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The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

4.30  ·  Rating details ·  735 ratings  ·  40 reviews
In 1980, William H. Whyte published the findings from his revolutionary Street Life Project in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Both the book and the accompanying film were instantly labeled classics, and launched a mini-revolution in the planning and study of public spaces. They have since become standard texts, and appear on syllabi and reading lists in urban plann ...more
Paperback, 125 pages
Published January 31st 1980 by Ingram (first published 1980)
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Jan 27, 2008 rated it really liked it
I'm pretty sure this is just a transcription of the film. That being true, you're better off spending an hour watching it on the tube, where Whyte's humor and insight are a bit more charming and biting. ...more
Oct 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: urbanology
Although Whyte's Social Life of Small Urban Spaces was first published in 1980, this book doesn't feel dated at all, reading it some 30 years later. (The exception is the appendix with Whyte's tips on conducting time lapse filming). Just as Simon Garfield's made me take a closer look at the fonts around me, Whyte's book made me look more critically at the urban spaces around me - the plazas, the street corners, the atriums - and to think about whether these were good public spaces or no and what ...more
Dec 21, 2007 rated it it was amazing
the accompanying documentary is a classic, endearing black and white film about how people interact with structures and public space in cities. both film and book are wonderful.
Michael Siliski
Aug 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A fantastic short read on how the design of small urban plazas and parks impacts use. Based on actual in-the-field observations, both quantifiable and subjective, of how people use these spaces (primarily in New York City) in the 70s. This was a time when NYC was associated with "dirt, decay, grime, and fiscal crisis," as noted in the foreward. "Smiles? Why should people on New York streets be smiling?"

Written with insight and humor, and nicely illustrated with photos.

Some learnings:
* People don
Ruxandra Mindru
May 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Eye opening in every way, a brilliant book about the places that make our lives better without us ever noticing how
Jeremy Versaico
Mar 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A revolutionary book from when it was written, and maintains its relevance today with its key findings on what makes small urban spaces great.
Jul 28, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: architecture
Really interesting material, but the format of this book (photos and long paragraphs) makes it tough to pick out the important points.
Aug 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
Clever study, appropriately humble conclusions.
Jun 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
Truly one of the greats of urban planning, I loved this pivotal look at how you study public space and what you learn from the practice.

Not that it's scintillating reading.

Instead it is steady and deep, and based on actual observation. For instance, their study of the spaces that are most used and where most people sit, after sifting all the evidence they find the one common variable is:
People tend to sit where there are most places to sit.

This may not strike you as an intellectual bombshell, an
Sep 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
The beginning of this book was a bit of a slog. Most of it in fact seemed to contradict itself on it's own theory. However, the author is being quite honest about what they thought would work and what actually worked. Without that type of introduction I think readers are more likely to dismiss the findings revealed in the rest of the book. I read this in two chunks (assigned by a grad school art and social practice course) and the division (at page 65) makes a lot of sense. Once you read the pre ...more
Charles Denison IV
Jun 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An easy read about a study of urban plazas in NYC in 1980. Contains many interesting observations and lessons about what makes plazas and open spaces appealing for people who want to sit and linger and what doesn't. These lessons are just as relevant today as they were back then. Also contains some good tips about how observe and measure the use of public spaces yourself. ...more
Jeff Wachter
Nov 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Really important read for anyone interested in community and urban spaces, and anyone who impacts how cities are shaped - politicians, urban planners, urbanists, community developers, real estate professionals, architects, and more.
Ziyad Hasanin
Dec 02, 2017 rated it liked it
As much as I were somehow astonished, as much as I am reminded of the "hindsight effect" in psychology, when reading this book. However I guess it has to be retested in several other cities as well, for maybe we may find a universal pattern in some sense, and perhaps that may interest me personally ...more
Dec 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Pretty interesting insights into plazas in dense areas of cities (downtowns). Revolutionary at the time and remains quite creative and clever. Injected with humor and sass, personality which keeps the reading from getting too dry. Pretty small text - quick read.
Feb 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Good, quick read. Boils down the essential elements to a successful, well-designed public space, supported with examples and actual research on the topic. Easy to read, lots of useful pictures, and very informative.
Kaden Beilman
Dec 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
you'll never look at public spaces the same. whyte provides useful information which has remained mostly true into the early 21st century. the supplemental film is a must watch. a bit snarky at times. to be expected. ...more
Robert S
Nov 05, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: urban-planning
Landmark piece of work about our public spaces. Quick afternoon read.
Feb 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
this book is very helpfull for my thesis thank u soo much
Some really good info but a little dated.
Oct 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A very good view on the small public spaces in urban areas, alongwith some suggestions and praises here and there.
Jan 17, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating, quick read on the ways that our built environment has a mediating effect on social engagements.
Jan 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
Very interesting information about how the spaces can drive such different behaviors. Worth the read, even if just for the super dated language and photos.
May 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
picked it up and put it down, flipped through it. wasn't hard to read, i just read it slowly.

