Archive: January 6th, 2009

William Whyte: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

[Readings] (01.06.09, 10:59 pm)

Whyte’s text reviews urban environments from a perspective of design. The methodology of the book is documentary, but it carries with it an agenda and exhortation for the enrichment of the spaces themselves. The purpose of designing spaces is to encourage the environment, urban life, and community. Having lived for the past several years in Atlanta, I find Whyte’s depiction of urban spaces to be somewhat shocking, a phenomenon that is easily supported by the fact that the book was published in 1980. It has been nearly 30 years since then, and the depictions of openness, freedom, and intermingled spaces have gradually been eclipsed by a number of factors. Our fear-loving political mentality among them. This outlook aside, and in spite of politics and our insular and slightly agoraphobic climate, much of Whyte has to say is extremely relevant from a number of perspectives.

Whyte is part of the “media traditions” tag on the big reading list. This is because the text is about urban planning and architecture. Much of what Whyte discusses are plazas, and how to design them to be inviting. This is relevant for anyone interested in architecture, but it is also relevant for anyone interested in social spaces, either real or virtual. From the perspective of AI and character simulation, it provides a useful glimpse into how characters might behave within certain spaces. Embodiment is a property of the situation as much as it is of the individual, giving some clues as to how to get characters to react to and experience spaces. Urban spaces are not especially interesting for my work, so I’ll focus on elements that may be more general.

The first thing to discuss is how Whyte might be used to discuss space within virtual worlds. Within multiplayer environments, this conveys the strongest analogue, but it may also be used to examine the relationship between the environment and simulated characters within first person games. The key goal of the book is the construction of inviting spaces. Whyte’s first main point is that it is people who determine the use of a space. All social spaces are emergent, and cannot be controlled directly. People will occupy places that are desirable, and will avoid places that are not. Paradoxically, what makes places desirable are other people. Plazas are expansive areas that are open for walking, and are usually placed outside of corporate buildings (in New York, the reason for this is also emergent, and relating to zoning laws that encouraged the development of plazas). This means that people move in and out of the plazas on their way to and from work, and often come outside around lunchtime. What makes these spaces appealing for use comes from several factors: sitting space, sunlight and shade, trees, water (especially waterfall features), food, retail, street performers, and ready access to the street itself. Aside from the environmental effects, these are all important because they are things that people will use. When a space is usable, and inviting to be used, it will be used. This is a sort of environmental sense of affordance.

Criticized in the book are “megastructures,” much like the hermetically sealed bubbles described by Jameson in Postmodernism. These are places with no readily visible or accessible ways in or out (on foot, anyway), and are built like fortresses. These structures are designed to be accessible primarily by car, and thus the visitors will be travelling from one bubble to another. Invariably, when present on the ground, these will have spiked ledges to disallow seating, and forbid any kind of casual use of the space.

A key takeaway in this is to consider the way that virtual spaces are designed, and assess whether they fall more into the category of the former or the latter. It is clear that spaces are the most lively when they are the most easily used. However, virtual space fits into this at an odd level. On one hand, virtual environments are not precisely necessary the same way that real ones are. Virtual bodies are not real, and the characteristic that makes spaces inviting, things such as: sitting area, food, proximity to important locations, such as the street, an office, or stores, are all essentially unnecessary in virtual worlds. These obstacles exist precisely because there are spaces that exist in between real people and where they are going. These simply do not exist in virtual space. A person using a computer does not need to go through a virtual space to procure food, or to sit down, or to shop, or to go to work. However, all of these processes may be simulated.

The situations where virtual places might be the most inviting are within multiplayer games, where the players have characters who inhabit these worlds and have things that they want to do in the world that are situated. The best example of this that I can think of is in World of Warcraft, specifically within the Horde city of Orgrimmar. There are three locations that players visit with great frequency: the mailbox, the auction house, and the bank. These three are conveniently placed very close to each other, creating a triangle of activity. Near that triangle may be found many players gathered together, occasionally talking, occasionally giving away enchantments, and occasionally dancing or behaving silly. Outside of hotspots like these, places are much less vibrant. In many games and virtual worlds, interaction with other players is done with private messages, which enables people to communicate without being near each other. Second Life enables instantaneous teleportation and flight, which is fun, but detracts from the necessity and integral nature of space. As a result, most spaces are empty, apart from the occasional drifters. By providing players with instantaneous access to the objects for which space is normally a medium, space becomes unnecessary, losing its value as a medium for emergence.

The key to getting an idea of “placeness” seems to be embodiment. We use space because we inhabit that space with our bodies. Virtual characters will use virtual space by inhabiting it with their own virtual bodies. One element to this is the simple necessity of being in a space. When the player (or a simulated character) is forced to occupy a space, that space will come to be seen in terms of affordances. Easy types of affordances are the relation of that space to other spaces. A reading room is a useful space because that is where the books are. However, other issues indicated by Whyte are important but very subtle. One is that people prefer to sit down. People also prefer to be in spaces that have consistent and pleasing climate (sufficient sun and shade). In games such as The Sims, these sorts of ideas are expressed by having sims have a “comfort” and “environment” needs. Playing a game of The Sims yields interesting emergent effects when the player furnishes a home. Frequently, the sims will coalesce and occupy one room more than the others, and that is generally the room that has the most comfortable furniture and the highest environment. I am not sure if this demands more attention, but it seems like it should be sufficient to simply be aware of that effect, and keep it in mind while developing models of how characters act within places.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorWhyte, William Hollingsworth
TitleThe Social Life of Small Urban Spaces
Tagsmedia traditions, architecture, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon