SAM StreetUrban

Where Do I Sit?

By September 29, 2009 6 Comments

William Whyte, in his book ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’, explains why some public spaces work and others don’t. The example in the previous post of AlRaya made me wonder how we can adapt his ideas for Kuwait. I highly recommend, if you haven’t already, for everyone to see the video. We obviously don’t have the same density as Manhattan, but in a few years Kuwait City will hopefully be a lot denser than it is today. Here is what Whyte had to say:

What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people. If I belabor the point, it is because many urban spaces are being designed as though the opposite were true, and that what people liked best were the places they stay away from. People often do talk along such lines; this is why their responses to questionnaires can be so misleading. How many people would say they like to sit in the middle of a crowd? Instead, they speak of getting away from it all, and use words like “escape”, “oasis”, “retreat”. What people do, however, reveals a different priority.

This is because of both a desire for safety and is a method of peer-approval. People naturally feel safer in crowds. You see the opposite in our public parks. Most of them are fenced off and gated. The intent was to ensure safety and security, but in reality what this does is put people off from going in. It becomes a ‘destination’ instead of an impulse. If the walls weren’t there you’ll start to see kids playing inside, which in turn attracts more kids and families, which attracts more action. It’s sort of counter-intuitive, but the walls actually make the parks less safe. The only people who feel safer because of them are the people hiding inside, doing things they’re not supposed to be doing. I say we tear down the walls. I know, that seems like my solution to every problem.

Benches are artifacts the purpose of which is to punctuate architectural photographs. They’re not so good for sitting. There are too few of them; they are too small; they are often isolated from other benches or from whatever action there is on the plaza. Worse yet, architects tend to repeat the same module in plaza after plaza, unaware that it didn’t work very well in the first place.

Benches are useless. They force strangers to sit unnaturally close together. A better solution is to have a long ‘decha’ or built mass all around the space that is easy and comfortable to sit on. The more options people have to organize themselves as a couple, or a group, the more accepting they will be of that space. In Kuwait, as with most places, we see far too many benches that have just been plopped on the edge of the sidewalk, facing the street, and away from the shade. Instead of benches everywhere, why not have trash bins? There are too few of those, and I often find myself needing to throw something but not finding anywhere to put it.
Distrust and “Undesirables”:

Many corporation executives who make the key decisions about the city have surprisingly little acquaintance with the life of its streets and open spaces. … To them, the unknown city is a place of danger. If their building has a plaza, it is likely to be a defensive one that they will rarely use themselves. Few others will either. Places designed with distrust get what they were looking for and it is in them, ironically, that you will most likely find a wino.

The ‘courtyard’ space of AlRaya is a great example of this (though i’ve only rarely seen a wino). The space is so controlled and isolated that it is simply rejected. The fear of ‘letting it go’ and allowing anyone to use it has condemned the space to being cold and neglected (no matter how clean and well maintained it is). There is never anyone there, so people aren’t attracted to it. The fear of attracting laborers or loud youth often sanitizes the space to a point where it becomes boring and forced, like AlRaya.
Guards and Plaza mayors:

…it is characteristic of well-used places to have a “mayor”. He may be a building guard, a newsstand operator, or a food vendor. Watch him, and you’ll notice people checking in during the day. … One of the best mayors I’ve seen is Joe Hardy of the Exxon Building. He is an actor, as well as the building guard, and was originally hired by Rockefeller Center Inc. to play Santa Claus, whom he resembles. Ordinarily, guards are not supposed to initiate conversations, but Joe Hardy is gregarious and curious and has a nice sense of situations. … Joe is quite tolerant of winos and odd people, as long as they don’t bother anybody. He is very quick to spot real trouble, however.

We sort of have those in Kuwait, but in the private malls. They’re those serious guys in dishdashas with the walkie talkies. I think the way they usually go about their job is counterproductive as they seem more interested in breaking up groups than in creating a pleasant atmosphere. Their primary job should be to facilitate a free, happy and safe environment. Every major public space should also have it’s own little mayor. They’re not really police, but a cross between security and a tour guide. The best ones are those that feel a sense of pride, ownership and responsibility for the place that they control. They should also have authority to demand that shop owners and such are well regulated and everything is clean and tidy. They will also be held responsible if things aren’t safe, clean and busy. It should be a well paid job, because the results are very important and the only way to ensure accountability is if the person is well compensated.

The ultimate development in the flight from the street is the urban fortress. In the form of megastructures more and more of these things are being put up – huge, multipurpose complexes combining offices, hotels, and shops… Their distinguishing characteristic is self-containment. While they are supposed to be the salvation of downtown, they are often some distance from the center of downtown, and in any event tend to be quite independent of their surroundings, which are most usually parking lots. The megastructures are wholly internalized environments, with their own life-support systems. Their enclosing walls are blank, windowless, and to the street they turn an almost solid face of concrete or brick.

