Heather Ann Kaldeway on ‘The uses of sidewalks: safety’

I grew up in a village of 300 people. I have now lived in downtown Toronto for the past 8 years, and the population of my condo complex is higher than that of the village I grew up in. In my experience, these two types of settlements function very differently. Jane noticed this too:

To keep the city safe is a fundamental task of a city’s streets and its sidewalks.

This task is totally unlike any service that sidewalks and streets in little towns or true suburbs are called upon to do. Great cities are not like towns, only larger. They are not like suburbs, only denser. They differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities, are, by definition, full of strangers… Even residents who live near each other are strangers, and must be, because of the sheer number of people in small geographical compass.

The bedrock attribute of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers.

I think it’s important to note that Jane’s definition of a town or a suburb versus a city is defined in functional terms. What distinguishes a city from these two other types is not size, it is the majority-presence of strangers. In The Economy of Cities, she defines a city as “a settlement that consistently generates its economic growth from its own local economy” and a town as “a settlement that does not generate its growth from its own local economy and has never done so.” In my village, the vast majority of us worked (and shopped) elsewhere. If you live in a place which generates its own economic growth and is full of strangers, you may live in a city — no matter how small.

It is this question of strangers which was the most startling to me when I first moved into an urban centre. It was overwhelming. Let me explain.

When I go home to visit my parents, sometimes I go for a bike ride. The houses are set back quite far from the road, but people spend time sitting on their porches. When I bike past, they call “hello!” to me. Not only that, they expect an answer! (Now that I have acclimated to Toronto, this startles me every time.)

Yonge/Bloor Station by Flickr user wyliepoon

When I bring my rural friends to the city, sometimes we go on the subway. Perhaps we switch trains at Yonge/Bloor station, and I watch them become overwhelmed as crowds of hundreds of people stream by us. You must understand: This is more people than they would usually see in a week, and it all happens in 3 minutes. How can you call “hello!” to so many strangers?

So, we migrants to the city learn to adapt. We stop greeting every person on the street, and we start seeing crowds where we once saw individuals, and Toronto gets a reputation for being brusque and cold. We let strangers remain strangers, and we learn to delight in the freedom of street anonymity.

What enables a city street to foster safety and security amongst strangers?

Jane writes that in a small town, gossip acts as a mechanism to encourage good street behaviour. Hence, if the woman running the drug store knows your aunt, you are less likely to risk getting caught vandalizing her shop. When was a kid, I had a paper route. Everyone in my village knew exactly who to look up in the phone book if they wanted to call my mother to complain, and I knew who the kids I ran into on my route were and who to complain to if they bullied me.

In a city full of strangers, gossip loses its power to enforce norms. This is not entirely bad. It is the same reason why cities are able to allow room for other kinds of variation (whether we are speaking of fashion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation), while small towns are almost invariably more conservative and slow to change.

However, it means that cities need different strategies, and these strategies must work on people with whom we have little to no social connections. In this chapter, Jane suggests three main strategies:

  1. Clarity between what is public space and what is private space.
  2. Attention turned towards the street by people who feel some type of responsibility for it (“eyes on the street”)
  3. Fairly continuous use, both to provide eyes on the street and to attract more people to the street as it feels more popular

She advises us to place stores and other public spaces on our streets, for the following reasons:

  1. Stores and public places serve as destinations which entice people to a particular street.
  2. While drawing people to a destination, they also draw them past other locations which may not be public destinations themselves. This traffic provides eyes on the street to locations that would otherwise be unnoticed.
  3. Business owners in particular can be great guardians of the sidewalk, because they want their customers to feel safe and welcomed at their entrance. (This seems particularly true of small shops.)
  4. As traffic increases, this in itself becomes a reason for more people to visit. People are attracted to activity, so hustle and bustle leads to even more hustle and bustle.

I live near Queen Street West in Toronto, and it is quite good at this sort of thing. It is comprised mostly of 2-4 storey buildings with retail at street level, and offices and apartments above that.

Sometimes my parents express surprise that I am willing to walk home alone late at night, but Queen Street is busy enough in the middle of the night that I feel comfortable there. The many eyes on the street assure me that if someone had ill intent, someone else would notice in time to help me. It is the bars, music venues, and apartments which provide this service at night, and the coffee shops, restaurants, and stores of all kinds which provide it during the day.

As Steven noted yesterday, this shared understanding of the importance and power of eyes on the street has become one of Jane Jacobs’ most enduring legacies.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    (I just submitted a comment, but recieved a message that it was marked as spam. Any chance you can recover the comment?)

