Tag Archives: william h whyte

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

13 Oct


“The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” was produced in 1979 as a companion film to William H. Whyte’s book by the same name.

The book was undertaken as a guide to assist New York City’s Planning Commission in improving the city’s public spaces after changes in city zoning regulations managed to increase their quantity without having the same effect on quality.

In a little less than one hour, the film details the sometimes little-noticed attributes that make the difference between public spaces that people are drawn to and the ones they’re indifferent to.

“The most important thing about a place is its relationship to the street.”

In a successful urban space, Whyte said, “The number one activity is people watching other people.”

People-watching requires people to watch and a place to sit while watching them. But Whyte observed how often those rudimentary requirements go overlooked. Office building plazas are frequently sunk into the the ground, hidden behind something or propped several feet above the street. No matter how appealing those spaces might be to look at, their isolation will keep them underused, Whyte said, because “the most important thing about a place is its relationship to the street.”

But even an unobstructed view of the street won’t be enough to make people linger if they can’t sit down, Whyte said, as “people tend to sit where there are places to sit.” Not just any places, though. Whyte was an advocate of low steps, ledges and moveable chairs, but he had no use for most benches. Benches, he said, are often poorly placed and poorly proportioned. They also tell people “you sit here,” rather than letting them configure themselves however they’re most comfortable.

Other attributes Whyte found to be vital to successful urban public space are sunlight, food, water, trees and a feature he calls “triangulation,” or something that draws strangers together.

Whyte also observed the way that high-quality public spaces contribute to pedestrian propulsion. Pedestrians’ “visual enjoyment” of a space – as they walk by and watch people watching other people – is a type of passive, secondary use, he said.

After watching “The Social Life of Small Urban Places,” walking past spaces that you’ve seen dozens of times before can become interesting again as you mentally check their attributes (or shortcomings) against Whyte’s list. It might also explain why no one ever sits on those expensive-looking benches facing the ivy-covered wall at the back of your building.

Vimeo link, in case the embed doesn’t work.

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