The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

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This highly influential film in architecture and planning circles by William H. Whyte analyzes the success and failures of urban spaces. Observing the natural order of spaces and the way people move through them, Whyte provides an intuitive critique of urban spaces and ways these spaces can be improved. Check out this classic study of public places after the jump!

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces: William H. Whyte from Nelly Oli on Vimeo.

Whyte is easily one of the most influential thinkers of the New Urbanist and Public Spaces movements.  Not only did he observe and write many of the foundational documents that describe street vibrancy, but his effect has been magnified by his protege, Amanda Burden, the most important planner of New York City since Robert Moses.

William Hollingsworth "Holly" Whyte was an American urbanist, organizational analyst, journalist and people-watcher. After his book about corporate culture The Organization Man (1956) which sold over two million copies, Whyte turned his attention to the study of human behaviour in urban settings. He published several books on the topic, including The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980).

Whyte was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1917. An early graduate of St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware, he graduated from Princeton University in 1939 and then served in Marine Corps between 1941-45. In 1946 he joined Fortune magazine where he remained until 1958.[2]

In 1952, Whyte coined the term "Groupthink":[3] Groupthink being a coinage - and, admittedly, a loaded one - a working definition is in order. We are not talking about mere instinctive conformity - it is, after all, a perennial failing of mankind. What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity - an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.

Whyte wrote a 1956 bestseller titled The Organization Man[4] after Fortune Magazine sponsored him to do extensive interviews on the CEOs of corporations such as General Electric and Ford.

While working with the New York City Planning Commission in 1969, Whyte began to use direct observation to describe behavior in urban settings. With research assistants wielding still cameras, movie cameras, and notebooks, Whyte described the substance of urban public life in an objective and measurable way.

These observations developed into the "Street Life Project", an ongoing study of pedestrian behavior and city dynamics, and eventually to Whyte's book called City: Rediscovering the Center (1988). "City" presents Whyte's conclusions about jaywalking, 'schmoozing patterns,' the actual use of urban plazas, appropriate sidewalk width, and other issues. This work remains valuable because it is based on careful observation, and because it contradicts other conventional wisdom, for instance, the idea that pedestrian traffic and auto traffic should be separated.

Whyte along with Project for Public Spaces worked closely on the renovation of Bryant Park in New York City.

Whyte served as mentor to many, including the urban-planning writer Jane Jacobs, Paco Underhill, who has applied the same technique to measuring and improving retail environments, Dan Biederman of Bryant Park Corporation, who led the renovation of Bryant Park and the Business Improvement District movement in New York City, and Fred Kent, who worked with Whyte for a number of years before starting Project for Public Spaces.

His other books include: Is Anybody Listening? (1952), Securing Open Spaces for Urban America (1959), Cluster Development (1964), The Last Landscape (1968; "about the way metropolitan areas look and the way they might look"), The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980; plus a companion film of the same name), and City: Rediscovering the Center (1988).