This study is the second in a series of three that aims to update William Whyte’s insights on user behavior in small urban spaces from the late 70’s to today. Some 40 years later, there is a need for designers to understand, more generally, how people behave in novel urban spaces, and with novel introductions like cellphones and ubiquitous computing. This study looked at user behavior and occupation in 10 small public spaces in a temperate American downtown in the evening and night. One main goal was to understand how mediated communication technologies and processes impact the use of designed places by individuals and groups.

The study results include an illustrated set of commonly observed phenomena that help designers apply research findings to their design work as they aim to better integrate changing (and static) user desires. Since greater plaza use can result in benefits like increased civic engagement, socio-economic mixing, increased safety, economic benefits, health benefits, and place attachment, greater attention to user preferences is important for both new capital projects and retrofits of communal spaces.

Research methods incorporated traditional observation, tallies, and photography but also experimented with emerging methods including cell phone data sets, thermal imaging, and videography. These methods provide a more complete picture, anonymize data, and visually communicate insights.


Anya Domlesky, XL research and innovation Lab at SWA
Yang Song, Texas A&M University
Yingchen Lang


Chuck McDaniel, SWA
Jonah Susskind, XL research and innovation Lab



Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA)
Michael Brill Research Grant in Urban Communication and Community Design

Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) Conference
“Public Life in the Urban Night”