Again, AlRaya is a perfect example of this, but almost every other mall is guilty of the same sin. The only exception is probably Marina Mall. They attempt a sort of public space at the Salem alMubarak end, but the lack of any real pedestrian activity softens the impact. Hopefully once Salmiya Park is finished (and isn’t fenced) things will be different. Marina Crescent is very successful. It’s a great example of a public (kind of) space that works really well. There just aren’t enough places to sit (where you’re not expected to buy something). I don’t know how comfortable those giant bumps are, but they seem pretty useless. The point is that successful projects are not the inward-looking ‘megastructures’, but the ones that engage and interact with their context. There really isn’t anything to fear, and if done right, all parties benefit; the developer, the city and the citizens.

coluombo- Flickr

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • First of all, good post! I never thought about it this way, that If we design a space that feels like you’re on an island (in a good way) we’re creating a space that no body wants to go to.
    I have to say though fences are sometimes vital especially in Kuwait where you find the attitude: “if the land in front of your house is not fenced, its yours (make it a parking or a garden : )!”
    I’m not sure which benches are you referring to, but if I’m in a park, or in a place where I want to sit and read or have my coffee, I would like a bench.
    Good point though regarding AlRaya Plaza. Potentially its a very good space. Although they do use it every now and then for exhibitions, it’s empty most of the time. I think this applies to every open non-public space in kuwait. They’ve seen what happens to a public space (trash, spray paint, workers sleeping etc.) and they don’t want to deal with those issues.
    Regarding the mayor, I think MID (men in deshdasha) are the best mayors in town! they have good control over the mall in comparison with group $# security men where no body listens to. The Dishdasha and the simple badge bring a lot of authority to the job. Although I have to admit, sometimes it does feels uncomfortable as they’re always looking for bad things to happen.
    I agree that Marina Crescent (image) has a very good way to connect the “mega structure” to the rest of the surrounding. It is still bounded by a huge parking space, at least it is not a fence : )

  • Yousef says:

    great post .
    those giant bumps are supposed to pump water but are stopped for technical reason
    you can find benches on the waterfront in the marina , but in marina crescent the developer wanted to drive people to the restaurants and cafe , so that they make money 🙂

  • Aisha says:

    I like the way you highlighted the points in general and then tailored them to your ongoing argument about Arraya from the previous post.
    Amenah, with regards to the benches..I understood it as not the generic type of garden seating. Some of those especially the wire mesh ones can be extremly uncomfortable! Or a wooden/metal plank with acryilic paint that begins to chip; they can be scratchy and not too inviting for people to sit on.
    I do think this particular point though valid, is a bit out of date because many of the more contemporary urban projects that are particulary successfully usually have some sort of customized/iterative seating that is both inviting and comfortable. Also, an element doesn’t necessarily have to be a “bench” per se for it attract people to hangout and sit on. Consider the large steps along in public spaces that is usually heavily populated with people just hanging out; or even simply using the ground plane.

  • Mathews says:

    Barrak, You posts and those of your colleagues are really interesting to me because I have quietly been lamenting the destruction of the texture of the kuwait that I was brought up in, back in the late 60’s. Sharq and its tiny courtyard centered houses still existed in those days. A walk to the Dasman garden was an outing my family took quite often. Another favorite was was down to the sea shore to the informal fish market there on Fridays. Our families 3rd favorite outing was to walk to Firdous/Hamra cinema and have a lite meal after the movie.
    When we moved to Abbasiya back in the early 80’s, the area adjoining the existing housing colony was an warren of small houses and shops that had a very lively feel almost like the Kuwait drama that is shown on TV.
    Although I am an architect my knowledge of urban space as such is very limited. The books of architect / educator Christopher Alexander have been really helpful in identifying the reason why most modern spaces have no feeling of “life”.

  • Yousef: That’s new info for me! it is actually smart to cover the water pumps in what seems to be seating.
    Yeah Aisha, I love it when projects consider seating as part of the design, especially if there’s a smooth transition between the ground (or the wall) and the seat. Would love to see some of this in Kuwait.
    Mathews: Thanks, I only know Christopher Alexander through Pattern Language. Which seemed very robotic and inflexible. I do agree though, following some sort of system is better than randomly designing your space and see what works best !

    • Yousef says:

      well actually its supposed to pump water out and then it lands in certain bore holes in the flooring if you look at it you will see a slit , thats where the water was coming out for a while then they shut it down .

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