• Urban Cosmography

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, by William H. Whyte

Human behavior in urban settings

Certain urban spaces work and others don't. Some attract people and others keep them out. Why? William H. Whyte answers these questions in his manual The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, the result of a nine-year observation on New York City public spaces during the 70s. As he is able to prove, the importance of small urban spaces is rather big in terms of the quality of life within cities.

Why should people on New York streets be smiling?

Although in transformation, The New York of the 70s wasn't the cutting-edge metropolis that we know now, but rather a place of crime, dirt, decay, financial crisis, a city going under. Still, there were places in Manhattan that made people smile, where people would sit and pass the time.

In 1970, the American urbanist William H. Whyte formed a research group called The Street Life Project and began observing New York City playgrounds and street corners. Why do children play in the street if they have playgrounds? The study focus was then extended to public venues and plazas with the aim of describing people's choices in urban spaces in an objective and measurable way.

Direct observation

First-hand observation, both in person and using a camera as a research tool, constituted an empirical methodology to collect data and later convert them into analytical assessments. Talking to people, taking photographs, video tapes and precise measurings on site gave back a rich set of information which is precious for urban planning. In this case, it represented the base for the 1975 Zoning Amendments of the city of New York.

Around that time, direct observation of urban public spaces was quite a new field. Utilized in Europe by Jan and Ingrid Gehl with their studies of people in Italy in 1965, it became a consistent methodology for North American cities thanks to the work of Whyte.

1. Sitting space as a prerequisite

Two or more squares which are comparable in terms of accessibility, pedestrian flows, size, aesthetics, sun factor, etc., can still present a very different amount of people staying there at the peak time. The reason is the availability of sitting space.

No matter any other variable, the most used urban spaces are those where people can sit comfortably. The comfort, though, is primarily a social comfort: encourage the choice of where to sit as well as the possibility of small movements allow to express civility when sociality occurs.

For example, a few centimeters more can make a ledge sittable by two sides, with more people sitting without feeling crowded. For the same reason, providing movable chairs, as opposed to fixed benches, will work out better. As it appears throughout the book: good urban design is always in the details.

The possibility of choice is as important as the exercise of it. If you know you can move if you want to, you feel more comfortable staying put.

2. Sun, wind, trees and water

People seek the contact with the outside: a spot under the sun, the breeze, the shimmering shadings of foliages, the sound of water flowing. Well-designed public spaces facilitate these contacts and avoid sharp environmental differences between the inside and outside of buildings. Architectural and urban spaces are best when they tend to blend into one another. Encouraging the in-betweens, through semi open or covered areas, and smoothing back-and-forth flows have the positive effect of extending in time the life of urban areas. And make them feel very comfortable.

3. Intuitive intelligence

Will providing choice and comfort eventually saturate the space? How many people is too many people?

Rituals, encounters, meetings, gestures, good-byes. The behaviour of ordinary people in the streets and public space is not random as it might seem. In fact, one of the most striking results of the study conducted by Whyte was the emerging of people's intuitive intelligence when it comes to seek comfort.

The analysis of a day of sitting at the Seagram plaza proved that, in free-choice situations, the effective capacity of the area tended to be self-regulating. Even in high-density places, more amenities, more sitting spaces will not bring the carrying capacity to chaos, because people are very efficient in the use of the space through spontaneous turnovers.

Underuse, not overuse, is the major problem.

4. People attract people

Space per se doesn't attract people, it's people that do so. In open areas, individuals won't uniformly occupy the space available, they will cluster. This is an important lesson in space use, for instance, when putting out food (a great aggregator by no surprise). Instead of distributing food facilities over the large space, it is advisable to concentrate them so that pedestrian fluxes intensify, encounters are made possible, so are conversations, and eventually the space is a great success.

5. The triangulation

There are certain factors that provide a linkage between strangers and prompt them to talk to each other. These elements establish a triangulation, another key factor for a place to work. Street characters, performers, but also physical objects or particular views should all be taken into account in the design and maintenance of public spaces as ways to open conversations, bond people and draw crowds. We can make places friendlier through organic exchanges.

Why not invite entertainers onto a plaza instead of banning them?

6. Design with trust

As social behavior and choices were at the center of the study, the final take-away from this book is to consider the human factor by designing public spaces with trust.

Spaces that exclude somebody will eventually keep out everyone. In contract, inclusive spaces are safer thanks to the dynamic, social, control of the people populating them.

Spaces designed to be defensive, where natural elements are out of reach for "safety reasons", where equipments are withdrawn for the fear of damages and where hostile measures discourage the use of the public space, will only result to be emptier and considerably less safe.

Places designed with distrust get what they were looking for.

Helping people to partake the city and allowing them to experience the urban life means ensuring the survival by cultivating emotional satisfaction. Ultimately, it creates healthier communities. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces confirms that for public spaces supply creates demand: a rich and good provision of them stimulates new habits and therefore encourage further use.

#NewYork #public #spaces


William H. Whyte, The Socia Life of Small Urban Spaces, The Conservation Foundation Washington, D.C., 1980

Project for Public Spaces, Sittwalls ledges & steps, 2008

All images in this article are digitalized from the book.


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