Urban spaces have often been studied to understand various things that help city planning and patterns of public movement. This 1980’s documentary by William H. Whyte explores urban spaces in a new way. The documentary starts with the narrator talking about the urban space in front of the Seagram’s building in New York. 

The timelapse of the square in front of the Seagram’s building shows how the sun determines where the people would stop and sit. The Seagram’s plaza had become a popular public space and the people of ‘The street life project’ group wanted to understand why and understand other kinds of city spaces. The entire documentary covers the urban open spaces of New York City. 

Documentary in Focus: Social Life of Small Urban Spaces- 1980
©mutlu kent

The documentary moves from a timelapse of the Seagram’s tower to 101 street in east Harlem where we see that most of the activity is around spaces where there were people selling food. A study on one of the play areas in this part of town was about how they thought there was the overuse of the play areas and then realized that compared to urban spaces there was underuse of these spaces. Most office buildings in this part of the world had been given bonuses if the office buildings provided a plaza which gave them the provision of adding more floors. The documentary aimed to come up with guidelines for the New York City Planning committee to incorporate in building the city. The case of the Seagram building plaza is closely studied through this documentary. They managed to install various time-lapse cameras showing a section of the plaza which helped monitor the movement of people. The main technique is making maps and doing this through physical surveying of the spaces. The mapping brings out a highly diverse range of activities that occur in these public spaces. From reading to eating, playing games, etc. 

The narrator of the documentary goes on to talk about how people rarely stop and talk to people at the center of the plaza and always look for edges or move towards the edge. The most used plazas are the ones that encourage people to sit in 2’s and 3’s and the most sociable plaza are the ones that help people to sit even alone. The number one activity is that of looking at other people as noted by the survey. The fact that we see more people in a public space gives an opportunity to interact with these people. Public spaces in this part of the world also have the chance for couples to engage romantically. These are usually done on the edge of the street or at corners. 

The Seagram’s square has a water body that has a ledge to avoid people to step into the water body, however, this isn’t narrow enough to discourage users from it.  The water also becomes a space for unruly behavior. The use of trees in public spaces is a great way to provide shade and also make people sit under the tree whilst looking at the center of the square. The documentary further talks about how trees give a scene of a cafe. At another office square, that connects to the subway stairs and the road, it is found that people stop and talk to other people at the start of the stairs of the subway or at the corner of the street. 

The documentary further shows maps that talk about the nature of making the urban spaces and how sometimes they prevent people from front engaging. For e.g., tapered plinths for making it uncomfortable to sit, high plinths that do not allow people to sit, some even go to the extent of putting up pointed metal strips or rocks. Although these are made to avoid people from sitting, it was found that people improvise and sit anyway adapting to the obstacle placed. The documentary spoke about various failed attempts of creating public spaces where there are huge blank walls facing the roads, do not allow any kind of interaction with the space, while there are some squares that stand in a shade, with many trees that bring people walking on the street towards the space. 

The documentary talks about a space between office buildings that lacked public activity and a few changes like planting trees and bringing in cafes in the square encouraged people to use the space. Some large spaces have also used various art installations and sculptures that become more scalable to the people to interact around. These also often become spaces for people to click photographs. The narrator also talks about water as an element and how sometimes the restriction of touching the water adds to the inefficiency of the usability of that space. 

While some of the water bodies are accessible they also become very slippery making the people vary of approaching the space. he documentary finally breaks down the entire sequence of the events as:

  1.   Sitting space
  2.   Street
  3.   Sun
  4.   Food
  5.   Water
  6.     Trees.

These are some things that help in establishing that the space is efficient and usable to everyone. Public spaces are difficult to design and yet provide immense opportunity to interact with people from various backgrounds and walks of life. 


Sreenidhi is a young architect learning to combine the knowledge of architecture with writing. She is a pass out from Institute of Architecture and Planning, Nirma University and has varied interests in the field of Architecture. Her primary interests revolve around sustainable design techniques and the relationship between cinema and architecture.

Write A Comment