“Why do some of them work for people while others don’t?” is the leading question, one of the most well-regarded films about urban planning explores. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte takes a closer look at the open spaces of cities.

Beginning at New York’s Seagram Plaza, a popular open area in NYC, the film proceeds to investigate major facts of urban design throughout various public spaces like the problematic Bryant Park in Manhattan. But the film also goes beyond NYC and casts a critical eye on the Renaissance Center in Detroit, parts of Downtown L.A, San Antonio, Toronto and Seattle, among others.


This analysis of successes and failures of public spaces in New York City is based on the direct observation of human behaviour in urban settings, as it is typical for William Hollingsworth “Holly” Whyte (October 1, 1917 – 12 January 1999) , who was an American urbanist, organizational analyst, journalist and people-watcher. He believed in the perseverance and sanctity of public spaces. For him, small urban places are “priceless,” and the city street is “the river of life… where we come together.”
The film and its accompanying book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces both became a standard work in urban planning, sociology, environmental design, and architecture departments around the world.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces
A film by William H. Whyte
Running time: 58 min, Year released: 1980
Produced by The Municipal Art Society of New York

William H. Whyte – Social Life of Small Urban Places from Robin van Emden on Vimeo.

Photo: Carmen Rüter