comment 0

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

“It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” -William Whyte

In 1980, the sociologist and urbanist William Whyte published a revolutionary book called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

The ambition was to discover why some urban plazas are successful and why many others fail. And to do that, he went out and studied urban plazas throughout New York using video and simple observation, such as head counting.

His work has been hugely influential for architects, designers, and other urbanists. But if you think about how often we fail at creating urban spaces that actually attract people, I think it’s worthwhile revising what Whyte discovered way back in the 70s and 80s.

Some of the principles – such as providing places to sit – are dead simple and intuitive. But again, a lot of urban spaces suck. So we’re clearly not doing it.

The other thing I feel we often forget is that it’s not just the space itself that matters, it’s also the urban fabric around it. The Seagram Building in New York plays a central role in Whyte’s work as an example of a successful urban plaza. 

But we can’t forget that Mies van der Rohe’s simple gesture of setting the tower back from the street is strengthened by the remaining urban fabric and the activity along Park Avenue. The plaza acts as a kind of release.

Alongside the book, Whyte also published a 60 minute video. If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend you watch it when you get a chance. Click here if you can’t see the video below.

To close out this post, I thought it would be fun if everyone shared their favorite public urban space in the comment section. It can be in your city or it could just be a place you’ve visited.

To kick things off, I’m going to go with with a space that’s close to home: Berczy Park. It has lots of places to sit, including movable chairs. There’s a great water feature. And it’s well connected to the rest of the area and surrounding streets. I often sit there during lunch or when I just want to think.

It’s also in the midst of a revitalization and I’m excited to see that come together.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s