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Whyte’s Groundbreaking Critique of Cities

When we think of the foundational heroes of progressive American urbanism, Jane Jacobs often first comes to mind. Jacobs’ 1961 classic, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” transformed our view of cities and urban renewal. The next name that may come to mind is UCLA Professor Donald Shoup. His 2005 “The High Cost of Free Parking” remains scripture for backers of parking reform.

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One name unlikely to emerge is William H. Whyte. When I tried to read all relevant books about cities for my own Generation Priced Out, I never considered Whyte’s works. Earlier this year I turned down Island Press’s offer of a review copy for Richard Rein’s new book on Whyte, American Urbanist. But after I picked up a copy in the library I could not put it down.

Rein’s book is truly impressive. He shows how Whyte criticized planners for their housing, density, suburban sprawl and parking policies long before others. Whyte pioneered the strategy to secure open space through scenic easements. Whyte recruited Jacobs to write her book, and she always credited him for his support. Yet Whyte’s name is primarily associated with his first major book, The Organization Man,” not with his influential books on cities.

A Visionary Before His Time

Rein rescues Whyte’s legacy by chronicling his visionary critiques of urban and suburban America. He was the Paul Revere of critics of American urbanism and suburbanism, yet his warnings were not heeded. Whyte advanced many of the policies that YIMBYs and other urbanists push today. But he did so in a post-war era driven by faith in freeway and suburb construction and in the racist, displacement causing “urban renewal.”

Nothing bothered Whyte more than the vast stretches of land cities devoted to parking lots. He fought for true open space in urban areas at a time when developer incentives were given to create ill-conceived spaces that people would rarely use. He famously said, “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” He even got involved in the proper design of playgrounds. He said playgrounds looked like they were designed by planners who didn’t like kids.

Whyte had very specific guidelines for successful open spaces. And he often had the influence to implement them. Bryant Park is one of the nation’s most successful public spaces. Chief credit for this goes to William Whyte. Whyte was always very blunt with his criticisms. In some cases, as in Dallas, that led city officials to reject his plans. But Rein shows how Whyte’s perspectives usually influenced both planners and developers to do better projects.

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The irony of Whyte’s life was that he became best known for a book, The Organization Man, widely misinterpreted today. His books that helped remake cities—The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, City: Rediscovering the Center, and The Exploding Metropolis to name a few—got less public attention.

Why was Whyte Forgotten?

Toward the end of his life Whyte expressed concern that he had no legacy. After all, much of his work came from his books and role as consultant to planners, developers and other powerful figures like Lawrence Rockefeller. Rein cites various scholars and conferences directly influenced by Whyte, while recognizing that Whyte had limitations that impacted his legacy.

First, Whyte was always part of the Establishment. A Princeton grad whose work was often funded by Rockefeller, Whyte would never have considered himself an activist—a role Jacobs combined with her scholarship. Whyte cheered on Jacobs’ battle with Robert Moses and against freeway expansion but he was not someone who attended protests and or was affiliated with neighborhood groups. Peter Laurence notes in his brilliant book on Jacobs that she resented being portrayed as a mom who rode a bicycle; it downplayed her serious scholarship and training. Yet this image of Jacobs a regular neighborhood activist encouraged her legacy over an Establishment insider like William Whyte.

Whyte’s characterizations of women were sometimes less than woke. He measured public spaces by their success in attracting “girl-watching.” This was part of his view that public spaces’ success depended on their ability to attract women. Whyte denounced the displacement of Black and Brown residents via urban renewal but never connected to groups resisting this. He saw “gentrification” solely as a function of disinvestment rather than of speculators transforming once affordable housing into homes for the more affluent.

Yet in the big picture, Whyte’s ability to use establishment connections to promote what were then radical urban policies is likely unprecedented in American urban history. I turned the pages at Rein’s book marveling how Whyte saw the future so much clearer than almost everyone else.

YIMBYs and urbanists will likely have the same response. Thanks to Richard Rein for bringing the forgotten legacy of William H. Whyte back to life.

Originally published on BeyondChron.