William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (The Conservation Foundation, 1980)
Reissued in paperback by Project for Public Spaces, Inc. in 2001
Social Life is a preview of results from Whyte's Street Life Project, a study of the rituals of urban behavior further chronicled in 1989's City: Rediscovering the Center. As a "manual" that focuses on "spaces that work, don't work, and the reasons why," Whyte's research is comprehensive: he discusses sitting space and climate conditions as well as indoor spaces and spaces for small cities. The book is half research report and half policy memo, approaches reinforced by Social Life's two appendices: one detailing the scientific method of time-lapse filming, the other describing New York's open-space zoning provisions (at least partially informed by the findings of Whyte's team).
The book, which clocks in at just a little over 100 pages, is written in prose plain enough for the layperson to understand and is illustrated throughout with illuminating, if dated, black-and-white photographs. At one point, in arguing for street-level urban spaces, Whyte captions a photograph with the direct advisory: "The sunken plaza of 1633 Broadway. Don't." (Whyte also created a 55-minute companion film to the book, released under the same title.)
What makes Whyte's report, based on research conducted throughout the decade preceding its publication, valuable to city planners and generally curious readers in this millennium? Although many of the plazas and other locations he cites as examples have understandably changed over time, Whyte's observations of the behavioral patterns of people in public spaces are reflections of the nature of human beings as social creatures. Therefore, the book should interest not only the zoning official or the urban developer but the sociologist as well. Underlying all the bench depth measurements and charts for number of people per square foot of public space are the simple documentations of human behavior: the mini-ethnographies of groups like the "girl watchers," camped out in the front row of the sidewalk-cum-catwalk, and the descriptions of debate regarding "undesirables," a caste that includes drug dealers, the homeless, and teenagers.
Whyte, who died in 1999 and wrote the classic "The Organization Man," was once an editor of Fortune who enjoyed a second career as a researcher and writer interested in urban conservation. He frequently warned against overdevelopment, from megastructures like fortress-like malls to immovable chairs in plazas. Whyte urged city planners to celebrate urban gatherings, not to discourage them. His belief about the public's reaction to urban spaces can be summed up in his concluding remarks in Social Life: "People have a nice sense of the number that is right for a place, and it is they who determine how many is too many. They do not, furthermore, seek to get away from it all. ... They go [to urban spaces] by choice –– not to escape the city, but to partake of it." Whyte's body of work saves itself from irrelevance by weaving such timeless philosophies with his practical advice –– much of which has already been taken to heart.
Website for Project for Public Spaces, which lists Whyte as the organization’s mentor
Jan. 13, 1999 New York Times obituary for Whyte
Collection of articles discussing Whyte’s view of downtowns