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.)
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:
- Clarity between what is public space and what is private space.
- Attention turned towards the street by people who feel some type of responsibility for it (“eyes on the street”)
- 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:
- Stores and public places serve as destinations which entice people to a particular street.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.