In 1969, William Whyte began a massive research project alongside the New York City Planning Commission. His goal– to observe and document how people interact with themselves, each other, and space in the setting of urban areas, plazas, and parks. Called ‘The Street Life Project’, Whyte and his team of researchers took to the streets with video cameras, still cameras, and notebooks for documentation. Whyte was one of the first researchers to research pedestrian behavioral phenomena in an objective and measurable way in part by using new modern technologies.
In 2009, Keith Hampton saw current modern technologies as perhaps alienating today’s social interactions. Converting roughly 3,273 reels of Whyte’s original footage into a digital format, Hampton chose sites in three cities– New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston– that had the best footage and conditions allowed for replication (i.e. the sites still existed today).
Between 2008 and 2010, Hampton’s team collected and analyzed roughly 38 hours of film– coding individuals and interactions based on sex, group size, “loitering”, and phone use. Overall, the study showed a lower amount of texting and phone use than expected. Moreover, phone users tended to be alone instead of in groups. To the researchers, phone use was prevalent if individuals were passing time while waiting for someone, or as a way to enjoy a solo lunch break.
Moreover, the study showed that today there is a significantly higher proportion of females in public urban settings in relation to men. The only place where females decreased proportionally? Boston’s Downtown crossing– a major shopping hub in the city. As Hampton said in a recent New York Times article, “The decline in women within this setting could be interpreted as a shift in gender roles… [men seem to be] taking on an activity that was traditionally regarded as feminine”.
While Hampton set out to see how modern technologies are shaping human interaction, he found a completely different narrative. Today’s cities are not shaped by loneliness or ubiquitous connectivity, rather we see more gender equity.
For more information on the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit planning, design, and educational organization expanding on the work of William Whyte, visit: http://www.pps.org