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With all this time to Look and to See

July 7, 2011

I keep a copy of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” next to my bed.  I look at this book every day.  Before I went to planning school this was a book I explored in bits of pieces much the way a person peruses a cookbook for a specific recipe to satisfy their cravings on any given day.  Today, I understand much more of what this book contains and though I can critique its contents or apply Jacobs’ theories to urban spaces, I actually find that I am moving away from Jacobs’ assertive prose toward the theories of William H. Whyte.

I like Whyte a lot because he makes me feel smart when I go to the park and understand why people choose to sit where they do.  Although certain environmental factors determine why people choose to sit toward the boundary of a space rather than in the absolute middle, the more interesting idea is the social aspect of space that Whyte describes as triangulation.

A few weekends ago I was sitting in Col. Summers Park attempting to write my graduation thank you cards but decided people watching was a far better use of my time because there we so many things happening all at once.  There were couples playing Frisbee, friends sitting around food, and a lot of people like me spending time by themselves.  Some of us were reading, some of us were crafting, and others, like me, were just looking around.  I was reminded of the concept of Triangulation because, well, Whyte contends it is an external stimulus that provides a linkage between people and prompts conversation.

With all these people alone, looking, were they hoping Col. Summers would march through and give them reason to reach across the grass and talk to someone else?  I am almost sure I was, both for anthropological exploration and a sincere desire to meet new friends.  But then I got caught up in this, and that of course is the irony.

The thing that is great about public space is it provides a buffer in which we can say the things we think and we can hope that the person next to us latches on to the idea.  Rather than isolating these thoughts, I could have sparked up conversation.  It’s awesome that public spaces have the ability to foster dialogue around something external and common.  It keeps space vibrant and exciting – it’s the reason why people want to be near them.

As summer progresses, I hope to spend more time in spaces like this and to arrive at a richer understanding of the space in which I live and the people I share it with.  It’s my new approach since I have all this time to keep my eyes open and pay attention to everything I have chosen not to see.

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