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Video of the Day: Revisit Urbanist Classic ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’

William "Holly" Whyte helped launch the modern movement to build people-centered cities. Check out one of his most classic films while it's still online.

Three stills from the film illustrating the power of improvisation in the public realm. Photo: Project for Public Spaces

A classic documentary that helped launch the urbanist movement in America is finally back on YouTube — and it's a must-watch for anyone passionate about people-centered design.

William "Holly" Whyte's deeply influential 1979 mid-length "The Social Life of Urban Spaces" recently popped back up on the web TV site, giving sustainable transportation advocates a rare opportunity to check out the fascinating, and often surprisingly hilarious sociological examination of the impact of design on public life in cities across America.

A companion to the indispensable book of the same name, the film compiles thousands of hours of footage to help explain everything from the intricate "sidewalk ballet" of downtown Manhattan (to borrow a term from Whyte mentee Jane Jacobs), the desolation of pedestrian "skyways" in Houston, and the profound effect of sunken plazas, seating regulations, street performers and so much more. Yes, it has a few cringy late-'70s moments, but it's mostly an engaging and surprisingly relevant time capsule into an important era that helped launch much of the modern movement to build places for people rather than cars — and it contains more than a few lessons that today's policymakers could stand to be reminded of.

Chances are, this link won't be functional forever, so be sure to check it out. And to learn more, read the excellent biography of Whyte's life released last year.

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