William H. Whyte: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1979) Short Version | Planum Magazine, Movies Column no.6 from Planum. The Journal of Urbanism on Vimeo.

In 1970, legendary urbanist and professional people-watcher William “Holly” Whyte formed a small, revolutionary research group called The Street Life project and began investigating the curious dynamics of urban spaces. At the time, such anthropological observation had been applied to the study of indigenous cultures in far-off exotic locales, but not to our most immediate, most immersive environment: the city, which hides extraordinary miracles of ordinary life, if only we know how to look for them. So Whyte and his team began by looking at New York City’s parks, plazas, and various informal recreational areas like city blocks — a total of 16 plazas, 3 small parks, and “a number of odds and ends” — trying to figure out why some city spaces work for people while others don’t, and what the practical implications might be about living better, more joyful lives in our urban environment. Their findings were eventually collected in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in 1980 and synthesized in a 55-minute companion film, which you can watch above for some remarkably counterintuitive insights on the living fabric of the city.

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