The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is a book by a well-known urbanist called William H. Whyte that was published in 1980. In the 1970s, Whyte formed a small research group known as The Street Life Project and started to carry out an investigation on the dynamics of urban spaces. The book details the findings of this research. Upon publication, it was instantly labeled as a classic and went on to spearhead some kind of revolution in the study and planning of public spaces in urban centers. The book is now a standard text that is used in academic institutions around the world for teaching urban planning, environmental design, sociology and architecture.
A notable thing about The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is that it offers a detailed insight into how people interact and behave in small urban places such as parks and plazas. It describes the crucial elements of such places, the manner in which they connect with each other, and the best ways to design them. It is apparent that Whytes target audiences were city planners as well as landscape architects. All in all, the book can still be useful for street artists and urban activists given that the elements associated with small urban spaces have undergone little change since the 1980s.
Almost every element is covered in its own chapter. They include sitting spaces, gardening, sun, wind and trees, water, and food. Whyte states that sitting spaces are a crucial condition for tiny urban environments since they present an infrastructure for people to gather together and communicate. Examples of these spaces are steps, ledges, benches and chairs. Gardening does almost the same thing as it brings individuals together to discuss issues to do with it.
How people interact with the sun, wind, water and trees is heavily influences by the four seasons. Considering that people individuals try to avoid the wind at all costs, trees and other types of plants come in handy as a form of protection. They tend to look for places to sit that are close to trees or bushes. A similar situation occurs when the sun is brazing and it becomes too hot. In particular, trees offer a relaxing shade as well as protection from the wind. This means that people have to look for places whose environments satisfy these requirements when they are within small urban spaces.
Water is another element that is of great interest when it comes to designing small urban spaces. In addition to being crucial for the survival of plants, water gives people a feeling of well-being in small parks and plazas. It particularly comes in handy during the summer since it is used as a means of cooling, inducing the desire in people to dip their hands and feet in water. Whats more, certain sources of water produce a pleasant white noise that drowns out the loud street noise. It is no secret that human beings can cope with white noise much better when compared to street level.
The chapter in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces about food highlights peoples eating behaviors while is small urban spaces. Cafes and snack bars are crucial for the environment of places such as parks and plazas since they satisfy a certain demand. Those who serve them create a unique aura of these places. Whyte gives the example of hot dog vendors, who are known to offer rather thrilling entertainment.
Whyte, W. H. (1980). The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. New York, NY: Project for Public Spaces.
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