Source: SWA.

Plaza Life Revisited applies new technology to public spaces to revisit William H. Whyte's landmark text.

"It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people," William H. Whyte, urbanist and journalist, once wrote. "What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished."

Nearly 40 years ago, it was his study of common urban spaces in New York City that helped planner think differently about design and the use of public space. Using observation, interviews and time-lapse photography, his 1980 text offered simple guiding principles and insights: "What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people." "People tend to sit most where there are places to sit." "The relationship to the street is integral, and it is far and away the critical design factor. A good plaza starts on the street corner." 

Now, a team of landscape architects is revisiting his contribution, using artificial intelligence to observe Manhattan plazas and see how well his observations hold up.

"We found that some of Whyte’s findings are simply not true anymore,” Anya Domlesky, ASLA, an associate at the California-based SWA told Landscape Architecture Magazine. “[His] study values the idea of street theater—men watching women. Our analysis shows a huge surge of devices. People are in public space to be around other people, but not watching other people. The idea of street theater is less important. This kind of information allows us to reevaluate the dominant forms of new urban space.”

The firm behind Plaza Life Revisited used machine learning to identify and sort objects and people over a week-long observation period. The data was used to generate heat maps and capture how long people stayed or didn't and how they moved through the space. "SWA’s findings weren’t necessarily radical reconsiderations of Whyte, but they do provide solid metrics to back up a changing set of assumptions of how we occupy public space," wrote Mimi Zeiger for Landscape Architecture Magazine.

Though the firm has shared its work, the publication of the methods and findings is still forthcoming. In the meantime, the team shared its insights with The Guardian. For example, the team identified several behavioral phenomena, including the Donut Effect, used to describe how people fill in spaces from the edges inward. Even when seating was evenly distributed across a plaza, people tended to gather along the edges until those areas were roughly half to two-thirds full before filling closer to the center of the plaza.

Illustrations by SWA.

Then there's View Philia, a seemingly universal love of views, even when they're difficult or somewhat unpleasant to get to.

Lizarding is the term the team uses to describe the actions people often take, usually in groups of two to four, when there's a soft surface in the sun where they can recline and lounge. 

And the public's love of temporary interventions and installations, which draw people into public spaces and were most effective in plazas used more by locals than tourists, is dubbed Ephemera-philia. 

See more findings here.