Steven Dale on ‘The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety’

Welcome to Cabbagetown. Image via flickr user Metrix X.

Chapter 2 of Death and Life of Great American Cities is the chapter that made this book famous. Due to one beautifully simple turn of phrase, D&L transcended being a mere book and became a cultural touchstone. The term I speak of is (but of course) Eyes on the Street.

Eyes on the Street is to Jane Jacobs like Hallelujah is to Leonard Cohen. You don’t need to know the songwriter to know the song. Even if you’ve never read D&L before, you’ve probably still heard of Eyes on the Street; it’s become that ingrained in urbanist thinking.

Eyes on the Street is now such a known concept in city building it’s hard to believe there was a time not so long ago where the exact opposite was considered de rigueur city planning. Whether we implement the concept or not is another matter entirely, but the concept itself is considered valid to the point of gospel. Thus, to explain Eyes on the Street nowadays seems utterly redundant; like a blog post for our readers explaining what the internet is.

You’re already here. You know what Eyes on the Street is. (If you don’t, check out Streetswiki for a quick explanation.)

I’m not, therefore, going to discuss the finer details of Eyes on the Street as there’s enough quality understanding of the topic already. Instead I’d like to turn my attention to the following passage (as I think there’s some interesting things in it to reflect upon):

Orthodox planning is much imbued with puritanical and Utopian conceptions of how people should spend their free time, and in planning, these moralisms on people’s private lives are deeply confused with concepts about the workings of cities … The preferences of Utopians, and of other compulsive managers of other people’s leisure, for one kind of legal enterprise over others is worse than irrelevant for cities. It is harmful. The greater and more plentiful the range of all legitimate interests (in the strictly legal sense) that city streets and their enterprises can satisfy, the better for the streets and for the safety and civilization of the city. 

There’s a fascinating conflict in this passage. In one sentence Jacobs rails against the idea of Utopian planners puritanically dictating how people should live their private lives. She advocates for a plentiful range of activities and interests – but qualifies the comment; limiting those interests to “legitimate” and “strictly legal” ones.

But do we really think Jacobs believed that only “legitimate interests (in the strictly legal sense)” contributed positively to a the safety of city streets? I don’t, because it is so against her typically contrarian position. Surely Jacobs knows that there are dozens of illegitimate interests and strictly illegal activities that also – and paradoxically – help maintain the order and safety of city streets.

Take my Toronto neighborhood of Cabbagetown, for example. In Cabbagetown there are a slew of illegitimate and illegal activities going on in the area at any given time. And these activities bump up against the legal, legitimate and morally sanctioned in such a way that the two reinforce one another. I think this is perhaps the most curious aspect of Cabbagetown and similar regions of older North American cities. Leaving all questions of morality aside, there are lots of illegitimate and illegal uses of a neighborhood that occur right beneath our noses – constantly. And just like the legitimate and legal uses, they protect and animate the street just fine.

In Cabbagetown there are marijuana dealers – known by the neighborhood on a first name basis; illegal gambling pools run out of bars; money laundering operations posing as restaurants; vendors selling bootleg DVDs and fake brand name electronics; and packs of domino players competing for money while drinking in the park. There’s a swingers club across the street from a public school; pubs and bars that either explicitly or covertly shun the various and arcane liquor licensing laws of Ontario; and downtrodden individuals stealing empty liquor bottles from homes and restaurants in order to collect illicitly-gained deposit fees.

(There’s also a Starbucks – which may or may not be classed as an illegitimate enterprise depending upon your socio-political and cultural leanings.)

The list goes on and on. And contrary to common logic, these do not make the neighbourhood less safe. Quite the opposite in fact.

The most perfect (and hilarious) example of this is a particular Italian restaurant in Cabbagetown; well known in the neighbourhood for being a front for organized crime.

At least once every month or so, the owners of the resto conduct extensive renovations on the establishment. Trucks pull up; pipe, lumber, furniture and tools are brought in; workmen work; carpenters cut wood on the street; and hours later used pipes, used lumber and used furniture are brought out.

One potted palm tree goes in; one potted palm tree comes out.

Sometimes the name of the restaurant changes, sometimes it stays the same. More often than not the restaurant looks strikingly identical to the way it looked prior to the renovations – begging the question what exactly was renovated? The answer, of course, is that nothing was renovated and the renovations are never going to cause an increase in customers (because there aren’t any); but then again that’s not the point of the renovations in the first place.

