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William H. Whyte in His Own Words: “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”

When I first got started making NYC bike advocacy and car-free streets videos back in the late-1990s on cable TV, I didn't know who William "Holly" Whyte was or just how much influence his work and research had on New York City. A few years later I met Fred and Ethan Kent at Project for Public Spaces. I got a copy of Whyte's 1980 classic, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, which in its marvelously-written, straightforward style is the one book all burgeoning urbanists should start with.

Recently, I read it again. With all the developments in video technology since his day, I wondered: How might Whyte capture information and present his research in a world which is now more attuned to the importance of public space? What would he appreciate? Are his words still valid?

So I excerpted some of my favorite passages from the book and tried to match it up with modern footage I've shot from all over the world while making Streetfilms. I hope he would feel honored and that it helps his research find a new audience.

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  • Chang

    Please please, differentiate "NYC" planning in 5 boros, Manhattan with skyscrapers n other boros especially near W n N county line n Staten Island.

    In Manhattan, many floor space with a nice views n rooftop space can be utilized without exasperating traffic congestion by unproportional plaza, for example, one redundant next to Madison Park above 23St. And hire somebody from Manhattan not from Montana to plan Manhattan midtown.

    Making everything moving efficient is art of work, making one party move anytime (not understanding intersection where cars stops at 0mph with no turn on red default) safely with ignorance as cows, but others moving with international norm of 20Century move slower to compensate ignorance without any efforts to improve is very unAmerican. Taking somebody's time is equal to taking somebody's money.

    In modern life in America, cars are here to stay a few more decades at least. Any speed, even 10 mph, can injure human bodies. That's why there is red light for cars and cross walk and god gave you neck to swivel to cover at least 180 degrees and outer corners of eyes. Cars are big, you can hardly miss if you look both ways BEFORE you get off curb not AFTER. that practice and conditioning wouldn't cut at least 50% accidents.

    My vision 50% less.

  • Chang

    Difficult to type somehow in this section.
    Correction: I meant "would cut 50%" in the end.

  • NYCBK123

    Great video. A wonderful reminder of what working in this field can achieve!

  • Jessica

    what a nice video - love William Whyte !

  • Precious Pearl

    nICE NICE...........NO WORD TO EXPLAIN...............

  • craigpurcell

    What is the program for small urban spaces ?

  • http://www.lacowboy.blogspot.com/ Brady Westwater

    I've worn out three copies of that book since it was first published.