IN PRAISE OF CROWDS
Members of the WHY team reflect on the qualities of their favorite public spaces
As restrictions lift and public spaces come to life once again, we’ve been reminiscing on the thrill of the crowd. While some might define a crowd as a randomly dispersed gathering, architects and designers see things a little differently.
From a design point of view, a crowd of people suggests a spatial situation – a particular set of parameters which define how events play out. An open plaza might invite opportunities for evening dances, a cemetery might inspire a family picnic, an urban beach might become a place for practicing peaceful coexistence. From Copenhagen to Tokyo, members of the WHY design team reflect on what makes a powerful public space: the pleasure of people-watching and spontaneous patterns of circulation and rest.
Kenny Tang: Manhattan Beach was one of the first places I visited when I moved to Los Angeles. I learned how to surf out there, nearly drowned out there… I’ve found myself returning regularly over the last six years, and surfing has become a great way to escape during the pandemic. Like me, everyone decided that the beach was the place to be, and I became more sensitive to the small elements of programming that allow different things to happen – cafés, bikeways, and street access. We typically think of the beach as a fairly passive, open environment defined by ocean, shoreline, and street, but there’s a lot of intention and implicit design. It’s a place where we come to people-watch, but also to look out for one another – at Manhattan Beach there are areas for wheelchairs, and attendants will put down mats to allow you to get closer to the ocean if you have accessibility issues. It’s these small moments which shape the space and allow for different types of interaction and behaviors. The beach might seem to stay the same but it’s a really dynamic environment, constantly changing as we identify different needs and form different relationships.
Graham Brindle: A well-designed public space has a lot to do with the relationship between circulation and areas for relaxation. The layers of Bryant Park are a good example. You have the central lawn which is the slowest, most relaxed space. Around that are a series of walkways that provide routes for meandering circulation. And all of that is surrounded by the busy city streets and sidewalks. These layers let you experience the park at different speeds, and allows the central lawn to be this protected oasis. Having that degree of separation without people bustling past you makes a big difference. When a public space doesn’t work well, it’s often because there are fast-pace circulation routes cutting directly through the areas of respite. For me, Bryant Park strikes the right balance.
Jin Jin Chiu: I came across the cemetery by chance – I was cycling across town for lunch, and the shortest route happened to be the commuter path which cuts straight through. The idea of spending time in a cemetery as part of a daily routine was wholly new to me, but there’s a lovely serenity once you’re within the walls. It feels like a secret garden. The areas with the older gravestones tend to be more spacious; the graves are further apart, and this is where you see people gathering: families picnicking, friends meeting up, couples sunbathing. I was surprised that I didn’t feel any pressure to behave in a somber way – people seemed very comfortable with this physical and psychological proximity to these monuments to the dead. The cemetery still operates today, and there are more intimate, enclosed areas where people can visit the graves of the recently deceased. I find it incredibly moving how the cemetery can hold all these different frames of mind simultaneously. It contains and integrates encounters with death and collective memory as part of everyday urban life.
Zoe Bu: In my hometown of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, China, groups of seniors will typically gather every evening to dance in the plaza near my apartment. You’ll see that happen throughout China, actually, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, given the isolation of the pandemic. There’s typically a leader organizing the dance, and you can just pass by, join in for a while, then leave whenever you like. It’s essentially an evening workout for the seniors, and a way to connect with friends and strangers as you follow the same routine. There’s something so powerful about that – now I’m thinking about it, I want to join them! Sometimes people in the apartments surrounding the plaza complain about the music but, to be honest, I like it. The nightly dances mean that the area is always feels safe, almost like a form of security, so you can hang out in the plaza after dark.
