The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces – and its legacy today

If you’re a people-watcher, this film was made for you.

In 1980, William “Holly” Whyte pulled together the research from his Street Life Project to create a book and a film called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Observing people and the way they interact with each other and the space around them was key, he determined, to improving public spaces:

The film provides a fascinating look into the everyday life of a small urban space, and shows the power of observation in human-centred design. Whyte’s book and film became highly influential, inspiring the placemaking movement, and organisations such as Project for Public Spaces (PPS).

PPS Founder and President, Fred Kent, worked on the Street Life Project with Whyte, and explains why the work had such a huge impact on urban design:

The world could see that through the basic tools of observation and interviews, we can learn an immense amount about how to make our cities more livable.

In 2014, urbanist Clarence Eckerson Jr. created a video showing his modern street life videos from around the world, and contrasted them with selected quotes from Whyte’s original film:

It’s an interesting look at how far placemaking has come since Whyte’s original film, and how his findings have transformed urban design. Eckerson Jr. asks:

How might Whyte capture information and present his research in a world which is now more attuned to the importance of public space? What would he appreciate? Are his words still valid?

Professor Keith Hampton also wondered what had changed since Whyte’s Street Life Project. He set up a study from 2008 – 2010, looking at the same places Whyte had studied thirty years before. Hampton noted that “over the past thirty years, Americans have become less socially isolated while using public spaces”,  and that, “consistent with Whyte’s original observations, diverse public spaces are more likely to host diverse forms of engagement”.
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Times may have changed since Whyte’s Street Life Project, but it seems there is still plenty to learn about the social lives of our small urban spaces today. Summing up the on-going relevance of Whyte’s work, the book Focus Producing Places states:

For space, in Whyte’s terms, is always something that is worked upon – and always in the process of becoming place.

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