Revisiting ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’

William H. Whyte was ‘an American urbanist, organizational analyst, journalist and people-watcher.’  You’ve likely heard the oft quoted line, “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” That was William H. Whyte.

In the 1970’s, Whyte assembled a group of researchers and filmmakers to apply academies of cultural anthropology to modern urbanites and the way they interact with each other in metropolitan space. His team recorded gender, age, weather, time of day, time of year, temperature, body language, types of conversation, mimicking behavior  – and all the various ways fountains, chairs, stair case size, railing shape, and bench height effect all manner of human behavior.

Screen shot 2013-10-30 at 2.29.15 AMSeagram Square, a successful urban gathering place.

Within the produced film, Whyte offers astute conclusions drawn from the exhausting volumes of data his team collected. The analysis is shocking in its commonality. People abhor wide open space, moving across them quickly to get to somewhere else – yet people love to linger in small spaces, nooks, alcoves – nestled closely regardless of whether they’re familiar with one another. Most predominantly, people really like to sit down.

Screen shot 2013-10-30 at 2.35.23 AMData. Must have data.

When finally released in 1988, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces connected the way we use large public squares vs. intimate, carved out personal spaces and their relation to street life. Often such hide-aways were called ‘sanctuaries from the city‘, but Whyte disagreed, rightly illustrating how such places are intrinsically linked to passing pedestrians, many of whom stumble upon these spaces by happenstance. After all, why would anyone live in the concrete jungle if not to encounter the unexpected?

Whyte also contrasts several superbly successful public spaces and their distinct details to oppressive, deadening walls in places like Los Angeles, Houston, and Detroit. The difference is alarming. Revealed is a previously invisible injustice imposed upon those unfortunate enough to live or work on such streets. Remarks Whyte, “Have you ever seen a more brutal rejection of the street?

Screen shot 2013-10-30 at 2.30.14 AMGood relationship with the street? Not so much.

Perhaps my favorite point made in the film is one I’ve been remarking on for years. People drive thousands of miles to visit Walt Disneyland, then park their cars amidst an ocean of asphalt to then pay to walk compact, car-free streets with shops designed to spawn interaction and generate activity. Such a perversion of good urbanism has been obvious for decades, yet we are still building more soul-deadening strip malls in cities like my home town of Lansing while failing to properly retool downtowns to accommodate people walking and cycling.

Alright, my other favorite moment is a critique of the ‘new Ira Keller Fountain, likely the best public space in all of downtown Portland. Whyte describes the fountain as “designed to be dangerous“, however, time has proven this flowing water park to be highly popular over the decades. I’ve always felt the sense of danger was precisely what people loved about this fountain, where children can wade up to the edge of the falls and watch the rushing water below.

Finally, and most importantly, is how Whyte dispels the myth of the ‘undesirable’, aka the homeless. It is these types that developers loathe, and you can see their contempt in the way they build spaces without anywhere to sit down specifically to deny poor people looking for a place to rest. Narrates Whyte, “It is for fear of them that spikes are put on ledges, that benches are made too short to sleep on. Most often, they are to be found where other people are not. In actual fact, these people are harmless and often very well behaved.

Whyte closes by admitting all the lessons learned from high-end, over-planned squares wedged between towering financial districts could have been more easily learned on the gritty, disordered streets of Harlem. Closes Whyte, “There are lots of people, lots of food. The street is the Number 1 area for recreation. This block has its problems, but it works as a place.

If you’ve previously only viewed portions of this amazing film, I highly recommend screening it in its entirety. The lessons it teaches are astonishingly simple, yet imperative and sublime.

See you in the streets.


The street is the river of life for the city. We come here not to escape them, but to partake them.

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  1. Thanks for this review. I watched this film about a year ago, and upon seeing it was 50 minutes long I thought I’d probably only last 5 minutes or so before getting bored. But I couldn’t stop watching – aside from all the points you mention it has a wonderful “fly on the wall” quality.

    Great film.

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