February 8, 2022 - From the February, 2022 issue

The Lasting Legacy of Urbanist William ‘Holly’ Whyte on American Cities

Author and journalist Richard K. Rein in this interview with TPR discusses his new book, American Urbanist, about the life and career of William H. Whyte.  While Rein notes Whyte’s seminal book The Organization Man and its 1950s critique of ‘consensus,’ the author explores Whyte’s lifelong challenges to the status quo by documenting his interest in preserving public spaces, championing of Jane Jacobs, and contributing through his journalism to our reimagining the built environment.


Richard K. Rein

“In Whyte's writing, there was never a mention of climate change, but everything he advocated for are steps that we ought to take right now that we should have started taking 40 years ago.”

Begin by sharing with our readers what motivated you to write American Urbanist, which explores the life, work, and lasting impact of the author, editor, sociologist, and civic entrepreneur William ‘Holly’ Whyte?

Rich Rein: I was first introduced to Whyte when I was assigned to read a book he had written back in the 1960s, The Last Landscape. I was working very temporarily for a landscape architect in Pittsburgh who was trying to write a book on what was the new environmental movement. Back in the early 1970s, the environmental movement as we now know it was just getting called ‘the environmental movement.’ It had been the ‘conservation movement.’ Whyte’s book ostensibly was to preserve “the last landscape,” fight urban sprawl, and keep our wide open spaces.

In getting into it, I was really astonished to see how much emphasis Whyte had put on urban spaces. His theory was that if you could make the urban space thrive, you would slow down sprawl to the suburbs and make it that much easier to preserve open space. I took away a lot of lessons from that and didn't even realize how much I had absorbed until much later.

In 2017, I was walking down Nassau Street in the heart of Princeton, and there was a little alleyway leading off the main street down to a collection of dumpsters and a little second-rate parking lot. Some people were reconstituting that space into a little urban performance center, putting a canopy over the 10-foot-wide alleyway and some pavement that gave it a whole distinctive feel.

I said to the guy, “Wow, what you're doing is right out of the William H. Whyte playbook”. This guy said, “Oh, Holly Whyte is my hero”. I thought I'd have to explain who William H. Whyte was. I had no idea until then that William H. Whyte had a nickname.

That is what instantly triggered the idea to look up Whyte. I had been a journalist for many years and had been saying I would write a book for about 50 years, and this was my time, so I jumped on it.

You write about this at a time when place seems to matter less and less in the conversation about urban planning. Housing production and greater density seem to dominate the conversation in the world of urban planning. Reconcile what drove you and Whyte's writings with what you see going on now?

We are thinking about housing and affordable housing a lot, but if the urban community in general is not thinking about places along with that housing, then I think they're missing the boat because the places between those buildings are going to be critical. I hope they don't get overlooked.

One of the silver linings of COVID has been how many of us have come to appreciate the public open spaces we have in our towns. We've taken back chunks of pavement away from cars. It has not been easy. There have been people who you think would know better crying for their beloved parking space in front of their beloved coffee shop. The community has said no. We're going to cut Main Street down to one lane of traffic; we're going to take away two lanes of parking; we're going to have some outside dining; and we're going to keep this even after COVID.

As important as the housing dimension is, I do think it would be a mistake to overlook the spaces between those buildings and between those housing projects and how they relate to the rest of the street.

Many of my generation learned about Whyte because of The Organization Man and what he was writing about in the 50s and 60s. What's the nexus between that corporate culture of The Organization Man, what was built to house them and their offices, and his work on these small spaces in between?

I think there is a common thread, interestingly enough. I didn't see it when I first took on the task. I thought the first part of Whyte’s life would be dismissed in a couple of chapters, then I'd get immediately into the urbanism. Instead, the urbanism comes in at about chapter seven or eight.

The organizational side of his life was very important, and it ties into the urban side in that Whyte viewed organizations the way he looked at public spaces. He viewed them from the level of the participant. He avoided the bird's eye view. With a public space, he would spend hours walking that space back and forth and look at people from eye level.

With the institutional space for the organizations that he was looking at in the 1950s, most of the other business media were looking at companies from the top down at the time. Let's see how the bottom line is working out; let's see what the corporate earnings are; let's look at it from a Board of Directors point of view. Whyte was down there in the cubicle and at home in the suburban community with the worker. Looking at the organization from that level, he found this amazing tension that existed between the worker and the organization.

I think what was groundbreaking was he said that tension is not a bad thing. It's a good thing, and let’s not concentrate on eliminating the tension. Let's acknowledge it and use it to our benefit when we need to.

Same goes with public spaces. The tension in public spaces would be what some people might think is the messiness of the public space. You go into that space and it's not all neat and tidy. There are a plethora of people coming through. You might get a homeless person showing up. Whyte said that's okay.

His famous quote speaking to a group of Dallas business leaders was, “I go out on your sidewalk and I see everything neat and clean. That tells me something's wrong with your sidewalks.” It was inarguable the Dallas sidewalks mostly were dead. They had no life.

You devote in American Urbanist many pages to the disciples of Whyte: Jane Jacobs as well as the work of Project for Public Spaces. Elaborate on how Whyte’s journalism and books spawned and championed these disciples of urbanism.

