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City: Rediscovering the Center by William H.…
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City: Rediscovering the Center (edition 2009)

by William H. Whyte, Paco Underhill (Foreword)

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195694,108 (4.3)6
By mostly watching people the author describes and analyzes the city and its people and the effect each makes on the other
Member:robzand
Title:City: Rediscovering the Center
Authors:William H. Whyte
Other authors:Paco Underhill (Foreword)
Info:University of Pennsylvania Press (2009), Edition: Reissue, Paperback, 408 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
Tags:None

Work details

City: Rediscovering the Center by William H. Whyte

  1. 00
    Cities for People by Jan Gehl (rakerman)
    rakerman: Gehl and Whyte start with studying how people behave in urban spaces, and then propose designs and improvements based on human behaviour.
  2. 00
    The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (rakerman)
    rakerman: Both Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte apply a keen observational eye to street life in New York, drawing unexpected conclusions about the complex ways in which people interact.
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» See also 6 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
386 p., photos
  BmoreMetroCouncil | Feb 9, 2017 |
This book was sort of a micro-level sequel to the macro-level of [a:Jane Jacobs|17285|Jane Jacobs|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1222738411p2/17285.jpg]' [b:The Death and Life of Great American Cities|30833|The Death and Life of Great American Cities|Jane Jacobs|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1168135326s/30833.jpg|1289564], more focused on the elements like ledges, walls, and sunlight that made up excellent public spaces. Whyte also takes a much more methodologically-exacting approach, formally researching and recording behaviors for over a decade, and peppering his book with photos, diagrams, and exact accounts of which policies were the most successful.

Also unlike Jacobs, Whyte had some level of buy-in with many of the associations and governments he consulted with. As a result, you get a much better sense of the trial-and-error that accompanied his efforts—as well as evidence of the dramatic results with a handful of modifications. Jacobs' book is more an account and critique of two philosophies, as well as stories about how Robert Moses' planning has scarred or destroyed countless neighborhoods.

This comparison to Jacobs is not meant to impoverish Whyte, as his aim is slightly different. I really appreciated the "concrete" details he was able to provide, as well as the lively anecdotes about how surprising and wonderful public life could be in a city. The stories can be repetitive—and that was my main bone to pick with the book—but they're wonderful enough that you won't be annoyed when he shares them again. It's been six months since I moved away from Chicago, and I miss it dearly for many of the same reasons.

But this book is also a snapshot of an era: New York beginning to climb out of the hole before Giuliani came along to take all the credit, parking spaces increasingly demanding more and more land-area, and cities destroying their urban cores through poorly managed policies and the legacy of white flight. It's fascinating to see what concerns are shared with today's cities, as well the generational differences in how cities are viewed now—my parents' generation was still attracted by the suburbs, while I see my own generation drawn to Chicago, NYC, Boston, San Francisco even as they are harder to afford than the alternative.

I wish I could say that things were getting better, even as the momentum that he describes for suburbs has petered out somewhat, but cities are unique when it comes to public policy. Our urban planning decisions aren't quite set in stone, but concrete is almost as permanent. Once sprawl happens it can't be undone without a tremendous amount of pain, as Detroit would attest to. Even as more people flee rural areas to live in metropolitan ones, it can't be said that will necessarily redound to the urban core's benefit.

Raleigh, NC, where I live now, is a great example of how prosperity can be deeply unequal and harmful to cities. The area has a tremendous number of white-collar jobs, and one of the better growth-rates in the US. But all that growth is being applied to sprawl. People here love the trees, so much that they leave many up. But they're a false rurality, and all they do is contribute to a placelessness, where you can't see far and don't know how the different areas interrelate. Everyone drives everywhere, and new roads are constantly being constructed to house them all. People would rather be surrounded by space than by people, and fare lengthy commutes to do so. It's an atrocious area, and because of the bad decisions being perpetuated today, will likely stay that way even as the boom ends and people start to drift away and a city begins to rot because it didn't have any sense of itself. ( )
  gregorybrown | Oct 18, 2015 |
Apparently, it had never occurred to city planners or developers to study how well urban space designs worked until someone wondered why some were more frequently used than others. Whyte begins by observing and documenting behaviors of people in the street, from bag ladies and street performers to the crowding of people in the middle of the busiest part of the sidewalk, and how people use plazas and parks or why they don't.

