Planning for Chaos with William Whyte
The American urbanist and planner succeeded by not allowing organization or ideology to get in the way of ideas.
American Urbanist: How William H. Whyte’s Unconventional Wisdom Reshaped Public Life, Richard K. Rein (Island Press, 2022), 352 pages.
William H. Whyte is best known for a very approximate gloss of his best-selling book The Organization Man, but his indelible fingerprints can be found on countless aspects of urban planning discourse, the area to which he dedicated most of his perfervid and careful observation. He is cited so often about a limitless number of planning concerns that it is easy to lose track of the whole of his thought. Richard K. Rein’s American Urbanist: How William H. Whyte’s Unconventional Wisdom Reshaped Public Life provides an excellent examination of his work and advocacy, spanning everything from ideal stair rise configurations for public use to conservation easements to the amount of tree clearance along roads that is actually warranted for public safety (very little).
Whyte, whose path lead from Princeton to the U.S. Marine Corps at Guadalcanal to the sale of Vicks VapoRub in Eastern Kentucky (a curveball, there) to a glittering career at Fortune magazine and the wild success of The Organization Man, never seemed to meet an institutional practice he didn’t examine critically. He wrote on tactical methods at Guadalcanal, soon lecturing on Combat Intelligence at the Marine Corps Staff and Command College at Quantico, and brought a similar investigative spirit to his work at Fortune.
The title of 1956’s The Organization Man has been reduced in common use to a put-down, which was not at all Whyte’s intention. He later made clear in the New York Times that he might well have been describing himself, “Some people got mad at me for this. They said I was calling them dirty conformists. But I wasn’t. I was an organization man myself (Vicks, Fortune Magazine, the Marine Corps), and I meant no slight.” His point in that book, and elsewhere, was not that corporate or institutional progress was inevitably wrong or that those engaged in its maintenance were irretrievable drones, but that their very practices tended to sideline the ideas that might lend them the greatest benefit. Personality tests and other midcentury mechanisms for determining ideal team-players tended to recruit exactly that, while neglecting the ideas that are the lifeblood of any institution.
As every American in the Zoom era has been recently reminded, people who function very well in meetings mainly tend to produce other meetings, not innovation. Whyte wrote, “People very rarely think in groups; the talk together, they exchange information, they adjudicate, they make compromises. But they do not think; they do not create.” Whyte didn’t argue for some quixotic reverse proposition, writing, “Nonconformity is an empty goal, and rebellion against prevailing opinion merely because it is prevailing should no more be praised than acquiescence to it.” His was a case for flexibility and openness, for an awareness of the tendencies that lead to and codified his own abiding coinage of “groupthink.”
It is no surprise that he grew interested in urban policy, a realm that was characterized by as extensive groupthink tendencies as any area could be in the postwar, with identical maladroit practices carried out almost everywhere. He once wrote, “when organizations are empowered to do as they damn well please the temptation is strong for them to do just that” and we saw the results vividly in the era.
His 1958 Fortune article, “The Businessman’s City” made the argument that a variety of federal policies uniformly encouraged suburbanization at the expense of the city. This is simply known as fact today but was a novel and essential point to make at the time. He recruited Jane Jacobs for early Fortune work, which reinforced such arguments.
His 1958 book The Exploding Metropolis made a variety of trenchant critiques of metropolitan trends, with sprawl and the many policies that fed the practice the biggest target. Whyte foresaw, even in an age of much milder relocations, the sure result of leapfrogging to the next greenfield for decades. “As suburbia expands, furthermore, the journey to work is going to be a longer one for many people, new highways or no, and the compensations less,” he wrote. He criticized blank-slate urban renewal, “the concrete manifestation–and how literally–of a deep, and at times arrogant, misunderstanding of the function of the city.” He fretted about the stratification of cities as places for the rich and the poor, with little thought for the middle, which was often being given ample reason to leave and little to stay: “The city is not for the average now; and the way things are going it is not likely to be so in the future.”
Whyte fell into the patronage of the Rockefeller family, particularly Laurence Rockefeller, who he assisted on a federal Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. Big Philanthropy and groupthink are obviously far from strangers, but support from Rockefeller provided invaluable help to Whyte’s heterodox thinking over decades in a variety of forms, including a 30 Rockefeller Plaza office and a salary from The American Conservation Association.
Whyte’s work grew obviously more concerned with conservation at this sinecure but he approached the question in a novel way–backwards. He was not dismissive of the need to house growing populations, and proposed that conservation could be accomplished by doing this more efficiently. He authored a report on cluster housing, encouraging denser suburban development as a means to preserve nature, a thought that’s obvious now but was not in the era of peak suburban mania. It is a theme he would return to repeatedly, later observing that his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania, could have accommodated decades of suburban growth simply by expanding its street grid two blocks in each direction at prior densities.