This happens so constantly it’s become a form of absurdist, accidental street theatre. No one in Cabbagetown actually believes they’re renovating the restaurant, but we’re willing to go along with the make-believe part of it. We know it’s an act, but find the act itself so absurdly bemusing, we let it continue. We understand the farce of it all and, because the comings-and-goings harm no one and serve to animate a stretch of street that would otherwise be somewhat barren, we play along.

Oh, there they go again, renovating the restaurant. Look at that palm tree! Maybe this time they’ll drum up some customers! 

To an outsider, Cabbagetown (and similar neighborhoods) might appear to be an open-air zoo – but nothing bad ever really happens. This is a neighborhood that isn’t just the den of iniquity I’ve described above. It’s a charming, diverse and wealthy enclave of small business and independent thinkers – strangely balanced against an underbelly of illegitimate activity. It’s not a neighbourhood for everyone, but to those that live there, the illegitimate activities are (ironically) as much a part of what makes the neighbourhood safe and livable.

That’s the thing about shady, questionable or outright criminal enterprises – whatever your moral opinion of their activities, they’re still enterprises. And an enterprise – no matter how modest, mercurial or morally suspect – implies a livelihood. And people act in ways to protect their livelihood. Cabbagetown is not a neighborhood of illegitimates – it’s a neighborhood of entrepreneurs. Like the shopkeepers and bar owners described by Jacobs, these elements too have a vested financial interest in “mak(ing) a person feel personally safe and secure on the street.”

One could even make the not illogical argument that these illegitimate enterprises have even more of an interest in keeping the peace so as to prevent the police from choosing to establish a presence in the area. Take Jacobs’ comment about civilized streets not being “kept primarily by the police” to its logical conclusion, and we see that activities such as these are most likely to appear in such civilized neighborhoods as the lack of police presence allows these activities to operate without fear of reprisal. After all, the easiest way to get away with doing bad things is to do them in the presence of good people.

So long as they don’t actively threaten and hurt individuals or their communities, we tend to turn a blind eye.

My gut says Jacobs understood this reality but was from a time and a place where to say mafia fronts, swingers clubs and drug dealers can contribute positively to a neighborhood would be a complete non-starter. This isn’t to say a neighbourhood composed entirely of illegitimate and illegal activities will thrive. It’s to say that legitimate and legal activities don’t necessarily hold a monopoly over protecting our streets.


  • Before anyone jumps all over me for portraying Cabbagetown in a less-than-flattering light, please understand that I’ve lived in the neighborhood for more than seven years now and I adore it. Cabbagetown has the charming Wellesley Cottages, Riverdale Farm, the Conservation District, the House on Parliament, the Necropolis, and dozens of other wonderful elements. The neighborhood is also packed with historic million dollar homes. I’ve often said there’s a strange balance in Cabbagetown whereby the millionaires keep the crackheads in check and, perversely, the crackheads keep the millionaires in check.
  • I suspect the vast majority of people who’ve tried to read D&L stop after chapter 2 because they’ve gotten through the most famous part. It’s like leaving the Louvre after having seen only the Mona Lisa. Try to stick with it; it’s worth it.
  • How many of you have tried reading D&L before and stopped after chapter 2? Me too.
  • Based upon my own personal experience, I cannot agree with Jacobs when she says that “Great cities are not like towns, only larger.” Great cities and great towns function in very much the same way. In my experience a great city is nothing more than a fractal arrangement of great villages and towns that happen to sit next to one another. I really hope I have a chance to discuss this issue sometime in the future. If you wish to discuss it in the comments, please do.
  • Regarding having my liquor bottles stolen: I actually never return my liquor store bottles to get the refund. Instead I leave them on the curb for someone else to pick up so that they may claim the refund. I can leave my bottles on the curb and they’ll be gone within minutes – it’s a far more efficient waste management system than the one we currently have. I would encourage everyone to try it one day.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. Helen Hanratty says:

    I’m having some trouble getting my head around your comments- perhaps because I haven’t had my full quota of coffee yet. I like to think that JJ was talking about making whole cities safe. If your neighbourhood is being made safer by the presence of illegal enterprises, how is that affecting the rest of the city?
    Like you, I have lived in large cities, small towns and even smaller villages. I agree with JJ that cities are not just small towns on steroids. I don’t know my neighbours (could be because I live in a high rise at Yonge & St. Clair), but that doesn’t stop me from saying hello, or smiling at them, or striking up a casual conversation. When my suburbanite grandchildren are in downtown TO with me, I always tell them to keep their eyes open and be aware of what is going on around them. I want my neighbourhood to be safe, but I also want the entire city to be safe. Apart from wanting bragging rights about TO being a safe city, I would also like to think that there is no area of the city in which I would be afraid.
    Just before I sign off (because I feel a rant coming on), let me say that I, too, leave my empty wine bottles in a spot where people can pick them up. To me, there’s a big difference between something being illegal but harmless and illegal but dangerous.
    And – in my persona as stereotypical Canadian, let me apologize in advance if I have misunderstood what you are saying in your article.

