NEWS: URBAN ANTHROPOLOGIST LOOKS AT PEOPLE AND PUBLIC SPACES (New
jancius at ohio.edu
Thu Oct 4 16:55:31 EDT 2007
Impresario of the Village Green
By ELIZABETH GIDDENS
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
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.
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