The Social Media of Small Urban Spaces

In the 1950s, it was a commonplace that urban spaces were inherently antisocial. These days, it’s a commonplace that smartphones are degrading the quality of public interactions. How things have changed!

It took the work of a few people to tease out a more nuanced view of urban life. Rather than looking at the form of cities in drawings, they looked at the people from the ground. These amateurs looked at how inhabitants used space and elaborated from there, rather than starting from ungrounded first principles.

A key player in this movement was William H.Whyte, a journalist by training. When senior editor of Forbes Magazine, he commissioned Jane Jacobs to write some of the articles that catapulted her to fame as a keen observer of public space. Seeing that she had discovered a fundamental flaw in urban planning, he built on her work with the kind of empirical discipline that worked wonders on bureaucrats.

Mostly, he looked for patterns and then examined those patterns in more detail. He used photos, film, charts, timers, and a lot of assistants. I’ve mentioned a film that catalogues his examination Mies’s Seagram Building in New York. Why did this tower in a plaza work, when so many others didn’t?

This kind of empiricism is exhausting, so it hasn’t been replicated much. But the New York Times today ran an article on the work of Keith N. Hampton, a sociologist at Rutgers who has tried to replicate William H. Whyte’s studies of how people use public spaces. With one twist: he was looking at how digital devices are affecting things. 

His results, like Whyte’s, significantly disrupt the conventional wisdom that the diffuse presence of social media are harming our relationships. Not refute, just call into question how idyllic things were before, and whether we’re simply seeing a shift, rather than a decline.

It’s definitely worth your time to read it.

Hampton has some further resources available too, such as his video of Kevin Roche’s steps at the Met, a vintage video from Whyte’s Bryant Park project, and a photoessay showing how people use computers in wifi-enabled parks.



Learn more about DC architecture

The newest edition of the AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, DC has been published. This came as a surprise to me, since I bought the last edition just two months before the new one came out. Alas. The rate that the guides are reappearing has been shrinking by half. The Second Edition came out in 1974, Third in 1994, Fourth in 2006, and now Fifth in 2012, with guidebook singularity expected sometime in 2018. This may seem excessive, but it kind of makes sense. DC was losing buildings left and right in 1994, but between 2006 and 2012, DC has seen an unprecedented boom in high-end buildings. Flipping through my sad, obsolescent 4th edition, it’s clear there’s a lot missing.

For example, the 2006 guide has these inadequacies:

No, actually, there have been a lot of architecturally notable buildings built in DC over the past six years. Looking back, it’s kind of insane how much capital was invested in DC real estate. If you’re more interested, G. Martin Moeller, the author, was on Kojo Nnamdi’s show last week. The interview is worth listening to, if you’re unfamiliar with the guide. And the guide is definitely worth having and understandable to the laity.