Monday, December 26, 2016

"The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces: William H. Whyte"

A marvelous video of urban planning applied to plazas and other public spaces:

"The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces: William H. Whyte"

From the Amazon web site on his book which is almost a verbatim version of the movie:

The background to his study was this: following the enormous success of the plaza of Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building in New York in the mid-1950s, the city began to give tax breaks to new buildings that included plazas as part of their design. At the Seagram, people found in the heart of the city a marvelous space in which to congregate, to eat lunch, to sit and talk, and just enjoy a few minutes away from the office. While the idea of providing an incentive to new plaza development was unquestionably a great aim, a small problem developed: many of the new plazas were, unlike that of the Seagram, just dreadful. Cold, austere, people unfriendly, unwelcoming, many of them seemed designed more to keep people away than give them a place to enjoy themselves. This is where Whyte comes in. New York City was concerned with codifying what made a successful plaza, and giving tax breaks based more on the kind of plaza being built, rather than any kind of plaza at all. So, Whyte was charged with discovering precisely what goes into a successful urban space. The results of his exhaustive study are summed up in this brilliant monograph.

Whyte took cameras and began filming all kinds of urban spots in plazas and parks, and on regular sidewalks. As a result of this study, he was able first to analyze how urban spaces work, and secondly on the basis of this make, to make suggestions as to how to make successful spaces. He discusses the enormous value and utility of using fountains or falling water both to provide aesthetic benefits and to create a barrier of white noise between an urban space and the street. He shows the value of having a variety of steps and levels in providing fun places to sit. He allays the fears of those who are afraid that a plaza will attract undesirables by showing that the homeless tend to go where other people are not. He displays the patterns of traffic on sidewalks and the function that street food can play. Whyte comes across not merely as a sophisticated urban planner and social scientist: he is revealed as a visionary.

I think that this ought to be a must-read for anyone with any curiosity about cities and the potential they possess for a vibrant and exciting social life.

One of the pioneers within the documentation of the relationship between public spaces qualities and how people tend to use them. A must for city planners, urban designers and landscape architects!


William H. Whyte was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1917. He joined the staff of Fortune in 1946, after graduating from Princeton University and serving in the Marine Corps. His book The Organization Man (1956), based on his articles about corporate culture and the suburban middle class, sold more than two million copies. Whyte then turned to the topics of sprawl and urban revitalization, and began a distinguished career as a sage of sane development and an advocate of cities. Along with numerous articles and studies, Whyte edited and co-wrote The Exploding Metropolis (1957), and authored Cluster Development (1964), The Last Landscape (1968), The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980), City: Rediscovering the Center (1988), and A Time of War: Remembering Guadalcanal, a Battle Without Maps (2000). He died in 1999.