His insight into cities and street life is wonderful. then he goes and catalogs it and backs up the observations with data. The book is old-so it is amazing to me that so much poorly thought design and policy still is out there, but oh well.

I like this quote, "It is significant that the cities doing best by their downtowns are the ones doing best at historic preservation and reuse. fine old buildings ar
Mar 09, 2011 rated it liked it
Observing people in plazas in Manhattan to understand which aspects of plaza design (think benches, steps, water features, food vendors) make a place successful and which do not. Whyte equates usage with sucess when it comes to public spaces. He uses time lapse photography and direct observations. He makes some concrete findings: where pedestrian flows cut across a sittable space is precisely where most people will try to sit; people tend to self-level crowding so overuse should be much less of ...more
Derrick Connell
Dec 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
I loved this little book. I found it very interesting to understand the data and dynamics of how urban spaces are created - what works, what doesn't work, why and the data was fascinating. As an interesting tidbit, my son noticed I was reading this book on a Saturday morning and asked what it was - he is 12 and didn't seem interested (to put it mildly). Anyhow, later that day we were driving to Gregg's bike store in Bellevue and he mentioned that there were a lot of new skyscrapers and wondered ...more
Edward Flaherty
Jun 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: landscape
The book is summarized in Whyte's video of the same name, available on Vimeo. The work was done in the 1970s. The lessons about the need for seating, mixed use streets, sunlight, food vendors, water, trees and events still hold for Western culture city streets and plazas today.

Most amazing in the film, you can see in plazas and streets across the US, north, south, east and west, a diversity of races and cultures sharing the streets and plazas. What has happened, the question of 2013 needs to be
Some of the information is fascinating, essentially covering the actions of idle people in urban settings and how open space can be designed to influence their behavior; other information is a bit dull or outdated (e.g. the romanticizing of street performers, the photos).

The underlying question of the book (feels like anyways), can cats be herded? Turns out, with proper design, we can.

Given its length (i.e. short), it seems worth the time for anyone with either a passing interest in sociology o
Sep 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
Wonderful book, written with a wry sense of humor, about a data-driven study of how people use public spaces. It identifies the elements that make for a well-used and loved outdoor public space. What's interesting is how it opens your eyes to seeing how the makers of plazas tend not to have the same priorities as pedestrians and public-space users, and how that is exemplified when they build these spaces. ...more
Apr 04, 2007 rated it it was amazing
the photos are really outdated, but the info is really interesting...all about why people are attracted to some places and avoid others. who would have thought that the width of stairs or too few rays of sunlight would deter people from using certain spaces?
LandscapeArchitect Books
Recommended by Tom Turner - author of 'Garden History: Philosophy and Design 2000 BC - 2000 AD' - as one of forty books which - he suggests - every landscape student should have seen. Thanks to the Landscape Information Hub UK. ...more
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William Hollingsworth "Holly" Whyte (1917 - 12 January 1999) was an American urbanist, organizational analyst, journalist and people-watcher.

Whyte was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania and died in New York City in 1999. An early graduate of St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware, he graduated from Princeton University and then served in Marine Corps. In 1946 he joined Fortune magazine.

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