Won’t You Be My Neighbour?

Atoll Blog article uploaded 27th January 2020 highlighting William H Whyte’s 1980 book and film ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’ and exploring the virtues of community neighbourlyness in urban planning. Click on link to open.

A role model for the ultimate in reconnecting us back to our child-like sense of trust and ‘social street behaviour’ is currently being showcased in the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, [1]  just released in the UK. Inspired by real events and people, it is a feel-good story, set around the host of a long-running U.S educational children’s television series called Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, who helped paint a simple utopian picture of urban harmony. An imaginary sense of place was built by him over nearly forty years, and a kingdom, part-human and part-puppet, known as the ‘Neighborhood of Make-Believe’. The series was fronted by both eponymous and actual Mister (Fred) Rogers, who both wrote and presented the programme from 1962 up until its close in 2001.

The content was always whimsical, advocating old tenets like loving thy neighbour, but also dealt genially with problematical issues of the day. Underwriting it all was a moral message for us adults to remember our own childhood when acting as self-appointed guardian to our young and vulnerable. It included notably a TV Special that once explored how children might deal with tragedy and loss following the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. In the new film, Rogers is played by Tom Hanks, and it is difficult perhaps to imagine any actor today more appropriate to portray the inherent kindness, faith and empathy of both the imaginary and real ‘Mister Rogers’.

Ironic, given modern media scandals, that the underlying narrative of the film is set around the true story of a tortured investigative journalist who had been delegated, against his wishes, to conduct a pleasant feature interview for Esquire magazine with Fred Rogers. Setting-out instead to unearth scandal and hypocrisy around his private life, thankfully, none was to be found. Instead, the journalist ironically draws the compassion of a caring Fred Rogers, who helps him finally come to terms with a deep family trauma.

Around the middle of the 40-year run of Rogers’ fictional kingdom, another real-life call for a better quality of life for individuals and society was also being made by another altruistic American in the U.S. William Hollingsworth (Holly) Whyte [2] was an urbanist, writer and organisational analyst – but also an unobtrusive people-watcher like Fred Rogers. In 1980,  in conjunction with the Municipal Art Society of New York [3], he published the findings from his visionary Street Life Project [4] in a book called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. [5]

This is still seen today as a seminal study of human behaviour in urban settings – and remains a chief advocate for more bottom-up place design. In it, Whyte’s pioneering research on New York pedestrian behaviour and city dynamics was dutifully recorded and then interpreted. Along with his team of research assistants, he walked the streets of the city neighbourhoods with camera and notebook in hand.

Prior to this, in 1969, Whyte had already assisted the New York City Planning Commission in the writing of their 6-volume Plan for New York City. [6] This sea change to urban planning came at a key point in the city’s own development, as since 1950 New York had begun facing many problems linked to such things as: ‘white flight’; a decline of manufacturing; rising unemployment, crime and racial tensions; and a shortage of quality, affordable housing. As such, and with his identified focus on humanising neighbourhood-level planning via documenting the progress of newly planned urban spaces, Whyte received a vital grant allowing him and his team time to study the community life blood of New York (and other cities) as part of the Street Life Project.

Both the book and the 55-minute accompanying film produced were instantly labelled classics and launched a mini-revolution in the planning and study of public spaces. This body of work became a blueprint on how to live in a city, whilst it questioned preconceptions of the time that people-space and street-space were incompatible with one another. Whyte described the street as “the river of life” with people-watching its principle activity. He also identified seven elements that he believed seeded spaces for lively activity – namely:

Sittable Space, with a variety of fixed and movable seating; Street, spaces with proximity and good connections; Sun, giving direct or reflective access to light; Food, including from carts, cafes, or snack bars; Water, including public access to rivers, ponds, and interactive features; Trees, to create a defined canopy; and finally, Triangulation to create things, actions, activities and art to act as a “Venturi affect” and ‘people magnet’.

The key Whyte believed, was to record, document and then act upon why some city spaces worked for people while others did not. From the lessons drawn, practical implications on how to make urban living more joyful were proposed. Key was empowering a subconscious social ritual where actual people do the deciding. A classic example of this was Whyte’s documented interest in lightweight moveable chairs used in public space. He believed it “A wonderful invention – the moveable chair… a declaration of autonomy, to oneself, and rather satisfying”.

The Street Life Project was to continue for more than 16 years, whilst Holly Whyte also became a key planning consultant for other major U.S. cities, travelling and lecturing widely. As well as publishing his The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, William H Whyte authored other books on urban planning, design, and human behaviour including notably: Is Anybody Listening? (1952); The Organization Man (1956); The Exploding Metropolis (1958); Securing Open Spaces for Urban America (1959); Cluster Development (1964); The Last Landscape (1968); and City: Rediscovery of the Center (1988).

40 years on from his first publication of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, the non-profit organisation Project for Public Spaces (PPS), [7] has grown out of the Street Life Project. Founded in 1975, PPS remains dedicated to place making and helping people create and sustain public spaces that build strong communities. Since inception, PPS have completed projects in more than 3,500 communities in over 50 countries and in all 50 mainland U.S. states.

The direct U.S legacy to organisations like PPS is a real testament to the power of William H Whyte’s original vision. More indirectly, and back in New York itself, as well as the Municipal Art Society of New York still existing, many other  community, environmental and social arts led initiatives also thrive: Notable are long-standing exemplars like non-profit organisations Creative Time, [8] The High Line, [9] The River Project [10] and GrowNYC [11] .

America of course cannot hold the monopoly on the ‘unalienable right’ of citizens to ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. Even if this was recognised as being granted by God to all humans in the U.S Declaration of Independence, as drafted by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson way back in 1776.

There is no unachievable make-believe in seeking beauty or happiness anywhere, using the imaginary or real neighbourhood models that Fred Rogers and William H Whyte helped conceive and document so painstakingly over so many years. The guiding morals for city betterment they both espoused were similar, in invoking simple common sense and kindness to help us as citizens aspire to true cultural wellbeing and more liveable places. That is to say: Holistically look to build up a real sense of community from the grass roots upwards; Listen to and watch what people want with an innate compassion and fondness, before implementing what works well; Understand and attend to the fundamental core draws that make the ‘life’ of some places so truly social and special; And then, when all that is done, do everything you can to welcome, embrace and rekindle our rather lost current sense of public spiritedness, empathy, altruism and neighbourliness.

Pursue all that dutifully neighbour, and without judgement, then our collective happiness must surely follow!


[1] A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Beautiful_Day_in_the_Neighborhood

[2] William H Whyte: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_H._Whyte

[3] Municipal Art Society of New York: https://www.mas.org/

[4] Street Life Project: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_H._Whyte

[5] A Social Life of Small Urban Spaces:: https://www.citylab.com/design/2011/10/social-life-public-space/237/

[6] Plan for New York City: https://publications.newberry.org/makebigplans/plan_images/plan-new-york-city-1969

[7] Project for Public Spaces: https://www.pps.org/

[8] Creative Time: http://creativetime.org/

[9] The High Line: https://www.thehighline.org/

[10] The River Project: https://www.riverprojectnyc.org/  

[11] GrowNYC: https://www.grownyc.org/

Categories: Writing

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