Stoops and Sidewalks
Sophie Maguire: The sidewalk activity in New York City is different from any other city I know. When I was living in Brooklyn, I had a friend whose mom lived in a brownstone in Cobble Hill – we would go there to hang out on the stoop, and sometimes we’d have fifteen or so people all sitting on the steps at the same time. The relationship between the sidewalk and the stoop allows you to talk to strangers, and it brings a friendliness to the street – especially during the hotter months. There are all sorts of different configurations depending on the width of the sidewalk, the height and weight of the stoop, the amount of traffic etcetera, and that shapes the way you interact with passersby. It’s like an amphitheater where everyone is simultaneously on stage and part of the audience.
George Washington Park & Ueno Park
New York and Tokyo
Byron Chang: I have two very different but complementary examples: Ueno Park in Tokyo and George Washington Park in New York. In the latter, it’s the specific arrangement of the park which influences the way that people gather. The scale of the radial configuration around the central fountain makes the space simultaneously intimate and suitable for very dense gatherings. Even with the larger marches and recent protests, the many paths radiating out from the central area mean that you can still maintain flow of movement. My interest in Ueno Park, on the other hand, has less to do with the design and more about how the park is used at a very specific time of year, as defined by nature. When the cherry trees blossom in spring, large groups fill the park and companies will typically send interns to reserve spaces. It’s the one time of year when you’ll see people taking some time off to picnic and drink during business hours! The park itself is quite simple in design, but the spacing of the cherry trees creates the dense canopy of blossom – the timing of the season is never quite the same year-to-year, and it’s interesting how nature dictates when these gatherings occur.
Will Wei: This plaza, ‘The Place,’ the Chaoyang District of Beijing is an interesting example of a public space that I think works really well. The large overhead screen sometimes shows movies, sometimes the news, but people don’t tend to focus on what’s showing – it’s more about the atmosphere. The immersive lighting and sonic environment make people want to hang out there, especially after dinner when its customary to take a walk or meet with friends. The plaza is adjacent to a residential area so there’s always plenty going on. It’s a semi-enclosed environment with stairs that rise up either side, so you can sit there and watch activities in the restaurants and surrounding shops – or just look up at the screen. I’ve enjoyed lots of nights there.”
Tsukiji Outer Market
Erisa Nakamura: I love visiting the seafood market at Tsukiji Outer Market in Tokyo. It’s located by the water and people used to come to see the fish auctions there – now the auctions are closed to the public, but it’s still a great place to gather with friends and enjoy the freshest sushi. You get a good rhythm of people wandering and crossing paths, regulars who know exactly what they want and others who are just browsing until they find the right spot. The atmosphere is very different from food stalls in the US, which typically play loud music to energize the crowd – at Tsukiji it’s more about being polite and quiet. The attraction is less about the sight and the sound and more about the smell – that’s what draws people to the different stalls. So it’s a completely different sensory experience, all contained in a fairly dense environment mostly covered by awning.
Paulina Bouyer-Magaña: Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights is one of my favorite places of gathering in LA. The area has been a plaza for some time, but it was formalized when the metro line was extended to East LA. The entry to the metro station opens to a large canopy with a stage and electrical outlets – anyone can come along and hook up an amp, so there are constant music performances. As the name of the plaza suggests, there’s usually a mariachi band on site – it’s known as one of the few places where you can just turn up and hire a band for your fiesta, babtizum, quinzeñera, etc. There’s also a Friday farmers market, and one of the interesting things about the plaza is that it’s very multi-generational. The skaters hang around the park and the older population come to dance and just do their thing. For me, it’s a great example of a public space that works as a transportation hub while also catering to different programs and communities.
The next time you find yourself in a crowded public space, take a moment to check in with your environment. Is it enlivening or stressful? Are people lingering or just passing through? How varied is the crowd? Who appears to be navigating the space with ease, and is anyone experiencing difficulties? How are actions shaped by the openness or enclosure of the shared areas? How might things be different?
When we take a moment to observe our surroundings and notice how we feel, we each acquire a degree of creative agency. Architects and planners aren’t the only authorities when it comes to shaping and reimagining public spaces; by recognizing what we personally value in specific urban circumstances, we can each create a foundation for how we want to live – collectively. That’s the power of the crowd, after all.