William Hollingsworth (Holly) Whyte was born in West Chester Pennsylvania, in 1917 and graduated from Princeton University in 1939. He was an American sociologist, urbanist, people watcher, organisational analyst and journalist. After serving in the Marine Corps, he joined Fortune Magazine. He wrote a book titled ‘The Organisation Man’, which was a 1956 bestseller after a future magazine sponsored him to do extensive interviews on the CEOs of various corporations. (Interesting Fact: Whyte coined the term “Groupthink” in 1952).
William H Whyte began to use direct observation to describe behaviour in an urban setting while working with the New York City Planning Commission in 1969. He described urban sustenance objectively and measurably. These observations then developed into what we know as the Street Life Project.
He served as a mentor to many, including Jane Jacob (author: The Death and Life of Great American Cities), Paco Underhill, Dan Beiderman of Bryant Park Corporation and Fred Kent.
The Street Life Project
The beginnings of the book can be traced to the Street Life Project of 1971, which turned into something more with passing time. Initially started as a study of the playgrounds, the project soon included teenage territories. And soon into the contents of this book. The main work of research was conducted by a small band of young and curious observers. The book is a by-product of observations.
Sociologist William H Whyte published his findings of the Street Life Project in 1980 in the form of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. He also published a video documentary in 1988 with the same title as the book, and another follow-up book ‘City: Rediscovering the Centre’.
The small urban spaces include miniparks, plazas and squares, and even the ledges along the street and around the fountain, where people sit and pass the time of day. W H Whyte studies these small urban spaces.
In his book ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’, William H Whyte describes how small urban spaces do and do not work. What gives them life and what kills them. What draws people towards and what keeps them away. And what are the practical lessons in them? Whyte believed and argued that these small urban spaces have a major impact on the quality of life in a city. If those spaces are unattractive people will likely retreat from the city street, and perhaps the city itself.
But if we learn to take advantage of these cities, we can become alive and encourage more people to use them (and smile about it).
What the Book Entails
The book “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” is an observational study. It is concise. It discusses people’s relationship with spaces and how altering these spaces changes that relationship (for the better). Though his observations are made watching the small urban spaces of New York, Whyte’s conclusions and observations are general enough to apply to a wide range of cities across the globe.
He then studies different elements of urban spaces and observes their relationship with the people. He investigates everything, from the idea percentage of sitting space on a plaza (about 6 to 10 percent of total open spaces) to the intricate play of natural elements of sun, wind trees and water, to observing how men and women have different seating patterns and therefore they pick and interacted with these urban space differently. He observed and realised that the most important element that attracted people to these spaces were the people themselves: ‘people attract people’.
Whyte discovered that urban parks are an integral mechanism for stimulating our interaction with the city. They stimulate impulse use by people. Users pause as they pass by, move a step forward, then with a slight acceleration go up the stairs. And so, we also get the intricate science of a mundane element: steps. Steps add a nice ambiguity to movement. The low and easy steps almost pull the people to them.
In another chapter, Whyte considers how music and food almost always attract people to these spaces. Music can enchant the brain and influence our emotions. Musicians entertain people and draw them together. Food attracts people, who then attract more people.
Further, he talks about the problem of urban “undesirables” — the drunk, drug dealer, etc. He says that the preoccupation with undesirables is a symptom of another problem. Here too Whyte’s findings debunk the traditional wisdom, he states that the best way to counter the problem of undesirables is to make the place attractive for everyone else. The way people use a space mirrors expectations.
Some other observations include how the presence of water, flowing (like in a fountain or a river) or stagnant (a pond or a lake) can have different effects on the perception of space. Water is another element that attracts people to these spaces.
The book discusses the spaces, but it does so by studying their interactions with the most important element of the space- the people (users). Though the book was written based on the observation made of small urban spaces in the city of New York the conclusions and insights are general and can be applied to spaces in cities located in different parts of the world.
Whyte not only describes different aspects of a space that attracts people, but he also points out what makes the space unattractive and how it can be changed to alter that same. The book is wholesome, it not only considers different types of elements but the observations and remarks made also help as a guide for designing these spaces.
- Medium. 2021. Book review: The Social Life of Small Urban Places by William H. Whyte. [online] Available at: <https://uxdesign.cc/book-review-the-social-life-of-small-urban-places-by-william-h-whyte-5d03a3e0b267> [Accessed 10 June 2021].
- En.wikipedia.org. 2021. William H. Whyte – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_H._Whyte> [Accessed 10 June 2021].
- Popova, M., 2021. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. [online] Brain Pickings. Available at: <https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/08/22/the-social-life-of-small-urban-spaces-whyte/> [Accessed 10 June 2021].