William Whyte, City, and the Spirit of Collaboration

For those of us involved in training-teaching-learning, almost anything we read offers something we can bring back to those we serve. And 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, social gathering sites, and learning spaces—onsite and online—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 of learning 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 classroom-based or virtual.

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