  2. Steven Dale says:

    I think there’s two things here:

    1. I’m not necessarily saying that illegal activities are a good thing. I’m merely saying that I find it fascinating how illegitimate and illegal activities can (ironically) often have the same impact on safe streets as legitimate and legal activities.

    Following upon your story of taking your grandchildren downtown. Imagine you passed though Cabbagetown when one of the Italian Restaurant Makeovers was going on. Would you think anything of it? Of course not. To an outsider, they’re merely renovating the neighborhood. It looks incredibly Jacobsean. What’s interesting is what’s actually going on.

    Again, this isn’t a moral argument, it’s simply an observation.

    2. Regarding the small town and big city issue. This is something I’ve debated a lot about. What’s interesting to me is that my “small town” experience is entirely different than most North Americans’ “small town” experience. In my experience, the vast majority of people are strangers – even in a small town.

    It makes me wonder: Are we simply as bad at planning small towns as we are at planning big cities?

    3. The more people we can get leaving their bottles on the street, the better.

    1. Steven, maybe it’s not the planning, it’s the people.

      We all carry the baggage of the history and culture before us.

      There’s nothing in planning that ensures small towns or big cities will ensure people will connect.

      The U.S. is unique in tending to be more antisocial than comparable big cities and small towns elsewhere in the world. The neighborhood ecosystem Jacobs chronicled in “Death and Life” gets noticed because it’s a novelty in many American communities; elsewhere around the world, it just comes as natural.

      The U.S. had different baggage. We had puritan settlers who gained power and shaped American culture far beyond their numbers and direct influence. We have left our political regime unreformed after more than two centuries because of an unresolved debate by the Founding Fathers: Think about it — today we have the economy Alexander Hamilton correctly predicted but left the political system of Thomas Jefferson (agrarian economy run by yeoman farmers) intact. The consequence is that agrarian interests grow stronger as they decline economically.

      Racism has been a problem from the very beginning, and it’s the nation’s original sin.

      Another was the American obsession with communism. Making anticommunism the national purpose also greatly affected how people related to one another. After World War II, especially, the U.S. transition from rural to urban was complete. However, suburbanization as a means of social engineering — suburbanites expected to maintain rural-appropriate values while deriving their incomes from an urban economy — deprived the chance for city residents to adapt to the urbanizing phase.

      Remember the rampant crime epidemic plaguing U.S. cities for 40-50 years most noticeably after World War II? History shows that it has happened in cities everywhere, so it wasn’t a peculiar character defect among Americans. We don’t often equate London or Paris with Baltimore as depicted in “The Wire,” but for years on end they were squalid hellholes teeming with crime and disease. None of us were born to see it ourselves, or see how or why those cities transitioned.

      The good news: Despite this baggage, the U.S. is not bound by determinism. The bad news: We’d have to change our thinking and our behavior to orient ourselves around what’s supposed to come naturally.

      1. Steven Dale says:

        I think it’s both about planning and people. The two are mutually not exclusive.

        I tend see planning and design as a tool – nothing more. Sure it’s a discipline as well, but a discipline is nothing more than a fancy word for a tool you can’t grab with two hands.

        And as we use tools to change our environs, our tools in response change us. It’s an iterative process of toolmakers and tools constantly remaking each other in a never-ending quest for advancement.

        And in that quest, history always creeps in at the most inconvenient of moments.

  3. Sean Gillis says:

    I think, like many of Jane’s ideas, there are a number of ways to approach her thoughts on “legitimate” or “legal activities”. Until your post Steven, I hadn’t given it much thought but always read it in a Libertarian vane – less moralising and more legal uses. Live and let live. I think your idea might be more on target, although the two interpretations aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s interesting that when Jacobs and other activists were fighting Robert Moses’ planned Lower Manhattan expressway they were quietly aware they had a strong but unseen ally in the Mafia, who had no interest in seeing Little Italy torn down.

    A great example of what Steven described in Cabbagetown – the illegal, illegitimate and underground doing it’s small part to civilize the street – occured near my high school in Halifax. Right across the street from school was the Hell’s Angel’s clubhouse. There was very little petty crime within those few blocks, and when the Angel’s eventually moved along some businesses were sad to see them go.