Again, I never thought that I would devote a whole chapter to Whyte’s disciples, but it could have been several chapters. It probably could have been a separate book.

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The fact that he had so many people following along means two things. Number one, he opened the door to other people to his work. He said, “come on in. You don't need any special expertise, just an interest.” Number two, he didn't try to be doctrinaire. He didn't say that he had all the answers. He was very willing to admit that sometimes he had no answers, yet he was always looking. I think that combination made his work appealing.

He was also just a civil guy. He avoided the kind of argumentative tit for tat that goes on sometimes within the architectural profession. There's a wonderful anecdote about a plan to redesign Time Square in New York in the 1980s. Philip Johnson was involved, and they were going to have four big skyscrapers at the corners of Times Square and a level a lot of the interior buildings and theaters. Denise Scott Brown of Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates had designed a supersized 40-foot-tall red apple that would be an iconic fun thing. All sorts of people were against it. The New York Times did an article and had all sorts of people sniping at each other.

In the middle of it all was Holly Whyte, and everybody was agreeing with Holly. He was basically saying that it was a terrible idea, but he was doing it in such a nice way that even Philip Johnson said, “He’s bright and he’s right. Every single project we talk to him.”

Did Whyte have much to say about the issue that dominates much of urban planning today-- housing production and affordability? You quoted Whyte as saying “The city is not for the average now. The way things are going it's not likely to be so in the future. Middle income projects are unsatisfactory:  middle-income people can't afford them.” What should readers draw from Whyte’s quote?

 He first made that observation back in a book called, The Exploding Metropolis, put together in 1958 based on a series of articles in Fortune Magazine. It was also the book that had the chapter written by Jane Jacobs. That was the chapter that attracted the attention of the ultimate publishers of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

I don't think Whyte had a solution to that problem, but I think his answer would be that density is the way out of this. He talks about gentrification; he was not against gentrification. In fact, he said gentrification is a whole lot better than the opposite thing that's happening, which is somebody buying a building, extracting the last penny of value, walking away with your last rent payment, and leaving behind a decimated building.

I think his answer would be that by increasing density and building up where necessary, you can make room for the middle-income housing. The idea of affordable housing put into isolated groves of trees on the outskirts of town, which has happened here in Princeton, is not the way forward. Those ideas would appall him.

If you were going to write for William Whyte a 2022 commencement speech to be delivered at either Princeton or the Harvard Graduate School of Design, what would be the message?

I would quote from his commencement speech in 1946 to the graduates of St. Andrew's school. Whyte, I believe, was the first alumnus of that school to speak at a graduation.

I think he would counsel them to expect that they will once in a while do things that are unpopular. They will go outside of the normal ways of doing things. They will be possibly ridiculed and criticized for that, but they should not fear to go ahead just because of that ritual. He would urge people to be strong individuals who are also aware of the ways in which they can get things done. 

What do you believe is Whyte's contribution to our thinking today about urbanism and sustainability? 

It's the idea that a vibrant and sustainable town center is one that has to work for pedestrians and bicyclists at the very ground level. If you design a city for cars, you will get a lot of cars. As one of Whyte's disciples said most famously, “if you design it for people, you'll get more people.” He made the argument in terms of sustainability, just the sheer energy and environmental concerns of energy usage and production.

 He made that argument when he wrote his book on cluster zoning in 1964. He broke down the amount of sewer pipe you'd have to lay for – let’s say – 100 single-family homes. Compare that to 100 homes that were clustered, and it’s just a small fraction.

People weren't thinking we were going to run out of concrete or run out of ozone in the atmosphere at that point. In Whyte's writing, there was never a mention of climate change, but everything he advocated for are steps that we ought to take right now and that we should have started taking 40 years ago. They're all aimed at reducing the impacts of climate change. Look at the amount of water lines, sewer lines, and electrical lines with cluster housing. When we condense that, we place that much less of a burden on the landscape.

In closing, your book’s afterword reads: “Spend a few hours with William H. Whyte, and you may never look in the same way at the place where you live or the company where you work.” Elaborate on what William Holly Whyte was asking his readers to see.

Starting with the physical places around you, you are again looking at the world from some sort of eye level and noticing the things between the buildings, not just the buildings themselves. The thing that jumps out at me are the unused spaces, even in my town, that would be perfect for pedestrians. Suddenly, you begin to realize how important pedestrians are to street life, and how important street life is to a city.

I shocked my local community here. I created a hyperlocal news site, and the first committee I showed up at was the Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee. They looked at me and told me they never got reporters there. I said, “Well, I think your committee is the most important committee in our town. If this town doesn't work for pedestrians and bicyclists, we might as well be living out in some godforsaken suburb”.

So, that's the physical space around us. The thing that has jumped out to me most in terms of institutional space is I realized the amount of energy that I used to put into creating a harmonious work environment when I had my own small business. While I'm not advocating chaos at work or a place where people are not civil, it’s just the opposite. I do think you're going to have a civil place if you can have wonderful disagreements. If you keep in mind that your goal is not to create a harmonious workplace, but rather to have a workplace that creates some worthwhile product or service for the community, I think you come out way ahead.

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© 2022 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.