Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Thu Oct 4 16:55:31 EDT 2007


Impresario of the Village Green
Published: September 30, 2007

AMONG Fred Kent's one million photographs of cities around the world, there 
is a set filed under the title "Affection." There, in the most public of 
places, on benches, fountains, ledges and steps, urbanites are captured in 
various stages of embrace. Elderly couples lean against each other; mothers 
press their children to their chests; young lovers lie with coltish 
intertwined limbs.
It is beautiful, innocent voyeurism. And it is the crux of Mr. Kent's work. 
"When a place makes people really happy, really comfortable," he said, "they 
start touching each other."
He should know. An affable, boyish native of Andover, Mass., Mr. Kent, 64, 
is an urban anthropologist and space doctor, and as founder of the Project 
for Public Spaces, a 32-year-old nonprofit group with offices near 
Washington Square Park, he spends his days observing homo sapiens in one of 
its favorite habitats: cities.
Mr. Kent learned his trade from the anthropologist Margaret Mead and the 
urbanist William H. Whyte, affectionately known as Holly, and he assisted 
Whyte with the research that culminated in his remarkable 1980 book, "The 
Social Life of Small Urban Spaces."
The two men studied the different ways men and women use public spaces (men 
cluster around entrances; women are more particular about the places they 
frequent), the strange rites of girl-watching and the spots where couples 
are likeliest to kiss (in locations more prominent than private). They also 
outlined the "three-phase goodbye," and they discovered that pedestrians 
give wider berth to a woman in makeup and a dress than to the same woman in 
a ponytail and sweats.
Running through all their findings was a simple and elegant thread: People 
like to be around other people. That axiom and the "placemaking" philosophy 
Mr. Kent developed are explored in "The Great Neighborhood Book," published 
in June and written by Jay Walljasper, a senior fellow at Project for Public 
Mr. Kent has his critics. Designers often charge that his socially centered 
approach ignores form in favor of function, and his outspokenness frequently 
prompts complaints - like the charge of "born-again zealousness" levied 
against him in a recent magazine article by the landscape architect Laurie 
But few would disagree that Mr. Kent is a force to be reckoned with. Shortly 
after the publication of "The Great Neighborhood Book," Mr. Kent spent a 
couple of days visiting some familiar public places with a reporter, 
appraising them according to the principles he has spent so many years 
Mr. Kent's appraisals of four areas can be viewed in the left-hand column. 

More information about the URBANTH-L mailing list