“All of these things, you have to talk to them a lot as you touch them. That’s how I can live with all these different objects. If I don’t have a relationship with these objects, this house would be too scary for me to live in.”
William H. Whyte (October 1, 1917 — January 12, 1999) was an American urbanist, organizational analyst, journalist and people-watcher.1
While working with the New York City Planning Commission in 1969, Whyte began to use direct observation to describe behavior in urban settings. Employing still cameras, movie cameras, and notebooks, Whyte described the substance of urban public life in an objective and measurable way.2
He not only proved that the street-level social activity of people could be quantified, but upended the popular wisdom of the time that people-space and street-space were incompatible. He described the street as “the river of life” and people-watching its principle activity. He identified seven elements that seed a space for lively activity:
Sittable spaces – Must be comfortable (right height and width) and offer a variety of fixed and movable options, including walls, stairs, double-sided benches and individual chairs
The street – Spaces have proximity and good connection to, the street
The sun – Can be direct or reflective; it’s about access to ‘light’
Food – Include carts, cafes, or snack bars; people who eat attract more people
Water – Accessibility to rivers, ponds, and interactive water features create welcoming, social spaces
Trees – Create a defined canopy; open to the action but also intimate
Triangulation – Things, actions, or activities that act as magnets to bring people together e.g. art installations, buskers, skating rinks, dance floors; performers provide a connection between strangers and acquaintances; art has “a kind of Venturi affect”, stimulating pedestrian flow and attracting people.
While focussed on urban spaces, his observations are equally applicable to suburbs, small towns and villages. Whyte emphasized the need for appropriate scale and condensed public spaces for these types of low-density areas.
My own village, founded in 1793, has transformed from wilderness to frontier wagon-stop, through sustainable, working village, and eventually into a bedroom community when the railroad passed it by. A few years ago our general store, the last vestige of business and street life, closed. No more Friday night ice cream cones or random conversations between neighbours and strangers who stopped by for milk, smokes or directions. One less reason for the cyclists, snowmobilers, hikers and tourists to stick around and add their energy into the local mix. One more nail in the coffin of vitality. What an element of food and triangulation wouldn’t do for an otherwise lovely place.
In 1979, Whyte released his documentary The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in cooperation with the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) and the following year published a book of the same name. Retro style aside, the human behaviour in the film remains relevant and his warm narrative style brings the lessons to life.
We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us - the labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the centre of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world. ~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)
Bitterly cold it was when I ventured out to the Carleton Place and Beckwith Heritage Museum between Christmas and New Year’s. A good day to be inside, I thought, somewhere warm and interesting. The museum, however, was closed. But the light was just so, and a delicate snowfall had brought the edges of everything into stark relief. I made my way around the building peering through the windows as best as I could, looky-loo that I am.
Tucked behind the museum I found the Carleton Place Community Labyrinth, an unexpected treasure bordered by blocks of heritage homes. Hundreds of pavers are set into the lawn, laid in the famous seven-circuit configuration found at Chartres Cathedral in France and contained by a circular walk. Dormant garden beds complete the landscape and a miniature table-top granite labyrinth invites observers to let their fingers do the walking. The space looked ethereal under the first snow, no less enchanting, I imagine, than it might under a full spring bloom.
Unlike mazes (multicursal), which are meant to confuse, labyrinths (unicursal) have one way in and one way out. They are used as a meditation and prayer tool and represent a spiritual journey to our center and back into the world again.1 Labyrinths are a type of “Mandalas” (sanskrit for “circle that contain the Essence”), symbols of wholeness which are cross-cultural and non-denominational.2 They “… can be seen as a model for the organizational structure of life itself–a cosmic diagram that reminds us of our relation to the infinite, the world that extends both beyond and within our bodies and minds.”3
Although I’ve visited several mazes, this would be my first encounter with a labyrinth. Beyond the obvious answer of ‘walking’, what would I do exactly? The simple answer is it can be approached in any manner one chooses, but here are a few suggestions:4
- As you prepare to walk, allow space between you and the person in front of you.
- Pause, as this is a time to let go of tension and stress. Listen to your heart beat, be aware of your breathing and quiet your mind.
- Pace yourself.
- When walking with a group remember the labyrinth is a two way street. There is the possibility for meetings, greetings and possible confusion.
- Don’t worry – there are no mistakes in the labyrinth. Pass one another when it seems comfortable. This may be easiest at the turns. Feel free to step around someone who is moving too slowly for your pace.
- When you reach the centre, remain for as long as you wish. Standing in the center is a time of awakening, receiving and opening. This is a place for rest, prayer, reflection and meditation.
- Walking out is a time of return. You may feel the opportunity to take what is gained at the center back out into the world with a renewed sense of understanding, strength, peace, or possibility.
Sadly, without my hat, gloves and heaviest coat, my walk would be over almost as soon as it had started. Pausing briefly at the beginning, I briskly followed the curves toward the centre, finding introspection difficult with my outer bits so woefully exposed. The brisk walk changed into a shivery gallop back to the van, the tips of my fingers very nearly frostbitten. Meditation aborted.
I’ll return to the museum for the vintage clothing sale on Saturday, January 31st and look forward to exploring at a more appropriate pace. This time, I will be more suitably attired.
The gardens and labyrinth remain open year round, with a number of planned walks that invite people into community. Upcoming events for 2015 include: weekly walks, an Earth Day Sunrise Walk, a celebration of World Labyrinth Day and the annual Light Up the Labyrinth festival.
On the Canadian and American policies of forced removal and relocations – and re-relocations – of First Nations peoples from their own treaty-protected lands:
Moving Indians around the continent was like redecorating a very large house. The Cherokee can no longer stay in the living room. Put them in the second bedroom. The Mi’kmaq are taking up too much space in the kitchen. Move them to the laundry. The Seminoles can go from the master bedroom into the sunroom, and lean the Songhees against the wall in the upstairs hallway. We’ll see if that works. For the time being, the Ojibway, the Seneca, the Metis and the Inuit can be stored in the shed behind the garage. And what the hell are we going to do with the Blackfoot, the Mohawk, the Arapaho, and the Piaute?
Do we have any garbage bags left?
- Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, pg. 97
I did the closest thing to nothing that I have ever done since having children. I made nothing happen by saying no: no to my brother’s family flying in for the holidays, no to manic ritual-making, no to being the Director of All Things and, finally, no to stupid, predictable conflicts.
The little ones stepped up and took over the baking, Husband and I split cooking/shopping duties, and all the kids managed the kitchen clean-ups. Together we tidied the house, shopped for and wrapped presents, put up lights, and decorated the tree simply. Then everyone headed to social activities without me.
As I have no room to call my own, I beat a hasty retreat onto the couch and into my head.
For the past week I have rested, napped and slept whenever I’ve felt like it. I “tipped” as Husband calls my superpower-like ability to instantly fall asleep anywhere, anytime. I have reflected, imagined and created, computer and whiteboard at hand. But mostly I have floated under a duvet in a slack-jawed, winter-induced torpor, too relaxed even to read.
We’ve talked about forgetting the whole seasonal run-up and heading off on a winter adventure next year. But after this satisfying week of solitary confinement I’m open to reconsideration. Frankly, it’s the first time in a long while that I haven’t mostly resented the Christmas season.
(Some winter music to hibernate by.)