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Observing the Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

October 6, 2011 Featured, Planning & Design, Plazas 22 Comments

Last year I wrote a short post about plazas (Public plazas part one: people sit where there are places to sit), referencing the classic book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by the late William H. Whyte.  In 1979 Whyte produced a film of the same name, the book came out a year later in 1980 documenting what was shown in the film.

ABOVE: Paley Park in NYC, October 2001

I wanted to write a post about the film at the time, I was going to include it in 4-6 parts someone had uploaded to YouTube, but they were removed before the post was finished. But the recently that changed:

“Probably one of the most well-regarded films about urban planning is now available online in its entirety. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, a 1979 documentary by William H.  “Holly” Whyte, explores the successes and failures of public spaces in New York City. It was made as part of a research effort spearheaded by The Street Life Project in conjunction with the Municipal Art Society of New York.” (The Atlantic Cities)

To design the best public spaces it is critical to know how people use space. Whyte showed us how to study, document and analyze urban spaces and the behaviors of people using spaces.

The film is an hour long and very dated and dry — but worth every minute. Watch it in segments if you have to:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKf0inm5Pu8

Whyte goes through the following elements:

  1. Sittable Space
  2. Street
  3. Sun
  4. Food
  5. Water
  6. Trees
  7. Triangulation (external stimulus that prompts strangers to talk)

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this film now or referenced the book, very valuable information. I’d like to see an update for current times. Do people act differently now? Would they move to get a stronger 3G or Wi-Fi signal?

– Steve Patterson

 

Currently there are "22 comments" on this Article:

  1. Legal Eagle says:

    The linked video was removed.  Is there somewhere else we can find it?

     
  2. Legal Eagle says:

    The linked video was removed.  Is there somewhere else we can find it?

     
  3. Well that didn’t take long to get removed — thought I’d get this out before that happened.

     
  4. Anonymous says:

    Haven’t seen the film or read the book, but I think I’m familiar with the concepts.  As for how people would act now, I’m guessing that it would likely split along the digital divide.  Old fogeys like me, who like our flip phones and hard copy media, would likely mirror what’s presented in both the book and movie – we’d be more interested in shade in hot weather and sun in cooler weather.  The younger generation, connected 24/7, would likely search out the better signals and some shade, so they can see their screens.  And when it comes to triangulation (getting strangers to talk to each other), I’m guessing that it has less to do with either site design or media (wireless or print) and more to do with individual personalities and props – most people either want to hang out alone or with friends, not try to meet new ones, but if that’s your goal, your best bet would be to bring a puppy!

     
  5. JZ71 says:

    Haven’t seen the film or read the book, but I think I’m familiar with the concepts.  As for how people would act now, I’m guessing that it would likely split along the digital divide.  Old fogeys like me, who like our flip phones and hard copy media, would likely mirror what’s presented in both the book and movie – we’d be more interested in shade in hot weather and sun in cooler weather.  The younger generation, connected 24/7, would likely search out the better signals and some shade, so they can see their screens.  And when it comes to triangulation (getting strangers to talk to each other), I’m guessing that it has less to do with either site design or media (wireless or print) and more to do with individual personalities and props – most people either want to hang out alone or with friends, not try to meet new ones, but if that’s your goal, your best bet would be to bring a puppy!

     
  6. Greg says:

    Whyte’s book “City” (1988) is a more comprehensive discussion of the topic. Highly recommended.

     
  7. Greg says:

    Whyte’s book “City” (1988) is a more comprehensive discussion of the topic. Highly recommended.

     
  8. Anonymous says:

    Watch the film, you’ll probably learn something.

     
  9. Anonymous says:

    hard to do when the link has been disabled 😉

     
  10. Anonymous says:

    Good Grief.  Anyone really interested can download the entire film via BT,  search “social life of small urban spaces torrent” and you’ll get lots of options.

