A Response to William Whyte’s CITY

The best part of this book is that Whyte engaged in quantitative study and plotted his results visually for the rest of us to enjoy.

But it seems to me that Whyte’s analysis mysteriously lacks a deeper understanding, or even willingness to consider, the plethora of additional reasons why his findings might have been such.

For example, one occurrence he studied is how people congregate on the sidewalk when they pause to have a conversation. He found that, primarily, people stop in the middle of the sidewalk. This is true, he says, even though people self-report in surveys that they prefer to step to the side and look for a place to ‘get away from it all’.

I wonder how thoughtful Mr. Whyte was in parsing the intersection of class and gender in his findings.

Whyte’s results do not match my experience or preferences, but I acknowledge that cities are not designed for people like me. I am a queer white woman from a lower-middle class background, and I experience heightened sound sensitivity. I spent the majority of my life in female-dominated environments, from living alone with my mother from age 12 – 18 and then studying at a women’s college for four years.

I rarely pause for long conversations on the street, and when I do, I 99% of the time will step aside and pull by the sleeve anyone with whom I am speaking so as to clear the sidewalk. I think about people with mobility challenges who may need the whole sidewalk. And I frankly would prefer not to be interrupted by people who are trying to get by me.

How do employment status, immigration status, class, gender — how do they affect the behavior of a pedestrian?

And why are so many cities designed for employed, able-bodied white men?

Toronto’s newest project, Sidewalk Labs, proclaims a commitment to “accelerate urban innovation.”

But you know what? Accessibility and equity are more important to me than innovation right now. And personally, I believe that we know how to achieve accessibility and equity. We just need to commit the resources and willpower.

My designer brain — and my privilege as an able-bodied white woman — are excited about what’s happening with this project. But I also know that Sidewalk Labs is necessarily going to leave people behind, and those people are the ones who need the most lifting up. Sidewalk Labs is also going to take greater advantage of people who are overworked and underpaid and have a more difficult time advocating for themselves — but their information is going to be harvested by the Alphabet company nonetheless.

Trash robots won’t create a more equitable world. Corporations are not democratic, and they don’t look out for our best interest.

But I believe that CITIES can, and should. And they can do this by:

• hiring diverse people to study and execute projects

• collecting accurate information with an intersectional lens

• prioritizing obvious and fundamental human needs before “innovation”


What do you think? When you think about being a pedestrian in your city, do you feel anxious or welcomed or curios or tired? How do you prepare for exploring your city by foot?

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