    1. Sorry about that, Matt! I can’t seem to recover your comment, and have adjusted the spam settings in hopes that this won’t happen again. (If anyone else has similar issues, please email me at heatherann@cityecology.net.)

  2. Steven Dale says:

    “If you live in a place which generates its own economic growth and is full of strangers, you may live in a city — no matter how small.”

    – Love this. Those “small cities” are rare places, but in my experience are some of the greatest “cities” in the world. We need more of them in North America.

  3. Matt the Engineer says:

    (take 2)

    Cities do have higher crime than suburbs or exurbs (good Brookings study here). I would think a large part of that is simply opportunity – a criminal would have access to far more property and people in a dense area than a small town. That said, non-criminals also have much more access to people, as well as walkable jobs, small neighborhood cafes, the opera, etc., etc. The best strategy is probably to design our cities well to minimize the likelyhood of crime without dimishing those things we do like.

    1. Matt the Engineer says:

      Scratch some of that. I just realized that Brookings is considering inner-ring neighborhoods as “suburbs”. Check out the “High Density Suburbs” chart on page 10 – I think most of us thing of these places as “city”.

      But “High Density Suburbs” have about the same violent crime rates as other types of suburbs, including exurbs. What might be the difference between these places and the core of a city? I might guess that *eyes on the street* comes into play. In those cities I have experience with there’s a lot of areas that just become dead at night – financial areas, manufacturing areas, and business districts. Of course all “suburbs” – including those very close to a city’s core – have people around all day and all night.

      1. Isn’t it interesting how these things differ from city to city? I live in downtown Toronto and it’s quite lively at night — except for Bay Street (our financial district). I’ve also lived in a suburban area of North York, one of Toronto’s inner suburbs, and it was much more dead at night and I felt less safe there after dark.

      2. Steven Dale says:

        How about the idea that much of the old, cherished parts of our cities were built by people who actually intended to live in those areas?

        On the flip side, mega slabs, slums and their modern equivalents (vancouverism, anyone?) are – I suspect – rarely, if ever actually populated by the pension funds and foreign investors who finance and build them.

        When you plan on living in what you build, you tend to have more of a vested interest in actually making it livable.

      3. Marco Covi says:

        excellent point. And the same can be said for megaprojects for the rich. It’s the flaw in designing for exclusivity and a small range of uses.

        The section of the book on the creation of closed-off projects (public housing for the poor and luxury condos for the rich) and the physical barriers, fencing and guards associated with these developments really hit a chord with me. The Cadillac condominiums built at Jane and Finch Toronto (now Pallisades) were luxury and exclusive. The St. Jamestown apartments were similar. Poor design resulted from the idea of separating people and exclusivity. Until recent renewal efforts, these buildings have deteriorated significantly (although not just from design but also lack of management).

      4. There’s a great part at the beginning of Charles Jencks’ The Language of Post-Modern Architecture where he discusses the issues of both Modernist and developer models of architecture. What you just described is basically the conclusion he comes to: the designers, funders, owners and tenants of Modernist and developer buildings alike are all disconnected, whereas in buildings from before we had a conception of mass-architecture, these roles were a lot closer knit (often enough all of them are occupied by the same person).

        In his opinion, the result is an architecture of the lowest common denominator, defined aesthetically and functionally by statistics and prescriptions.

    2. Thanks for linking to that Brookings study! I am curious if there is anything that compares Canadian cities and their suburbs like that.

  4. Marco Covi says:

    In reply to Eyes on the Street I think points 2 and 3 in terms of strategies are teh most relevant. Let me give everyone an example:

    Northwoods Park was a former golf-course in my neighbourhood and became a park in the 1980’s. Being a former golf-course it had no lighting. The playground even though being beside a community centre, was still far away from the main street and as such was lightly travelled during much of the day. Therefore it was only safe for a child to go with their parents or caregivers being away from the ‘eyes’ of a busy street. Our semi-detached backed on to the beautiful ravine. It was beautiful in daylight. At night there were screams and muggings. There was also the occasional homicide and this got us to move to a new location.

    Crime is less likely in front of an audience. Busy streets are needed in order for eyes to be attracted to it. But as Jacobs’ says we need reasons to be out there: stores, restaurants….shopkeepers are natural police: they want peace to be able to continue on with business. My girlfriend’s grandmother grew up in Manhattan and volunteered at her granddaughter’s school. The proximity to her neighbours and the hustle and bustle allowed for close-knit relationships and sense of cohesion that also brought with it safety even during Manhattan’s darkest times in the 1970’s.

  5. Graham Lavender says:

    I saw this comic in the paper on the weekend, and it reminded me of “eyes on the street:”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s