     
  11. arkiben says:

    Good Grief.  Anyone really interested can download the entire film via BT,  search “social life of small urban spaces torrent” and you’ll get lots of options.

     
    • JZ71 says:

      FYI, I spent a dozen years serving on the Denver Parks Board – I get that urban spaces have a multitude of conflicting demands and competing uses.  I’m also well aware that there is no one answer, that needs change over the course of the day, the week, the seasons and the years.  Parks can serve as a place of respite, a time to be alone, away from the pressures of work and they can be places to socialize and/or recreate, with both new acquaintances and old friends.  The biggest challenge facing both designers and managers is that public spaces have a wide range of potential, and many times, conflicting, uses – they can be formal or they can be informal.  What worked last week or last year may not work as well, or at all, today.  If you have an acre, do you put in a soccer field, a kiddie playground, a tennis court, a dog park, a formal flower garden or do you just leave it wild/natural?   Does every inch of every public space need to be programmed?  As a public space, are the homeless as welcome as the office worker?  Youing versus old?  How do you accomodate new activities like skateboards and frisbee golf?  Is alcohol allowed?  Advertising?  Amplified music?  Commercial vending?  Multi-day protests or events?  And who gets to decide?  The people who live/work next to the space, the larger neighborhood or the whole city?  Yes, Whyte does a great job of presnting one path, but it’s not the only answer.  It’s one tool in a whole arsenal of potential solutions.

       
  12. Anonymous says:

    FYI, I spent a dozen years serving on the Denver Parks Board – I get that urban spaces have a multitude of conflicting demands and competing uses.  I’m also well aware that there is no one answer, that needs change over the course of the day, the week, the seasons and the years.  Parks can serve as a place of respite, a time to be alone, away from the pressures of work and they can be places to socialize and/or recreate, with both new acquaintances and old friends.  The biggest challenge facing both designers and managers is that public spaces have a wide range of potential, and many times, conflicting, uses – they can be formal or they can be informal.  What worked last week or last year may not work as well, or at all, today.  If you have an acre, do you put in a soccer field, a kiddie playground, a tennis court, a dog park, a formal flower garden or do you just leave it wild/natural?   Does every inch of every public space need to be programmed?  As a public space, are the homeless as welcome as the office worker?  Youing versus old?  How do you accomodate new activities like skateboards and frisbee golf?  Is alcohol allowed?  Advertising?  Amplified music?  Commercial vending?  Multi-day protests or events?  And who gets to decide?  The people who live/work next to the space, the larger neighborhood or the whole city?  Yes, Whyte does a great job of presnting one path, but it’s not the only answer.  It’s one tool in a whole arsenal of potential solutions.

     
  13. Anonymous says:

    I hope you don’t take this personally, but that kind of exemplifies a bigger problem in general: decision makers who didn’t read the book but assume they know the concepts. For what its worth I think you’re asking good questions. You are very right that Whyte’s work is no comprehensive explanation for how to plan parks, it’s very limited in scope to urban plazas in New York. But it sure is a good framework for thinking about how and why people behave in outdoor public places. And not one that’s based on stereotypes like people just want to be alone or with friends, there are some interesting insights in there that you may have never realized on your own.

     
  14. arkiben says:

    I hope you don’t take this personally, but that kind of exemplifies a bigger problem in general: decision makers who didn’t read the book but assume they know the concepts. For what its worth I think you’re asking good questions. You are very right that Whyte’s work is no comprehensive explanation for how to plan parks, it’s very limited in scope to urban plazas in New York. But it sure is a good framework for thinking about how and why people behave in outdoor public places. And not one that’s based on stereotypes like people just want to be alone or with friends, there are some interesting insights in there that you may have never realized on your own.

