The City Social: Why Urbanism Needs To Return To Observation

Drawings, models, briefs, etc. are just artifacts, they don’t tell us shit about the complexity of human behavior.

Urbanism is about observation. Sociologist William “Holly” Whyte knew it and spent years recording and studying people and how they interacted with the city. Whyte’s quintessential 1980s documentary on New York’s plazas, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, is a standard of every Urban Planning Grad School experience, and its impact has yet to be replicated. Even today, whenever I come across a new plaza or public space, Holly Whyte’s nasally matter-of-fact narration and idiosyncratic phrases still ring in my ears, “People tend to sit where there are places to sit.”

His method was simple. He filmed stuff. He documented real life and pointed out behaviors to show how people interacted with the built environment and how they collide with one another.

Too often, however, urban planners ignore behavior and the city gets distilled down to maps, drawings, renderings, codes and ordinances, and other paper representations. We get caught up in the shapes, the lines, the language, and the model universe of cities that we forget about the “flava” of it all. Most of our time is spent at a desk getting to know our area through a computer screen.

I have to admit that, as a planner, there are times that I get whisked away by the elegance of drawings and the process of making them, and there are times that I feel like designers are the leaders of the free world who can grant wishes because of the way we’re able to articulate ideas on paper. But drawings, models, briefs, etc. are just artifacts—they don’t tell us shit about the complexity of human behavior. They don’t inform us about the extremely social nature of cities and what the vibe is like on the ground.

About a year ago, I left my desk job at City Hall to pursue a life of observation. I wanted to see urban planning from the field, get in the mix, and leave the paper version of the city behind. I wanted to get to know Dallas by becoming a part of it, get to know my neighbors and how to use the city as a tool—that’s urbanism. Now, I work as a freelance urbanist. I’m in the city, seeing what I can see, and then finding solutions to fix the problems.

This life of observation meant a change in lifestyle. First, I got rid of my car, bought a bike and a monthly bus/light rail pass, and starting using public transit to get around the city. Second, I bought an SLR camera and upgraded to a 4S iPhone for documentation and to keep connected with social media. Third, I started going to tons of events and setting coffee meetings with all the folks in Dallas who were doing cool urban stuff. Fourth, I started holding events and public projects to connect with people in the city.

Whyte said, “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.” By being out in the city you’re constantly encountering uncomfortable and exhilarating conflicts. It’s where you collide with people. It’s where you have to be in tune with your actions and the actions of everyone around you. It’s constantly being bombarded with new information, knowing how to react to it, and becoming aware of your surroundings. You’re simultaneously dealing with the physical boundaries of the built environment, the social economies that frame the psychological relationships, and the movement of a space. People produce the unexpected, the spontaneity, the flava—that’s the essence of the city, and that’s what was missing at my desk job.

This life of observation has completely changed my tool set as an urbanist. The drawing skills are still there, but now I’m more concerned with the flow of information, capturing activity, relaying ideas, and experimenting to push boundaries. Observing and documenting real life has led me to clues about city life, which is all about personal relationships: the social interaction. As an urbanist, if you’re not observing and partaking in the city, then you’re missing out on knowing it.

Dallas image via Shutterstock
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