He thought nimbly about other methods for conservation. Rein draws attention to Whyte’s unsung work in encouraging conservation easements as a method to preserve open space, which were relatively recent innovations that spread fairly invisibly at levels of state and local law. He wrote:
To think of open space acquisition only in terms of full title and formal park development is to leave unexplored the great chances for saving a complementary, and no way less important, kind of urban space. It is a kind of open space, furthermore, that will not strain operating budgets. As has long been known, gifts of land can often be troublesome unless there is going to be money to develop the property and to maintain it.
Whyte happened upon this idea through careful investigation. He examined a somewhat prior effort to grand preferential tax assessments for open land, a practice he found that simply didn’t work.
Whyte was everywhere questioning standard practices, many of which spread without anyone ever looking into whether they were effective. A traffic safety committee of the American Association of State Highway Officials had recommended 30 feet of tree clearance around highways for the sake of safety. He examined their own research data—in 507 accidents recorded, trees had been involved in a mere 13—and advocated against this pointless leveling of nature.
His greatest work came in later decades, spanning his 1969 New York City plan and his books The Social Life of Small Urban Places and City: Rediscovering the Center. His New York plan was quite unlike any seen previously, forswearing many traditional plan elements, embracing the chaos of a large city. “Concentration is the genius of the city” he wrote, and perfection was never the goal. “We pursue no illusory utopia. New York could never be an ideal city.”
Some of his ideas became common practice, from the need to zone densely around transit to including retail space in development. Others await. He noted that industrial space was often used inefficiently and could stand denser development. A film released accompanying the plan poked at the tyranny of experts: “Experts are full of ideas. Residents sometimes come up with better ones.”
His Street Life Project, which later morphed into the Project for Public Spaces, was an especially valorous endeavor, one grounded in the quaint undertaking of simply watching what people did in public spaces. Rein writes. “People simply sat where there were places to sit. Nothing more complicated than the addition of chairs could transform a plaza. What Whyte discovered, he cheerfully admitted, ‘may not strike you as an intellectual bombshell.’”
New York had provided significant zoning benefits in buildable height for the provision of public spaces in new projects, but most of these were barren of any public. He discovered a number of solutions simply by watching these areas. He observed that spaces more than three feet from the street level were sparsely used. The pitch of steps also influenced the chance that anyone would climb them. Many were at a 25 to 30 degree angle, but well-used plazas such as that in front of the Seagram building were 20.
Seating that provided a view was most-occupied, the equivalent of “front row” seats; moveable seating was ideal in providing choice and better occupied than stationary seating. Suiting a variety of users, 17 inches seemed to be the ideal seating height. Shade was obviously a help (as was avoiding perpetual shadow) and he went beyond traditional formulations in seeking to quantify amounts of reflected light in public spaces. Corners were better-occupied than interior locations, as natural meeting places. He found that public spaces were almost inevitably under-occupied and that crowds self-regulated; one was never achieving subway-like occupation of benches. He encouraged food retail in these plazas, and his advocacy lead to changes that required retail frontages along buildings in order to receive open space height bonuses.
Repeatedly, Whyte was looking into practices that no one bothered to question. “I found in my work on urban spaces that many of the most rudimentary questions were neither posed nor answered,” he wrote. Whyte examined Manhattan traffic light timing, and pointed out their orientation to the motorist, compelling frequent stops for pedestrians traveling at average speeds. One of his survey groups looked to parking in Manhattan. They found 2000 vehicles parked illegally, of a little over 4000, with only 20 or so tickets. His was a consistent advocacy against the idea that there was too little parking in American downtowns, arguing that there was generally far too much.
He reveled in the measure of chaos in urban areas. He was not doctrinaire about methods, finding that working with market elements was often a highly useful parallel to official civic channels. He helped to found the New York Landmarks Conservancy as a parallel to official landmarking, wielding the power of building owners to preserve structures wherever possible.
It’s a strain to encapsulate all of the things Whyte looked into. He looked into the stock performance of companies that had left city centers for suburbs compared to those that remained. The stock value of companies that left went up 107 percent. Healthy enough, no? But the stock value of those that remained had ascended 277 percent. He argued about these companies that “they need edges–the opinions they didn’t solicit, the screwball idea, the grapevine news–and this is what they get in the center.”
This was not just a theoretical concern; Whyte would take occasional legal action on behalf of street musicians, such as a bagpiper in Alexandria. He observed, “If there are no characters in your city, there’s something wrong.” The greatest qualities of cities are often the things we did not plan, rather than those we did. “Urbanity is not something that can be lacquered on; it is the quality provided by the great concentration of diverse functions and a huge market to support the diversity.”
Whyte has a broad and distinguished legacy of influences, in the spheres of place-making, new urbanism, tactical urbanism, and much more (Bryant Park bears the clear imprint of his ideas today). He memorably quipped that planners “would prefer to go to hell with a plan than to heaven without one” and while unquestionably planning himself, he remained ever mindful that every plan must soon be tested—and that some should likely never be made in the first place.
Anthony Paletta lives in Brooklyn. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.