     
    • JZ71 says:

      While it’s hard not to take it personally, I sure don’t take it negatively – it’s hard to have a discussion, on any topic, if you don’t know or understand the facts that you’re discussing – duh! – that’s why I made the disclaimer I did in my first post.  But, having a “discussion” without raising differences is also pretty unsatisfying.  And, as with pretty much any topic, you need to stay focused, otherwise there are many, many paths to wander down.  When it comes to blogs like these, as Steve has pointed out to me in the past, many people aren’t going to click thru the links to get more information, they’re just going to respond to what’s put in front of them.  In this case, I plead guilty – I remember reading about Whyte’s work when it first came out and it seemed to offer some interesting solutions.  I would’ve watched the video (if it had worked), but I wasn’t motivated to google other resources.  The one thing that I was tempted to do was to see how well Whyte’s work has aged.  Going to Google maps, it appears to have done so surprisingly well: http://maps.google.com/maps?q=Paley+Park,+New+York&hl=en&ll=40.760147,-73.975185&spn=0.000016,0.006856&sll=40.760196,-73.975152&layer=c&cbp=13,38.41,,1,5.58&cbll=40.760194,-73.975301&hnear=Paley+Park,+New+York,+10022&t=h&z=17&vpsrc=0&panoid=HkV7qR60ESOPZlZB2j7YFw  The real question then becomes how do New Yorkers use the park today? Do they triangulate or do they just seek a respite from the urban hustle and bustle?  And this isn’t meant to diminish the design, just to validate its assunmptions.  In reality, any design solution comes with unintended and unaticipated consequences.  This isn’t necessarily bad – there have been many happy accidents – but true “good design” survives the test of time.

       
  15. Anonymous says:

    While it’s hard not to take it personally, I sure don’t take it negatively – it’s hard to have a discussion, on any topic, if you don’t know or understand the facts that you’re discussing – duh! – that’s why I made the disclaimer I did in my first post.  But, having a “discussion” without raising differences is also pretty unsatisfying.  And, as with pretty much any topic, you need to stay focused, otherwise there are many, many paths to wander down.  When it comes to blogs like these, as Steve has pointed out to me in the past, many people aren’t going to click thru the links to get more information, they’re just going to respond to what’s put in front of them.  In this case, I plead guilty – I remember reading about Whyte’s work when it first came out and it seemed to offer some interesting solutions.  I would’ve watched the video (if it had worked), but I wasn’t motivated to google other resources.  The one thing that I was tempted to do was to see how well Whyte’s work has aged.  Going to Google maps, it appears to have done so surprisingly well: http://maps.google.com/maps?q=Paley+Park,+New+York&hl=en&ll=40.760147,-73.975185&spn=0.000016,0.006856&sll=40.760196,-73.975152&layer=c&cbp=13,38.41,,1,5.58&cbll=40.760194,-73.975301&hnear=Paley+Park,+New+York,+10022&t=h&z=17&vpsrc=0&panoid=HkV7qR60ESOPZlZB2j7YFw  The real question then becomes how do New Yorkers use the park today? Do they triangulate or do they just seek a respite from the urban hustle and bustle?  And this isn’t meant to diminish the design, just to validate its assunmptions.  In reality, any design solution comes with unintended and unaticipated consequences.  This isn’t necessarily bad – there have been many happy accidents – but true “good design” survives the test of time.

     
  16. Don Head says:

    I was able to locate this video via Torrent, as others suggested.  It looks like the company that owns the rights is pursuing avenues to have any public access to the video removed.

    As someone who has had no interest in urban planning and design until discovering this blog a year or so ago, I’ve found this blog (and especially this video) very interesting.  I highly suggest finding a copy and watching it, was definitely worth the trouble to locate it.

     
  17. Don Head says:

    I was able to locate this video via Torrent, as others suggested.  It looks like the company that owns the rights is pursuing avenues to have any public access to the video removed.

    As someone who has had no interest in urban planning and design until discovering this blog a year or so ago, I’ve found this blog (and especially this video) very interesting.  I highly suggest finding a copy and watching it, was definitely worth the trouble to locate it.

     

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