    What I always find appealing in this chapter is Jane’s description of the “street ballet” and all the people and activity involved in keeping the street safe. One thing that underlies this street ballet is an inviting and exciting street. Jan Gehl seems to follow up Jacobs lead in these first chapters nicely with his thoughts on why and how people use and enjoy public space. One thing I like about Gehl is his principles seem practical in almost any place, regardless of size or density, unlike Jane, who essenitally writes off large swaths of the city that can’t generate the density or mix of uses needed for her street ballet.

    Another thing that is crucial to street safety and Jane’s street ballet is a diversity of uses. Planning is moving towards mixed use, but compared to what mixed use could be it’s usually pretty bland stuff – mix in a bit of retail and office space and call it a day. If you look at the successful cities Jacobs champions, the mix is a much broader spectrum of industrial, commercial, residential and institutional. Planning is still sorting out how much to control use, and could stand to loosen up some more.

    Finally, regarding strangers in small towns versus cities – this would appear to be an important sociological question. Does anyone know what the social sciences have to say on the subject? Personally I think Jane is right, but this is based on my gut feel and experience.

    1. Steven Dale says:

      I think the idea of the illegitimate as part of the “ballet” you describe makes perfect sense.

  4. It’s definitely an interesting idea, Steven. I think you’re right that these underground uses could make a single street safer, in the exact same way other uses might. For me, the issue is (as Helen pointed out) that these illegitimate ventures often have roots elsewhere. The Hell’s Angels clubhouse may subdue petty crime in the immediate area, but what does that clubhouse fund or facilitate elsewhere? Jacobs gets into these issues a bit more in Systems of Survival.

    As for the small towns/big cities question, I have a lot to say. I grew up in Kitchener, Ontario, and I’m primarily interested in examining midsize cities in my work. I do think that most midsize cities are qualitatively different than GREAT cities. I say “great” rather than big because it’s worth noting that some of the cities Jacobs references as great cities in the book aren’t that big—Pittsburgh, for one, if I’m not mistaken.

    Kitchener unmistakably does not function like Toronto. Whether you know your neighbours or not seems like a minor issue to me (though incidentally, I do at my home in downtown Kitchener and I don’t in Toronto, however this experience would probably differ if my Kitchener home was in the suburbs). What’s more important to me is the type of problems the city faces and how it typically solves them—as a case study, one could look at the types of urban renewal that were undertaken in the postwar period by both types of cities.

    In Ontario almost every large and midsize city was subject to a provincial project to replace an entire block in each downtown with a shopping mall. In midsize cities all of these malls, which were smaller and less trafficked than their suburban counterparts, failed, and the cities they occupy are now struggling to figure out what to do with them; in Toronto, on the other hand, the enormous Eaton’s Centre is doing dandy, even after Eaton’s went under.

    The planning methods of Victor Gruen also held currency in midsize cities in a way that they never did in large cities, which preferred the high modernist planners that Jacobs derides at the beginning of D&L. Based on Gruen’s proposal for Texas Fort Worth, Kitchener (like many other midsize cities in Canada and the States) hoped to pedestrianize it’s entire central business district and surround it with a high-traffic ring road. The biggest legacy of this plan fifty years later is that the streets running parallel to the main drag are overly wide; the ring road never enclosed the downtown and the interior was never fully pedestrianized. What about public housing projects? There are few large ones in midsize cities, while Toronto and other great cities have several large-scale developments.

    In short, due to funding issues urban renewal plans rarely come to full fruition in midsize cities, so these cities often face a legacy of half-baked, half-finished projects; in great cities, “cataclysmic money” was (and is) made available for such projects, so these cities face a legacy of half-baked, finished projects.

    1. Steven Dale says:

      illegitimate ventures often have roots elsewhere.

      Agreed. At the end of the day, I’m not suggesting that every neighbourhood needs criminal and illegitimate elements to work. I think, however, if you consider the timelines and schedules such enterprises operate on, they tie in very nicely with Jacobs’ idea that a safe street is a collection of diverse people pursuing different things at different times.

      There’s also the delicious irony of illegitimate and illegal enterprises actually making a street safe. I can’t help but love the aesthetic story quality of that fact.

      Regarding the mid-size, small size, great city debate:

      If you’re interested in mid-size cities, look into Zürich. Here’s a city basically the same size as your hometown of Kitchener. Seriously. And that’s the largest city in all of Switzerland; Geneva and the capital, Berne half the size. These are also some of the most beautifully designed and heavily urbanized cities you’re likely to ever encounter.

