Sunday, October 01, 2006

Holly Whyte and Small Urban Spaces

"I end then in praise of small spaces. The multiplier effect is tremendous. It is not just the number of people using them, but the larger number who pass by and enjoy them vicariously, or even the larger number who feel better about the city center for knowledge of them. For a city, such places are priceless, whatever the cost. They are built of a set of basics and they are right in front of our noses. If we will look." -- William H. Whyte.

During his lifetime, Holly Whyte probably received his greatest notoriety as an anthropologist of American business through the publication of his best-selling appraisal of corporate culture, The Organization Man (1956), but it is a testament to the breadth of his creativity that he is now celebrated as one of the great 20th century scientists of urban spaces.

Born on this day in 1917 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Whyte studied English at Princeton and won a collegiate playwright contest. After college, he worked for Vick Chemical as a marketing staffer until 1941, when he joined the Marines, serving as an intelligence officer at Quantico.

He came on board Henry Luce's Fortune magazine in 1946 and wrote articles on the corporate executive milieu, collected in Is Anybody Listening? How and Why U.S. Business Fumbles When it Talks with Human Beings (1952) and The Organization Man. The latter was an analysis of how modern corporate institutions stress safety and security at the expense of the kind of entrepreneurial risk-taking that made the American Industrial Revolution such an unprecedented financial and technological success. Coming on the heels of Riesman, Denney and Glazer's The Lonely Crowd (1950), Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), Mills' The Power Elite (1956) and other fictional and non-fictional laments of the stifling effects of conformity, Whyte's book became a best-seller, enabling Whyte to retire from Fortune and take up his second career.

As an urbanologist, Whyte's approach was to study what worked, in the field, and use his findings as a means for evaluating the de novo concoctions of urban planners. His first campaign, against "urban sprawl" (a term he coined) in 1957, led to the passage of open-space legislation in several states, enabling cities to purchase vacant land on their perimeters to help stem the tide of unbridled development.

While working with the New York City Planning Commission, Whyte initiated the "Street Life Project," in which Whyte and students from Hunter College took to the streets to observe and film what was happening in under-used city plazas and crowded sidewalks. Among his conclusions, described in his influential book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980), were that cities were inherently messy places, but that this was their advantage over the pristine, distrustful environments of the suburbs; that maximum commerce or "schmoozing" could be cultivated within cities by accommodating "honky-tonk," anything that invested sidewalks with hustle and bustle, creating a lively, inviting environment for city-dwellers; and that, in fact, we have a moral responsibility to create physical spaces that facilitate community interaction.

Although his observations were sometimes twisted by planners, his point of view with regard to the value of city life was embraced by American city planners and led to many of the urban regeneration projects of the 1990s.

Whyte died on January 12, 1999 in New York City.

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