William White began the Street Life Project in 1971; the purpose was to research the social interactions which transpire in public spaces, and publish these findings within a comprehensive text. The project quickly grew however, and studies were conducted within various areas of several large cities around the world. White was fascinated by simple street interactions, or “rituals” between ordinary individuals in cities, and was able to observe similar behaviors among individuals in various cultures. Much of what he had published in the first few chapters of “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” can be applied to various locations; I chose to relate it to my temporary home, the city of Perugia, Italy.
White continually elaborated on his idea that some city spaces “work” for people, and others simply do not. His studies focused upon various areas of New York City, and why some areas — like streets — were incredibly crowded, while others — like parks and playgrounds — were not. He observed that oftentimes, the streets served as play areas for many young children; they also had a tendency to contain the basic elements which are essential for a successful public space (like transportation, food, etc.). The areas which contained a variety of uses were more likely to be crowded than other, less useful, areas. Particularly, I found his discussion of city plaza utilization to be particularly relevant to what I have witnessed in terms of public space in the city center of Perugia.
White stated that in the early 1960’s, New York City provided incentives to builders who provided plazas along with their buildings. While some plazas attracted multitudes of people all day, some were only busy during certain times of day, and others were not very active at all. Largely, the presence of amenities played a key role in determining the “success” of a plaza, as well its relation to streets, as “A good plaza starts at a street corner” (White, 1980).
Piazza IV Novembre is an excellent example of a successful plaza, or piazza. It is not located on a street corner, rather, it is situated between a series of roads and main pedestrian walkways. Thus, there is always some form of heavy traffic within the area, despite the season. In terms of basic amenities, the piazza offers various locations to eat, including many with takeaway options, which allow the perfect opportunity for individuals to gather on areas like the main steps, which are frequently populated with various groups of people. Even on colder days, groups or even individual persons can be observed sitting on the steps; some eat, some talk with friends, others people watch, as the piazza is conducive to all of these behaviors. The piazza serves a variety of purposes, with no singular purpose being clearly defined — as a result, it is left to the public to decide what they will do within this space.
The bustling Piazza IV Novembre is sharply contrasted by others, like Piazza Italia, a quick two-minute walk down the main walkway. It has always struck me as odd that while the first plaza always appears so busy, Piazza Italia frequently quite the opposite, despite being so close. Aside from the weekly markets which take place on the weekends, I have not observed any notable activity occurring in this area otherwise. This may be due to a variety of causes, like the lack of easy, takeaway food, or absence of any defined purpose for the space. It appears to merely be an area for pedestrians to walk across as they make their way to public transport, but unfortunately, unlike Piazza IV Novembre, they choose not to remain in this space.