Film – The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

Although not a participatory documentary I have included this archive film in the research because of its direct relationship with urban design. It provides us with an example of how observational documentary can be used as a form of research. The film was preceded in 1980 by a book of the same title. It was the culmination of years of observational research in and around the plazas, streets and squares of New York City conducted by William H. Whyte and a number of his students. The project was entitled “The street life project” and its primary aim was to find out why “people flocked to some plazas and left others empty”.

Making a film was not the original goal; it only emerged from this extensive archive of research footage. In terms of documentary history it is unique in that context it is true piece of ethnographic research. As well as a friendly, witty and engaging film much like the successful urban plazas documented by Whyte and his team. What we gain is a remarkable insight into the hidden social rules that govern our everyday urban experience. Whyte took his research further, and drew up a number of guidelines for the design and zoning of public spaces, these were eventually adapted by the New York City planning department.

This archive forms part of the bigger research project entitled Participatory Documentary [and the city] carried out by dmau with support from the Dutch Creative Industry Funds