Section 3 ︎︎︎ Activity

“If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food. Food attracts people who attract more people.” 

—William H. Whyte,  The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

Activities of space are what brings place to life. Humans define place through interaction with space, so activities and programming of a space are a grounding aspect in creating place. Activities do not need to be orchestrated events, but also include the nuances of everyday life in that space. The use of a space can make it a place and make it inviting, and also can tell an individual how they are expected to use the space. A train station is a great example to see a shift in place as the activity shifts, while the function and form of the space never changes, the activity of the space can give it a much different vibe. Chicago Union station during a weekday at 8:00–9:00 AM or 5:00–6:00PM FIGURE 11 is a much different train station than the middle of the day or weekend. The energy and activity of the commuters define the space as a quick transitory space where you must walk if you are on the left side of the escalator, although few are standing. The hallways become high speed traffic as pedestrians are trying to get their morning coffee and head into the office as fast as they can, the quite buzz of people doing what they do everyday echoes through the space. Outside of those times, the train station has a much calmer almost deserted energy. You occasionally see crowds as a new train comes in or is about to leave, but the energy is much more relaxed. You see people sitting and waiting for trains, wandering slowly looking for a bathroom, or perusing the news or food stands.
    William Whyte observed the everyday use of public spaces in his book and film The Social Life of Small Urban Places.12 In this 1980 study he documents public spaces, and the way people interact with them. FIGURE 12 He notes the use, however practical or impractical. Using these studies Whyte has determined appropriate guidelines for sidewalks and other public spaces based on extensive examination of the ways people liked to use these shared spaces. The activity of the space made it a place in Whyte’s studies. His findings are interesting when thinking about place and activity. Just because an area is a public space does not make it a place. Often times, public spaces are policed in weird ways trying to control how the user interacts with the space, making it an uncomfortable space that lacks the invitation to the user to make it a place. Interboro Partners published a book discussing the elements of design that make our public spaces inclusionary and exclusionary.13 They explore things such as public benches FIGURE 13 that discourage laying down or loitering for lack of comfort or ability to hold a conversation. Which while being forms of place in their own right, directly affect the activities that can occur in the public space changing its sense of place.
    Events of course, are also another way to build associations of place for both the local and the tourist, as well as the collective. Events can come to be attributed to place just as much as physical features. Boston Marathon, New Orleans Mardi Gras, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Oktoberfest in Munich are a few examples that are known by a larger audience that define a place for some people. Events on any scale have this effect on place, they even can help change the idea of a place for people. The Wynwood neighborhood in Miami was once a warehouse district with nothing special, it was then taken over by artists and became a large outdoor street art museum and hosted many art galleries and makers. FIGURE 14 The district started hosting monthly art walks to draw in a crowd and change the perception of the neighborhood, eventually growing it to international fame over a few years. In the case of Burning Man, a festival held in the Black Rock Desert, FIGURE 15 the event creates a place. For nine days each year, a city dubbed Black Rock City, appears in the middle of the desert hosting just under 80,000 people14 for Burning Man, and then disappears only to return the following year.  In India a temporary city occurs every 12 years during Kumbh Mela, FIGURE 16 where tens of millions of people make a spiritual pilgrimage to make bathe in the holy river Ganges.15 Lasting one to three months, a temporary city is erected to host the millions who have made the journey. Beyond the ritual dip in the river, the festival also celebrates community and includes many other smaller events in the makeshift city. When the event comes to a close, the temporary city that once housed millions disappears, and is cleaned up to maintain the sacred site until the next pilgrimage.

12. Whyte, William. The Socail Life of Small Urban Spaces. 1980

13. Armborst, Tobias. The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion. 2014

14. Burning Man Project.

15. Mehrotra, Rahul. Ted Talk. The Architectural Wonder of Impermanent Cities. 2019

© Michael Rosenberg