The pioneering 'Social Life of Small Urban Spaces' explores public plazas and their uses

Probably one of the most well-regarded films about urban planning is now available online in its entirety. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, a 1979 documentary by William H.  “Holly” Whyte, explores the successes and failures of public spaces in New York City. It was made as part of a research effort spearheaded by The Street Life Project in conjunction with the Municipal Art Society of New York.

Whyte had contributed to the city’s comprehensive plan in 1969, and became interested in how the city governed public space usage as a result. Through the film and an accompanying book, Whyte and his team chose a variety of public spaces like plazas, streetscapes, playgrounds, even entire neighborhoods like Harlem, and set about observing and recording how and why people use them:

“With a time-lapse camera, we were testing a hypothesis. The sun, we were pretty sure, would be the chief factor in determining where people would sit or not sit,” Whyte narrates in an early segment of the film focused on the plaza of the Seagram Building in Manhattan. “Now, just after 12, they begin to sit... right where the sun is. I was enormously pleased. What a perfectly splendid correlation.”

The film looks specifically at floor-space bonuses given to builders in return for creating plazas or, as the video calls them, “empty, dreary spaces.” The results of their research were included in new zoning rules for the city, mainly intended to make sure future public plazas like these were less dreary and better used.

There’s a cool map at about 11:10 showing where in the plaza people tended to stop to talk. And at about the 20-minute mark, there's a fascinating section on people's tendency to move movable chairs – often so slight as to seem pointless, but also pretty humorous to watch.

Whyte also casts his critical eye beyond New York, with some burns on the Renaissance Center in Detroit and parts of Downtown L.A. It also examines the then-problematic Bryant Park in Manhattan, and looks at a number of successes in San Antonio, Toronto, Seattle, and Lansing, among others.

The film is visibly dated, but it’s still very relevant to cities, New York and beyond. Its focus is essentially on human nature. But by looking closely at how human nature interacts with and responds to the built environment, the film shows how city planners and designers can encourage and allow the creation of spaces people will actually want to use.

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