      Even the little village I live in has only 10,000 people but has a population density roughly equivalent to Toronto. The village, in many ways, functions exactly like Cabbagetown (minus the swingers, drug dealers and mafia fronts, of course).

      My argument in favour of great cities being nothing more than larger versions of great towns and villages is predicated on this experience. I think we often look at this issue in the wrong way. Maybe most small towns and cities don’t look like great cities because they’re horribly planned and designed.

      Maybe we’re as incompetent at building small towns and villages as we are at building “great cities.” Perhaps when we look at “great cities” and “great towns” we see that the two are more alike than they are different. Perhaps we’re defining a “great city” by the wrong metric; size. Maybe we should be defining a great city by a set of metrics that are about qualities, design and culture rather than the blunt tool of mere population.

      1. I absolutely agree about your last point actually, which ties into what I was saying about the word “great” in D&L. I’ve often tried to figure out what she really means when she says “great cities,” and I’m fairly certain it’s not a matter of size (again, consider Pittsburgh). I don’t think that a small population disqualifies Zurich as being a great city.

        That said, here’s something to consider in regards to population: although Zurich proper is only 300,000 people or so, it has a metro area of 3.8 Million. In North America, Providence, Rhode Island is in a similar situation to Zurich. It’s even SMALLER than Kitchener (about 170,000), but it has a metro area of over a million. I would also call Providence a great city, despite its size. Meanwhile, Kitchener proper has 200,000 people or so and it only has a metro area of about 400,000 people. So why doesn’t Kitchener (or London or Hamilton or Peterborough) have such a large metro area, and what does that have to do with being a great city?

        I don’t think a large metro area can directly explain why one city is a “great city” and another isn’t, but I do think it’s a symptom of the qualitative difference between them. We have to ask, why do more people commute to one city than another? Jacobs’ writings on economics would probably help explain. In The Economy of Cities, she explains that metro areas often form during bursts of “import replacement” (when a city begins producing something that it once imported) that cause rapid economic growth. Arguably then, great cities might be cities that experienced many rounds of import replacement over an extended period of time, creating a measure of prosperity and a diversity of endeavours that attracts the residents of its hinterlands.

        I don’t think it’s a matter of design, really. Design can’t manufacture the diversity that Jacobs is advocating for. No matter how pretty or comfortable a city is, if it doesn’t function properly and sustainably, good design is just taxidermy.

      2. Steven Dale says:

        Not to discount your points (which are valid), you really can’t take the 3.8 million Zurich metro region seriously. It’s a bizarre statistic because the area it encompasses takes up roughly 1/3 of the entire county and several different Kantons (provinces).

        I disagree, however, about your claim that design can’t manufacture density. Sure it can. Design isn’t just about aesthetics, it’s about designing systems, policies and mechanisms that promote the desired outcome.

      3. Well it’s not so much about the geographic area. If more than 8% (I think) of the population in an area commutes to Zurich then it’s considered to be in the Metro area. Same goes for any other city. The point is that a large number of people in the hinterlands of Great Cities often commute there while other cities don’t create this phenomenon, and the question of “why” might point to the qualitative differences that Jacobs is getting at.

        And to be fair, I said design can’t manufacture diversity. Density it absolutely can manufacture. But density, diversity and healthy neighbourhoods are all different things. The towers in Toronto hold lots of people, but in many tower neighbourhoods, the streets are neither diverse nor healthy, usage-wise.

        Yes, policies and physical planning are necessary to change this, but ultimately only a mutually beneficial, naturally forming network of diverse uses themselves can change the street dynamics there. That diversity cannot be sustainably manufactured, only supported.

  5. Great Cabbagetown story, Steven— it’s exactly these kinds of ambiguous, idiosyncratic activities that make cities, cities; and I, for one, think it’s best to keep moralizing off the urbanist’s agenda (something Jacobs did not do too well).
    As for the cities vs towns question— I agree that cities are conglomerations of villages, but I see it as much more complex than that. Without an overarching process of networks (infrastructural and social) and flows (into the city from without, and internal daily movement within the city), the city would remain just that — a series of disjointed small towns. What’s inspiring to me about living in a city is watching our endless quest to sew together this patchwork of neighbourhoods (or villages) through a number of tactics; including standardized zoning, comprehensive transit networks, and even city-wide neighbourhood branding like we have in Toronto. Such a desire to unify an unwieldy population spread over a considerable hunk of land cannot, by definition, exist in a town.

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