The social life of small urban spaces

2018-02-12 11:03:54
Whyte, W. H. (1980). The social life of small urban spaces. Washington, DC: The Conservation Foundation

William Hollingsworth Whyte (1917 - 1999) was an American urbanist, organizational analyst, and journalist. Before the book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte worked as a journalist in Fortune Magazine from 1946 to 1958. In 1956, he published a 1956 bestseller book titled The organization Man which was based on his extensive interviews with the CEOs of corporations such as General Electric and Ford. People's social behavior in daily life was one of the most important research topics for Whyte. In this book, Whyte reports findings from his investigation the "Street Life Project" which started from 1970, and it was accompanied by a film when it was first published. Altogether, they revealed the natural elements of spaces, how people use them, and provide a critique of popular and unpopular urban spaces, and the ways these spaces can be improved. The main goal of this book was to shed light on the questions why some city space work for people, while some don’t and what the practical lessons may be.

The study started with the investigation of the people who used the small public spaces. According to the book, the best-used plazas are sociable places, with a higher proportion of couples and more people in groups than you find in less-used places. The most-used places tend to have a higher than average proportion of women. Some study result shows contradictory ideas of the people's understanding of urban space. According to Whyte, the most serious problem of public spaces was not overcrowding, but the fact that majority of the public spaces was underutilized. Whyte found that people conducted most of the conversations in the center of the sidewalk, at the busiest crossroads and he named this pattern "self-congestion”. One of the most notable social behavior was “schmoozing” which was the conversation over casual topics like sports and gossips, instead of business-related topics. Users' preference was not only a list of desired things and good characteristics but also the things that people try to avoid.

In my opinion, the perspective of people's social life in small urban spaces is based on a humanistic understanding of the city, that city is not only a machine that accommodates human and the process of productions but also a place where every citizen can have a life of quality. The respect to citizen's daily life shaped the evaluation of a good urban public space, such that the more people use the space, the more diverse the usages are, the better and the more effective the public spaces would be. The primary goal of urban public space is to serve the people, no matter if the public space is private-owned or not, but not for the other goals such as the expressions of political power or the demonstration of social structures and orders. The value Whyte holds explained the focus on “uses” in this book, and that is why it was necessary to study people's uses of public spaces with carefulness which requires the quantification of behaviors and methods like camera recording.




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