Critiquing the Critic: William H. Whyte’s “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”

Okay, so this is less of a critique and more of a brief overview of the  film that originally accompanied a publication by William H. Whyte entitled The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. This was both a scholarly study and design critique of public spaces commissioned by The Municipal Art Society of New York. Released in 1980, the ideas and findings from this study where then distilled and incorporated into the New York City’s zoning resolutions soon after.

Before I get into the details of the film I’d like to point out the value in terms pure entertainment through Whyte’s witty dialogue and of sheer nostalgia for New York City as this film documents various spaces in the city that have changed so much over time from “a place that is dangerous, Bryant Park in the middle of New York” (not anymore!). Also there are great shots of Lawrence Halprin’s “Ira Keller Fountain” in Portland, OR and the adventure playground in NYC at the beginning of the film with dirt and mud and kids wielding hammers and such, I can only imagine what parents, the public and the government would say about places like these today since parks like this have been ruled out of existence. Other amusing things documented are people drinking on the streets of NYC (did the city used to allow open containers?) the food cart and buskers being hassled by the man and the children busting tables at an outdoor cafe.

In the study Mr. Whyte and his research group, The Street life Project, identified several key amenities that make or break public spaces. I’m gonna run through these very quickly to give you an idea of what is talked about. But, if you are a designer, or aspiring designer, I encourage you to watch this 59 minute film in it’s entirety. Although I must admit to never reading the entire book, I’m sure it would be worth the time as well.



“People tend to sit where there are places to sit.” Minimum suggested requirement, “One linear foot of sitting space per 30 square feet.”  Movable seating is good. “Make the most of ledges, especially the front row.” “Make benches two back sides deep,” not so much to increase capacity but to provide more choice. Planters make good seating they should be low and hospitable. 

STREET (22:04): “The most importance thing about a space is it’s relationship to the street.” Street life is what brings activity to places. The street corner is an important social space where many interactions take place, hellos, good-byes, impromptu encounters. It is a mistake to design streets only for cars, they should include shops, windows, doors and pedestrians. Elevated and sunken plazas often suffer from their isolation from the street. Many popular sunken plazas act as a stage for street level pedestrians to gather and people watch. Plazas should be no more than 3′ below or above street level.

SUN (31:38): Most important in nippy weather, infrared heaters and windscreens also help in these conditions. Although not  the major factor for plaza use during warmer months, people do love the sun and tend to congregate in sunny areas. Southern exposure is not in fact a requirement for successful places, but proper lighting does seem to have a profound effect. Buildings block the sun in some spaces but, in the process, reflect light to others. 

FOOD (38:31): “If you want to seed a place with activity, put in food.” Food vendors often perform a social function, often they are the mayors” of a space. People eating usually attract far more people.

WATER (34:07):


White sound masks other more irritating noises like others conversations and traffic. Water is good to look at but should also be accessible and usable.

TREES (37:32): “Microclimate, shade, trans-evaporation, cooling beauty, so forth” Reducing glare. Planted in small groves quite close together creating a canopy with a bit of a cave-y feeling.



“That characteristic of a public space that can bring people together, strangers. It’s usually an external stimulus of some kind, could be an external feature or a happening.” Street performers (mines, magicians, musicians), police activity (extreme example), public/street art installations and street level windows into buildings with something to look at and comment on.


One other very important factor that stuck out in my mind was the presence of “mayors” playing an important role in making places great. Whyte’s reference to a “mayor” of a space is very attuned to Jane Jacob’s idea of the “public character” who takes on additional voluntarily responsibilities and provides services that someone like a doorman or security guard would do for a building. thus generally encouraging polite and civil exchanges in public places they inhabit.

Retail frontage: “At least 50% of the buildings frontage must be for retail activity. Not just banks or blank walls.”

Universal access: “Ramps, easy steps and in fact better access for everyone.”

Scale is mentioned as it can make or break a space. The virtually empty (at the time) mall in Riverside, California (which is low density to begin with) could have benefited by clustering shops and creating a “critical mass” for people to come together and congregate about. 

Location, although the “very center of town” is likely built out in most places it remains true that this would logically be the most active area of a city and should be given to the people in the form well of designed, public space.

The undesirable and other odd people. In all reality most vagrants are well behaved and harmless, often times they perform public services such as picking up litter. Weirdos perform the very important function “of reassuring the rest of us of our own normality.”

One thing that Whyte only touches upon is the multiple users and daily rhythms of a spaces. He talks about the odd folks that inhabit Los Angeles’s Pershing Square in the mornings, he adds that businessmen will join them with their lunch bags around noon and they will all coexist peacefully. This idea of a place being inhabited by different users at different times is important for the success of spaces. In her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs goes into great detail about the ebb and flow of places (neighborhood parks in particular), and how in the very early morning, these places see people leaving their homes to go to work, soon to be followed by others getting to work from their homes. Around mid-morning, homemakers come out to run errands, then again to let children play in the park. As they go home to prepare and eat lunch others leave work to enjoy lunch in the park. After lunch the children return to play some more until their mothers have to return home and prepare dinner. It is noted that blue collar homemakers do this earlier than white collar families due to differing work hours and availability of domestic helpers. As evening rolls around, people leaving work and returning home crisscross the park. Diners and restaurants become activated on the outskirts and walkers take leisure in the park. Then as night comes, a theater and pubs keep some in the area. The late night hours see the fewest occupants but since the park is active most of the day and there are still plenty of eyes on the street (or in this case, park), troublemakers generally stay away.

I should say that I’ve only live in NYC for nine months now. This may not be long enough for me to be an expert on the city but I do have my opinions. Although I would like to see more of these ideas applied to subway platforms, I would say that parks and public spaces overall have been well informed by these ideas, as you may expect since many of these principles where codified into the zoning laws after the study was conducted.

Thank you Andrew Spiering of Land8Lounge for reinvigorating discussion of this classic film by reposting Chris Woebken‘s whyte styles on Vimeo.

watch the video: or


One thought on “Critiquing the Critic: William H. Whyte’s “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”

  1. Another oldie but goodie:In 1986, CIVITAS initiated a study, No More Tall Stories, which makes the case for lower buildings, with the same heights as their neighbors, and elimination of plazas along Upper East Side avenues. Paul Newman narrates the video illustrating the issue. For more information about this and other CIVITAS initiatives, visit our website: http://www.civitasnyc.org‘m not supremely knowledgeable about the UES but my have to do a little study and see if this video had any impact…

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