If they were relatively unused, or used for undesirable purposes, did they cause people to stay away from the entire neighboring area?
Despite the fact that he was concentrating on plazas and parks, not public buildings, many of his findings are relevant to librarians, especially any who are planning new buildings or renovations of their existing ones.
For example, he found that a plentiful amount of available seating -- formal or informal, chairs or benches or steps or ledges -- is important to people, ESPECIALLY when the seating is arranged for good views and for interaction with other people, and especially when the seating is movable; people like the control that being able to make even minor rearrangements gives them.
People like wide avenues into public spaces, so they can see what's going on inside them before they enter -- a finding that suggests the desirability of ground level windows that allow people outside to observe the activity inside.
Not surprisingly, conversation pieces like interesting art works or exhibits or public entertainment move people to interact with strangers. Not surprisingly, amenities like food encourage people to linger and enjoy a moment out of time.
If you have flowers and ponds and waterfalls and trees, people want to interact with them -- they hate places that offer such attractions and post keep out signs and barriers around them.
Whyte's work, which is still in print after all these years, offers and documents these insights and more with a rich collection of photographs. He also includes appendices showing how to apply his methods.
More to the point, after more than twenty years, his insights remain true, according to the folks from the Project for Public Spaces http://www.pps.org/. In How To Turn a Place Around, the PPS team offers methods and case studies and before and after photos for turning unloved public spaces into appealing ones. They make clear, though, that the best method for improving a public space is to not make mistakes in the first place; the trick is to work with designers and force them to plan for how people wish to use the space.
For instance, instead of building an uninviting monolith of a building which you then have to retrofit with a patio/front porch arrangement, as was done with the post office in Montpelier, Vermont, how much better to suggest that the designers incorporate casual, friendly attractive sitting areas inside and out in the first place? Why not have designers attend public forums where they can find out how citizens want to use the space? How about asking designers to see the buildings not as isolated entities, but buildings that interact with an existing civic and commercial environment, and asking how it can contribute to and draw foot traffic from that environment? How about arranging elements that generate activity so that they feed off each other?
This book (much of which is available on their web site) offers more than theory and case studies; it offers a methodology. Its workbook for evaluating public spaces shows you observational techniques that will help you figure out what makes a public space successful -- and maybe what your users are looking for but not finding in your current arrangements. It gives you a whole range of questions to ask as you watch your current users.
The nicest thing of all is that improving your public space, both inside and outside your building, doesn't need to cost big bucks. Both Whyte and the Project for Public Spaces highlight small, inexpensive changes that can make a big difference.
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Cities in America have begun to look more like each other in recent years, and every place is beginning to look like every other place. Stores, buildings and streets are increasingly homogeneous, and traffic dominates our lives, even in small towns. As driving has become the main way to get around, walking has become a lost art.
Imagine another kind of city -- one in which walking has been rediscovered, and streets and sidewalks invite people to stroll, linger and socialize -- not just move on through. Imagine locally owned businesses with their own character and style...Imagine buildings that aren't interchangeable with those built by some other developer in some other town, but whose look and functins are related to their place. Imagine parks and squares that are the highlight of the city, where the community gathers for its civic, cultural and social functions. These are the types of places that come to mind when we think about a livable community.
How To Turn a Place Around. Project for Public Spaces, 2000.
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2002.
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