Given the fact that the Municipal Art Society released the remarkable study entitled The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in 1979, this film review is somewhat late. The clothing and hairstyles of the people featured in the film may seem dated, but the ideas put forth by William H. Whyte, a pioneer in the study of human behavior in urban settings, are far from passé. For any student of urbanism, it is required viewing.
The film grew out of the Street Life Project and Whyte’s earlier work for the New York City Planning Commission, which sought to determine why some urban plazas were successful as public spaces while others were not. Narrated by Whyte with wry humor and a keen and observant eye, the film begins at the plaza of the iconic Seagram Building completed in 1958. The success of this plaza became the basis for the New York City zoning provisions that provided for greater density for office buildings in exchange for the building of “public” plazas. Although most of the plazas built under these 1961 zoning regulations failed as public spaces, the Seagram Plaza bucked the trend and Whyte and his team of researchers wanted to find out why.
The Street Life Project observed and analyzed the interactions and behaviors of people at this and other plazas. A number of key factors were identified for plazas that succeeded as popular gathering spots. First on this list was an abundance of inviting places to sit and relax. Benches, movable chairs, ledges and steps could all provide hospitable seating. Plazas that were devoid of life and activity did not provide such seating. In fact, some private owners of these plazas went out of their way to deter people from sitting altogether by placing spikes on surfaces, designing planters too high for sitting or simply providing no seating at all.
At the end of the film, Whyte stated, “The street is the river of life of the city. They come to these places not to escape but to partake of it.” In fact, the relationship between the street and a plaza is another key element to its success (or failure). As a result of this study, Whyte recommended to the Planning Commission that the zoning regulations limit plazas to no more than three feet above or three feet below street level to allow for visibility and easy access. Typically, plazas that were a full level below the street or one or more stories above street level tended to be vacant spaces that attracted few visitors. The street, of course, is the means of egress to a public plaza or park.
The street is the river of life of the city. They come to these places not to escape but to partake of it.
Their study found that tree canopies, water features, sculptures and food vendors all played a role in attracting people to urban plazas and parks. The study concluded that the greater the number of these key features, the more people gravitated to these public spaces. And in the words of William H. Whyte: “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.” These popular gathering spots are where people have voted with their feet.
Failed projects cited in the film included places where streets faced blank walls and were devoid of shops, windows or doors. For example, Houston, Texas is complete with streets designed primarily for cars, without much consideration for pedestrian traffic. Reaching a critical mass is also important in attracting people to public spaces. Less densely populated cities need to concentrate their public spaces in order to generate activity.