The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

A quick book overview of this gem from 1980

tl;dr read this book

This past week, I stumbled upon The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces while watching an online chat between Instagram founder Mike Krieger and artist / sculptor Tom Sachs. While discussing company culture, Tom recommends his video series 10 bullets (another absolute masterpiece) as a must-see before applying to work in his studio. In response, Mike mentions the little gem from the 80s that this post is about.

Already interested in urbanism, I soon after googled the book and started reading it during my daily commute. The central topic of Whyte’s research are the lively urban plazas of NYC. I might not be in the Big Apple, but São Paulo is just as chaotic and diverse. Everyday after showering and grabbing breakfast, I walk down to my bus stop where I grab the 857R line to work. The 40-minute commute that ensues involves traversing all 4 kilometers of Avenida Paulista, an epitome of this city.

Av. Paulista

The former commercial center of São Paulo houses a variety environments, from botecos like Charme Paulista, packed with students having a beer after class, to MASP, a symbol of Brazilian architectural modernism and home to the nation’s most prized art collections. It is also the city’s main stage for manifestations, hosting massive political protests and the world’s largest Pride Parade. Most importantly, it’s a symbol of São Paulo’s diversity and disparity.

As I read chapters with title such as Sitting Space and The “Undesirables”, I started to immediately see that Whyte’s analysis of the distinct factors that make urban spaces thrive were perfectly applicable to the reality outside of my bus window. He was able to coherently formulate why I love urban life so much and formalize my ranting about the perils of suburbia and basic tourists. For those of you who haven’t heard my ongoing rant, the quote below is a nice summary.

“As a result, some American cities now have two cities — regular city and visitor city. It is the same as it is everywhere. You could be in a foreign country or on a space satellite.”

Curiously, the insights were not only regarding urbanism — his whole methodology was a phenomenal example of product design and what data-driven user research should be. As a software engineer with continuous interaction with our design team, I’ve grown increasingly interested in UX / UI. Two great quotes that I saved are:

“Forced choice is rarely chosen.”
“Lack of guidelines does not give builders and architects more freedom. It reinforces convention.”
NYC in the 80's

Overall, the book is great. It’s a quick and very insightful read for anyone interested in design. Worst case scenario, you skim through it and see some amazing pictures of New York in the 80's.

PS: a pdf of the first chapters is available at: