Monday, December 21, 2009

Jane Jacobs - On the Uses of Sidewalks

The first three chapters of The Death and Life of Great American Cities are about sidewalks and the uses of sidewalks. In order, she discuss safety, contact, and assimilating children.

More interesting to me than her chapter ordering is her writing. Her analysis employs a mixture of functional, aesthetic, and organic metaphors. Here are some paragraph-sized chunks. They're a little baggy and oversized, but since her prose is pretty juicy, it seemed worthwhile.

Though her chapter framework is functional, dwelling on way sidewalks are useful, Jacobs really starts things with an embrace of complexity and the aesthetic. If you don't buy the value in higher-order complexity, then I'm not sure her functional arguments will hold for you. But if you think simple is too often boring or stultifying or even hegemonic, then her argument suggests much.

Good Sidewalk Life Offers a Rich Complexity
Under the seeming disorder of the old city, whereever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance - not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.

[Public sidewalks] bring together people who do not know each other in an intimate, private social fashion and in most cases do not care to know each other in that fashion...if interesting, useful, and significant contacts among the people of cities are confined to aquaintenceships suitable for private life, the city becomes stultified. Cities are full of people with whom, from your viewpoint, or mine...a certain degree of contact is useful or enjoyable; but you do not want them in your hair. And they do not want you in theirs either.

The tolerance, the room for great differences among neighbors - differences that often go far deeper than differences in color - which are possible and normal in intensely urban life, but which are so foreign to suburbs and pseudo-suburbs, are possible and normal only when streets of great cities ahve built-in equipment allowing strangers to dwell in peace together on civilized but essentially dignified and reserved terms...Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city's weath of public life may grow.

Rich Sidewalk Life Leads Trust and Public Safety
The first thing to understand is that the public peace - the sidewalk and street peace - of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.

A well-used city street is apt to be a safe street. A deserted street is apt to be unsafe....there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space....Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street....And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers.

Stores, bars and restaurants, as the chief examples, work in several different and complex ways to abet sidewalk safety. First, they give people - both residents and strangers - concrete reasons for using the sidewalks on which these enterprises face. Second, they draw people along the sidewalks past places which have no attractions to public use themselves but which become traveled and peopled as routes to somewhere else...Third, storekeepers and other small businessmen are typically strong proponents of peace and order themselves...Fourth, they activity generated by people on errands, or people aiming for food and drink, is itself an attraction to still other people.

In speaking about city sidewalk safety, I mentioned how necessary it is that there should be, in the brains behind the eyes on the street, an almost unconscious assumption of general street support when the chips are down - when a citizen has to choose, for instance, whether he will take responsibility, or abdicate it, in combating barbarism or protecting strangers. There is a short word for this assumption of support: trust. The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts.

Good Sidewalk Life Socializes Children into Responsibility
Among the superstitions of planning and housing is a fantasy about the transformation of children. It goes like this: A population of children is condemned to play on the city streets. These pale and rickety children [exist] in their sinister moral environment, "the moral and physical toll taken on our youth by the streets," sometimes...called "the gutter." If only these deprived children can be gotten off the streets into parks and playgrounds with equipment on which to exercize, space in which to run, grass to lift their souls! Clean and happy places, filled with the laughter of children responding to a wholesome environment.

Garden City planners, with thier hatred of the street, thought the solution to keeping children off the streets and under wholesome surveillance was to build interior enclaves for them in the centers of superblocks....Today many large renewal areas are being replanned on the principle of enclosed park enclaves within blocks....The relatively dead backs of buildings or, worse still, blank end walls, thus face on the streets. The safety of the unspecialized sidewalks is thus exchanged for a specialized form of safety for a specialized part of the population for a few years of its life.

I have been dwelling on a negative aspect of child rearing in cities: the factor of protection - protection of children from their own idiocies, from adults bent on ill, and from each other. I have dwelt on it because it has always been my purpose to show, by means of the most easily understood problem, how nonsensical is the fantasy that playgrounds and parks are automatically OK places for children, and streets are automatically no OK places for children...lively sidewalks have positive aspects for city children's play, too, and these are at least as important as safety and protection.

In real life, only from ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children learn - if they learn at all - the first fundamental of successful city life: People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other. This is a lesson nobody learns from being told. It is learned from the experience of having other people without ties or kinship or close friendship or formal responsibility to you take a modicum of public rsponsiblity for you.

The lesson that city dwellers have to take responsibility for what goes on in city streets is taught again and again to children on sidewalks which enjoy a local public life. They can absorb it astonishingly early. They show they have absorbed it by taking it for granted that they, too, are part of the management. They volunteer (before they are asked) directions to people who are lost; they tell a man he will get a ticket if he parks where he thinks he is going to park...the presence or absence of this kind of street bossiness in city children is a fairly good tip-off to the presence or absence of responsible adult behavior toward the sidewalk and the children who use it.

Cars and the Allocation of Space
Suppose we continue with building, and with deliberate rebuilding, of unsafe cities. How do we live with this insecurity? [One mode] is to take refuge in vehicles.

Sidewalks thirty or thirty-five feet wide can accomodate virtually any demand of incidental play put upon them - along with trees to shade the activities, and sufficient space for pedestrian circulation and adult public sidewalk life and loitering. Few sidewalks of this luxurious width can be found. Sidewalk width is invariably sacrificed for vehicular width, partly because city sidewalks are conveniently considered to be purely space for pedestrian travel and access to buildings, and go unrecognized as unrespected as the uniquely vital and irreplacable organs of city safety, public life and child rearing that they are.

In another post we'll look at how Jacobs' analysis of densely populated urban sidewalk life applies and does not apply to what I think of as Salem's three kinds of sidewalks, those in the downtown core, those along commercial strips and arterial streets, and those in residential neighborhoods.

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