Observing the public realm: William whytes the social life of small urban spaces

Yasser Elsheshtawy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


One of the most enduring images for those studying public spaces in cities is that of William Whyte, holding a 16-mm film camera, kneeling on the ground, and recording activities in one of Manhatt an's plazas. This was part of his 'Street Life Project' which was published in 1980 in a book and an accompanying film. The influence was immense particularly because he showed that through the power of simple observation recording and subsequent quantitative analysis one can derive powerful conclusions. Indeed his recommendations shaped public policy in New York City, and it became the basis for the work of urbanists such as Jan Gehl, who relied on a very similar approach when studying public life in Denmark. Even today Whyte's approach forms the basis for urban informatics and what has become known as 'the science of cities'. In this paper, first I review Whyte's work; secondly I look at how his work permeated urban scholarship; and thirdly discuss his impact on my own research. I conclude by considering how current urban design, with its focus on sustainability and resiliency, would greatly benefit from the underlying principles governing Whyte's work.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)399-411
Number of pages13
JournalBuilt Environment
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Urban Studies


Dive into the research topics of 'Observing the public realm: William whytes the social life of small urban spaces'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this