’s perception subconsciously.
Make people have to work for the nice view of the city it shouldn’t be so easily accessible like through an elevator
Instead they should climb a little bit, so it triggers a mental context switch from the low place to the other
this is literally everything I expect and wish for in a substack post - super fascinating stuff, thank you :)