May 06, 2010

People Watching

YouTube - The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Part One

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Part One, takes a look at peoples’ behaviors in urban plazas.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is a wonderful film based on a book by William H. Whyte (and produced by The Municipal Art Society of New York), which analyzes urban spaces mainly by simply watching what people do in them. Beginning with analysis of NYC’s Seagram building’s successful outdoor plaza and continuing through an examination of such design elements as benches, water, light, and art, it’s delightful to follow the logic of an urban planner who seems honestly dismayed—disheartened, even—by unfriendly contrivances like spiked planters and stolid windowless walls.

As he hops from one plaza to the next, the narrator quickly amasses a list of things that help to make each space successful for human social interaction, or not: A pond to splash in without reprimand; a piece of art that invites touch and thought; seats that can be moved into infinite variations to fit our own infinite agendas; steps that are easy to run up and spaced for comfortable sitting; sunlight.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Part 5, examines public art's place in urban spaces.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Part Five, examines public art’s place in urban spaces.

As the warm weather graces the Bay Area, our already outdoor-oriented population is taking to our plazas and sidewalks with renewed vigor. As you wander this week, maybe you’d be inclined to share: which public or open spaces strike you as have been designed to cajole people into certain (perhaps unsocial) behaviors, and which with the goal of helping humans thrive, and why? What are your favorite spots, and are they well-thought plans laid with you in mind, or simply felicitous niche spaces in which you are able to carve out a happy moment?

Comments (1)

  • I’ll second that: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is a really delightful film, and the book too is a favorite. I often find myself walking around near SFMOMA wondering what Holly Whyte might think of outdoor, urban space X, Y or Z. Trying to remember the name of a sunny, enclosed, paved square with steps for sitting on, trees, a few nicely (dis)placed boulders, and lines of poetry on the walls just a few blocks from here. Not only does it get good midday sun this time of year but it’s sheltered from the wind AND there’s a public drinking fountain….On the other hand there’s at least one outdoor spot nearby that *seems* well set up for lying down or lounging at lunch hour, but then is regularly policed to make sure no one actually takes advantage of the offer, troubling indeed.

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