Home > Design, english, Gedanken, Plants > Book review: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

Book review: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

March 29th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments


In relation of my masterthesis and my interests in location-based mobile apps I read the book "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces" by William H. Whyte. The book is quite old and the first edition was published around 1980. My research focus was in particular in exploring how people behave in urban environments WITHOUT mobile communication technology. I am digital native, so I have no real idea how the world was before mobiles, walkmans and Game Boys. The book delivers a really good insight how people meet and behave in small urban places (plazas and small parks). Furthermore, it describes the vital elements of these plazas. How they correlate to each other  and how to design them. The target groups of this book are more or less architects, city planners and landscape architects. But even for urban activists and street artists the book has some value. The elements of small urban spaces haven't changed much since 1980. Almost each element has his own chapter:

  • The Life Plazas
  • Sitting Space (Grouping and Meeting behavior)
  • Sun, Wind, Trees, Water (Design elements)
  • Food
  • The Steet (access to the small places)
  • The "Undesirables" (characterstics of people)
  • Effective Capacity (space design)
  • Indoor Spaces
  • Concourses and Megastructures
  • Smaller Cities and Places
  • Triangulation (Artists, Events at Small Urban Places)

For my ongoing project "Wurfplfanze" and "Subbotnik Garden" I have to find a place where the people rest and feel well. The book revealed that sitting spaces are an important condition for small urban environments. Sitting spaces provide an infrastructure for grouping and communication between people. A garden does alsmost exactly the same. Gardening brings people together and they also talk during gardening activities. The sitting elements (pp. 27-31) could be steps (the size of the steps matters very much, page 32), ledges (the height matters), benches (mostly static elements), and chairs (flexible elements).

People's interaction on sun, wind, trees, and water depends heavily on the seasons. Usually people try to avoid wind, for this reason trees and other plants are used as protection. They look for sitting places closely to a tree or bushes. The same is valid if the sun is too strong  and the temperature are too hot. Especially, trees provide a huge space of shadow and wind protection (page 46). Moreover, people feel very comfortable surrounded by trees and bushes.  Under these conditions I have to find places, which meet the requirements of  these kind of environments. Otherwise I can't generate enough attention for my work. An additional interesting design element of small urban places is water. Water is really vital for the surviving of a plant. At small places and parks water provides a well-being feeling to people. Especially, in summer water is used a for cooling down. People have the desire to put their feet and hands into the water . Furthermore, some water sources produce a white noise which drowned out street noise (humans can deal with white noise much better than street noise). Beside all of these aspects, the water can be used for supporting some other plants at these small space environments. Not an unimportant condition for my projects.

The chapter about food does not really reveal so much interesting points for my thesis. Snack bars and cafes are a critical success factor for plazas and parks. They satisfy a demand. In some special cases, the employee(s) of a snack bar or cafe create a special aura /atmosphere of a place. Especially, the positive influence of some illegal small snack stand should not be underestimated. For instance, some hot dog vendors are really great entertainers. However, this was not what I was looking for. At least one point is obvious, the desire of food at these kind of places is strong. In this context it makes sense to consider that plants are able to provide a certain amount of food. Why not integrating plants which provide food at these places (TED Talk)?! A good example for this is the community garden Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin.

My motivation for the project Wurfpflanze and Subbotnik Garden is based on the desire of food at small urban places, and bringing the neighbourhood together through small gardeining activities at these comfortable small urban places. Hopefully, at the end small places can get an identity, like the Prinzessinnengarten provide for Kreuzberg.

For location-based app developers the chapters about Effective Capacity, Indoor Spaces, and Triangulation could be inspiring. On hot summer days the parks are mostly very crowded. It would be nice to have an app, which informs about places that are not so crowded or which certain places in a park are still free. Google is already working heavily on the topic Indoor Spaces. The topic Triangulation is inspiring as Effective Capacity. It would be nice to know what kind of activities (e.g. shows, flea markets, etc.) are going on which small urban places. However, I am sure there is much more potential available beyond this what I have mentioned.


The book is quite old and some data is outdated, but still interesting. Anyhow, I am very thankfully to the really easy written English. It was no problem to read it on my way (30 min) to work. I could read one chapter on one way. Despite the book is so old I could learn some very interesting things. I can recommend this book for everyone who is looking for an easy read with some interesting facts about urban environmental design.

  1. admin
    October 3rd, 2014 at 16:10 | #1

    For the understanding of urban and public spaces here are some other good books:

    topics about urban planning and design: book 1 | book 2 | book 3

  2. admin
    October 3rd, 2014 at 16:51 | #2

    Also nice in this context is the Makezine Urban Hack Session for sensing the urban environment with open hardware tools.

  1. No trackbacks yet.