Incentive zoning was used in cities like New York to give bonuses, like granting extra stories to a building, to developers for including desirable street level traits, such retail spaces with glass fronts on street level in the city center. While it's led to some good design, the bonuses have led to abuse, outright refusal by developers to comply with the original agreement, and over-development. The tendencies of developers to build mega-structures (malls, skyways, hi-rise buildings) meant for vehicular traffic and making each structure it's own center should disconcert city planners because they are intended to remove pedestrians (the life of the city) from the streets, and also because these structures create blank, ugly spaces, both of which "dullify" downtown.

In the frenzy of over-development and money-making, no one took into consideration the effects that tall buildings would have on their surroundings. The developer's mantra on building shadows is that it always fell onto another building or street. City respites can become places of constant shadow and become undesirable to everyone but the undesirables. Designing buildings to prevent is key to good planning and it's even possible to take advantage of a reflective surface, making the city a little brighter in just the right places. ( )
  benjosephs | Feb 7, 2011 |
Every once in a while, we need to step back from newly released books and return to those which have been around for a decade or two--if not much longer. If we’re interested in themes such as collaboration and community, we find works including Jane Jacob's "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961) and Christopher Alexander’s "A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction" (1977), "The Timeless Way of Building" (1979), and just about everything he has written since then to be essential reminders that certain ideas remain consistent and worthy of our attention. William Whyte's "City: Rediscovering the Center" (1988) is another of those gems, and not just for students and lovers of architecture and city streets--and the way we use them. Whyte's dynamic work, drawn from 16 years of filming life on the streets of New York, is, ostensibly, a study of what makes cities work; it actually is far more than that. In exploring simple themes including how pedestrians in crowded urban spaces manage to navigate sidewalks and streets without continually bumping into each other, he highlights the larger, more intriguing issue of how we learn to collaborate almost wordlessly and effortlessly with one another. When he explores the importance of well maintained trash receptacles (pp. 90-92) and well placed drinking fountains (p. 87) in making communities attractive to residents and visitors, he reminds all of us to not overlook the elements that make our homes, communities, workplaces, and social gathering sites compellingly attractive. When he suggests that stakeholders in business districts might benefit from actively seeking new proprietors to provide what is currently missing from those centers (p. 323), he is also subliminally reminding us to actively seek to fill the gaps in what each of us does and provides in our own personal, social, and professional lives. "It is the asking of [questions] that is the critical step." he suggests at one point (p. 270), and it is with that simple yet profound reminder that Whyte makes us not only look at the communities we inhabit, but makes us want to question why they are the way they are--and what we can do to make them even better, regardless of whether they are physical or virtual. ( )
  paulsignorelli | Feb 6, 2011 |
The best parts of this book recount William Whyte's enjoyable surveys of the way people in cities really behave, given their physical environment. There's much here that is fresh, even though the book's twenty years old: people frequently behave in counterintuitive ways, e.g. seeking out crowded, cluttered areas instead of pristine 'open spaces'.

The first half of the book is in fact great fun, but Whyte loses steam as he starts repeating his examples and anecdotes. He's also a bit parochial, with NYC taking up too much time and attention. He does manage some examples from other cities, but they often lack depth and insight. Other now-less-relevant sections of the book comprise Whyte's policy recommendations based on his observations.

Still, I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in cities and planning. Whyte foresaw and warned against many of the trends that plague contemporary urban America, and which have ultimately led to the grotesque spectacle of once-great cities such as Detroit now crumbling into ruin. ( )
  mrtall | Jun 15, 2009 |
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