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Posted
August 19, 2005

Build It and They Will Sit

Build it and they will sit. A bench can transform an empty space into a public place. William H. Whyte, the champion of lively cities, showed us that.

I doubt Garrett Hardin ever met William H. Whyte, but he should have. Hardin of course was the academic who, in abstract and theoretical terms, declared the commons inherently “tragic.” He backtracked later, but it was too late. The tag stuck.

Whyte was the writer who spent years observing how people actually act and interact in public spaces. He walked the streets, sat with notebook in plazas and parks, set up cameras in unobtrusive places and spent endless hours studying the results. He could have told Mr. Hardin a thing or two.

Whyte found that public spaces are comedic instead of tragic, when they are properly designed (which can include self-design.) Contrary to the belief of economists and many developers, he observed, people are naturally gregarious. They like to be around other people; and they will gravitate naturally to where other people are. “What attracts people most,” he once wrote, “is other people.” He coined the term “undercrowding” to describe cities and places within cities, in which the flow of life was insufficient for the comedic element to click in.

People may talk about getting away from it all, but in cities at least we like to be in the thick of it. Whyte found, for example, that when people stop to chat on sidewalks they don’t move to an edge or entryway. They stay right in the middle. Others have to walk around them. In plazas they tend to congregate where other people are. Even lovers don’t seek the solitude of secluded corners, as one might expect. They coo right out in the open, for all to see.

We’ve all observed such things, probably without thinking. Whyte had a knack for registering the obvious and drawing the implications from it. A central question of his work was this: What distinguishes the public spaces people use from the ones they don’t? What makes a park or plaza work? For all the money expended on such spaces, apparently few had sought to answer that question in an empirical and systematic way.

Instead, people had addressed it in an a priori manner, from assumptions about human nature rather than from actual observation of people. Sort of the way Garrett Hardin did the commons. “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people,” Whyte wrote. “What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” The tragedy was not in the concept of the commons, but in crummy ways of implementing it.

At first Whyte thought the crucial factor might be sunlight, or shape, or the amount of space. But none of those seemed to matter much. The architectural design, such a point of pride, pomposity and expense, seemed to matter hardly at all. People really don’t care what the architecture critic of the Times thinks about a space. What they do care about is places to sit.

They especially like steps and ledges, as opposed to chairs and benches. It’s the front stoop effect: there is something about a surface that appears to be for something else, that is especially inviting. Perhaps we like to improvise and adapt, as opposed to playing the role that architects assign to us in drawings. We do sit on chairs and benches too of course. Whyte found that people like ones they can move around, so they can create their own groups, or sit apart a bit and read.

Yet plazas often are designed with ledges that are too narrow to sit on, or too cluttered with ornamentation. The designers seem to think people want to admire their aesthetic accomplishments, as opposed to sit comfortably and have some lunch. “The human backside,” Whyte said, “is a dimension architects seem to have forgotten.”

That’s something we’ve been talking about in my town for a while. There’s a vacant lot on Main Street, right next to a gift shop and a bakery. The bakery has a couple of benches outside, and a small ledge created by a quirky two-tiered sidewalk. In the mornings the place is buzzing. It’s our central meeting place and hangout; and more than one person has noted that the vacant lot would make a natural extension of it. There could be benches, some tables for eating or for chess, maybe a play area for little kids. It could be the heart of town.

A few folks are looking into raising money to buy the lot. Meanwhile, a friend and I decided to see if we could make a commons happen, just by seeding it a bit. We both happened to have old park-type garden benches lying around, and we fixed them up and painted them. Then we deposited them without ceremony on the lot. And then we watched.

To start we put the benches away from the sidewalk under some trees, because we thought that’s where people would like to sit. We should have known better. For a time they migrated around, as people put them here and there. Eventually they ended up right next to the sidewalk, where they have stayed. Whyte was right. People like to be in the flow, or close to it.

When I go to town now I often see people on those benches. They are not vandalizing them, as Hardin’s “tragedy” thesis might lead one to expect. They are just talking and sipping or maybe resting their feet. I’m sure they aren’t thinking about the benches. They’re just there, available and unhyped, which is how a commons is supposed to be. A man who operates a bicycle repair and rental business out of a small trailer on the lot has become a kind of custodian. When a slat broke on one he taped it up. He didn’t know who put the benches there. He just thought it was a neat idea and got into the spirit.

I was hoping for something like that. What I didn’t anticipate was how good I’d feel. I’ll confess that when I painted the old bench and it looked shiny and new, the thought crossed my mind that it would look good somewhere in the yard. Did I really want to give it to people many of whom I don’t even know? What if they abused it or someone put it in their pick-up and drove away?

It was Garrett Hardin thinking, and I’m glad I didn’t listen. If I did I wouldn’t be able to walk by that lot today and as I said, feel so good. The people sitting there don’t know where the bench came from but I do. My son, who helped me paint it, feels great pride as well. We wouldn’t feel quite the same way if we had sold the bench to the town. Part of the hidden narrative of a commons is the rewards it gives to those who make it better.

Meanwhile, a new normal is talking shape in town. People are starting to think of the vacant lot as common space, a place to sit instead of just a shortcut to take to get to someplace else. Maybe that will be the first step towards making it a commons for good.