Two things struck me in rereading Chapter 3 (The uses of sidewalks: contact) for the first time in approximately 30 years. Firstly, Jane Jacobs’ analysis and insight on the urban scene are still unerringly accurate and have become largely axiomatic. It is a truism today that busy sidewalks are both highly desirable and a good indicator of a humane and livable city. In too many instances, we have been singularly unsuccessful in recent years in creating the busy and diverse street-life evocatively described in the chapter. Fifty years on, we have been unable to consistently create the kinds of sidewalks – those places of intermediate social contact – that characterized her ideal neighbourhood.
Jane Jacobs’ thesis was that lively sidewalks and the social contact generated there “are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.” Jacobs argued that sidewalks are where people have the opportunity to get to know one another on a casual social basis, generating respectful acquaintanceships that enable civility while protecting private lives. Trust and public respect is engendered through daily casual contact. In contrast, impersonal city streets make for anonymous people and a tendency towards avoidance. This, in turn, we would say today, is fundamental to great social cohesion.
Today, we accept as self-evident that lively sidewalk-life is highly desirable. I would argue, however, that the particular character of the street-life described in this chapter is highly specific to Jacobs’ time and place. What Jane Jacobs viewed as ideal was, in many respects, a detailed description of 1950’s and 60’s Greenwich Village – a dense, diverse part of Manhattan then on the cusp of gentrification. Times have changed. Where Jane lived then are now found million-dollar units.
Nonetheless, in the Canadian context or in the parts of Toronto I grew up in, some areas approach this ideal.
For instance, in the 1960s when my grandparents headed to the shops from their home at Davisville & Yonge, in central Toronto, they were known to the shopkeepers and to those whom they passed on Yonge Street. They conducted a lively exchange both inside the shops and out on the sidewalks.
By contrast, where I grew up in a residential neighbourhood in Scarborough (now part of the Toronto mega-city), there was no retail on our street nor were we as connected to our community as my grandparents were to their local retail district. Yet, we did have a very lively sidewalk life. Our parents regularly had coffee with our neighbours. They chatted while leaning on their rakes on the front lawn. They minded each others’ children. We spent hours riding our bikes up and down the sidewalk, making the U-turns in our neighbours’ driveways. Parties – both kids’ and adults’ celebrations – took place among those who lived in that block of 16 houses, all of whom we knew. We walked to the corner store for milk and bread (the car sat in the driveway except on Thursdays, grocery shopping day).
Some 40 plus years later, with no change in the land use associated with that stretch of road (same houses, same parks, same retail plazas down the street) we drive our cars in and out of those driveways. No one ever walks to the corner store that is exactly the same distance away as it was in 1966. Residents go to Tim Horton’s to be in the presence of others; they do not find it readily on the sidewalks. Neighbours have nothing more than a ‘friendly wave’ relationship with one another. They barely know each other’s names. And in the denser urban areas, I don’t know that those who live in more mixed-use neighbourhoods with livelier sidewalks would leave their keys with the local shopkeeper as they did in Jacobs’ neighbourhood.
Yet, despite the erosion of trust generally from her time to ours (and a growing disinclination to physical effort), there are areas where the conditions and physical form conspire to create lively and busy sidewalks. One example is the Danforth Avenue in east end Toronto where a number of neighbourhoods “flank” the busy sidewalks and shops found on the avenue. Neighbourhood residents naturally gravitate to the avenue to browse, shop, or take transit and regularly run into friends and acquaintances. While not approximating Greenwich Village in terms of density or diversity, Danforth Avenue and others like it in Toronto still provide the necessary conditions for social cohesion to take root.
Unfortunately, many of these areas were built prior to World War II and are in short supply. Neighbourhoods characterized by ready access to sidewalk life see the strongest real estate values. Neighbourhoods characterized by low densities, separated by long distances from the centre and from retail and social services, and laid out in suburban fashion fare less well. In addition to weaker real estate values and prospects, the low density neighbourhoods are ill-suited to the needs of the people now occupying them in terms of access to transit, social services and supports, let alone sidewalk life. Indeed, Jacob’s astute observation that the well off “capriciously desert… the quiet residential areas and leave them to the less fortunate” scarcely needs to be altered today.
Recent efforts outside of the central city to create compact, walkable communities with access to some services (under the rubric of New Urbanism) are, in my opinion, too isolated within a sea of low density development, and thus only modestly successful at fostering the type of social interaction we’re aiming at.
What’s to be done then? As a professional town planner, I am acutely aware of our consistent failure to approach Jacob’s ideal in many new developments (often with good cause). Nevertheless, with that awareness in mind, I humbly offer a few suggestions for consideration:
Firstly, those streets with obvious potential for redevelopment as intensified mixed use corridors are natural areas to focus our efforts. They are often extensions of existing successful streets and possess advantages like ready access to transit. In this regard, the City of Toronto is wisely studying various avenues to identify the potential for intensification.
Secondly, all is not lost in the post-war suburbs. The effort to create greater density, diversity and street life will be an incremental and long-term project. Each increment, however, will need to be scrutinized as to whether it contributes to a more livable community. CCE’s initiative to empower citizens and enable people to become more involved in their own communities’ decisions and shape their futures will contribute to this aim.
Thirdly, and more globally, the development of sustainable and compact communities with attendant street life would be greatly aided by the removal of perverse incentives to development (such as non-discriminating development charges) that work at cross-purposes to the containment of sprawl and lower densities. (See Pamela Blais’ Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policies, and Urban Sprawl.) While such a discussion is beyond the scope of this blog, the fact remains that policies that encourage development to continually and liberally expand outwards will work to the detriment of compact communities, busy sidewalks and much else.
How do you think we can encourage lively and busy sidewalks?