Gillian Mason on ‘The uses of sidewalks: contact’

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.

Greenwich Village in 1960 by Robert Huffstutter

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.

Photo by Vaughan Nelson

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.

'Pedestrian Street in Athens' by UrbanGrammar

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?

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Fantastic post, Gillian. I love that you brought up the specific time and place D&L was written. In many ways, it is a targeted, political book intended to protect the areas of New York that worked already from Modernist planning that aimed to reinvent the wheel (and what a wobbly, misshapen wheel it turned out to be). The specifics of Jacobs’ observations are often given a lot of attention, but currently, I think her method of investigation is far more important to us. I’ll try not to jump ahead, but I’ve always thought of the final chapter of D&L (“The kind of problem a city is”) as being the most important part; we have to proceed by studying the complex interconnections of the street itself, and observing what works there—not what works in a book, even if this one might point us in the right direction.

    The specifics in D&L are what Jacobs observed in Greenwich Village mostly prior to the 1960. What worked then and there may not work here and now, especially when you consider neighbourhoods in Toronto that are so far removed from her ideal, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Jacobs’ goal of observing a mutually supportive web of elements that makes street life work (no matter whether that web matches conventional ideas of planning, which now includes D&L) rings true today.

  2. Gillian Mason says:

    Thanks, Nathan! Always nice to hear your thoughts. Last year, I attended a talk by Larry Beasley at the University of Toronto, where I took a lot of notes because I was so intrigued. Here are a couple of quotes I jotted down: “even though over 60% of Canadians live here [in suburbs] and only 13% of Canadians live in core cities, [it is in the latter] where we have been putting most of our attention.”

    He went on to say: “our biggest challenge [is as of yet] untouched….the shape and nature of the suburbs. This is where the battle for everything we believe in ultimately has to be fought and won.”

    Beasley was inspiring. I came away convinced that we all need to be observers in the Jane Jacobs’ way, taking careful note of our daily experience. Then we have to find ways of fully exploiting our own observations. We need to engage with planners, designers, developers, politicians, and other city builders, to create the solutions. If we are going to intensify use, and pay attention to incremental changes, it will require concerted, sustained and creative collaboration.

    One last quote from Beasley: “We are going to have to make the re-invention of our suburbs a grand national mission over the next generation – even though this is also the area where we have the least evident solutions at this point in time”. I am going to continue to take inspiration from what we know to be true: Jane Jacobs’ assertion that lively sidewalks and the social contact generated there “are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”

  3. Matt the Engineer says:

    One very large difference in life then versus now in suburbs is the two worker family. Assuming Canada’s economy has mirrored the US’s, back in the 60’s a single middle-class income could afford a nice house. This left time for the second parent (the wife, almost as a rule) the ability to take care of the house and the children, making the neighborhood her workplace and the neighbors her office peers. This buzz of activity in neighborhoods died down as real wages shifted from the middle class to the rich through the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, and now it’s far more common to have both parents work*. Adding to this, children are allowed less to roam the neighborhood without a parent around, making them more like hermits and removing even more activity from the street. With two parents working, leisure time is reduced, which makes the pleasure of walking to nearby stores seem impractical compared to a quick car trip. With more cars on the road and fewer activity on the street it became less safe and interesting to walk. Etc.

    How do we fix this in a two worker family? Build neighborhoods more densely to compensate, because more people = more street activity and more nearby services.

    * from Robert Reich’s Aftershock: 12% of married mothers with young children worked outside the home in 1966 in the US, which shot up to 55% by the late 1990’s.

    1. Matt, what an great observation. And it leads so nicely into the next chapter about children and sidewalks!

      I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but you’re right — stay-at-home moms and other childcare workers add eyes to the street when others can’t (late mornings and afternoons). They also bring other traffic into the neighbourhood, because they are able to receive deliveries, host friends, or have house repairs done that would otherwise be limited to nights and weekends.

      1. It’s also worth mentioning that a demographic increase in single-parent families probably changes the dynamic of the street in a similar way to what you described, Matt, since in either case you lose a stay-at-home parent as well as leisure time that both facilitate activity throughout the day on the street.

  4. Dave says:

    What I think Jane’s response to the final question would have been by the end of her career: Encouraging lively and busy sidewalks is a bandage on an amputation. First, do no harm: eliminate all the laws that prohibit lively and busy sidewalks from spontaneously and accidentally occurring such as the US Fed lending standards that limit the freedom of a developer who might dare to create a mixed use project (

  5. Planners could try to lead from behind.

    This unctuous buzzword tied to Obama’s supposed management of Libya could be just the approach to create the three suggestions described.

    There’s a giant disconnect between the Jacobsean neighborhood and the planners’ interpretation of it. The key problem is that Jacobs held that great neighborhoods are unplanned and unplannable. Obviously, this is antithetical to planners.

    Then there’s the problem of synthesizing these communities. Here are four conditions to consider for community planning: People, places, context and scale. Any project deemed “successful” must be able to succeed in all four conditions.

    People: Who are you trying to attract? And, as an important corollary, who are you trying to keep out?
    Places: Think of your place as a sandbox. How much of the place is sand (what people are allowed to adapt for themselves) and how much is the box (to contain the space that people are allowed to adapt)?
    Context: How much of your project is constrained by, or an effect of, the forces of time, space, technology or social mores?
    Scale: Can a project succeed or fail if its size is enlarged or reduced?

    It’s extremely hard for a planner to get all four facets right. Yet planners are very good at getting three of them right. A lot of planning then focuses on remedying the fourth, the odd man out, that got away.

    Examples: Sports and convention venues succeed in places, context and scale but fail in the people dimension. Shopping centers succeed in people, context and scale but fail in the place dimension. Ethnic districts succeed in people, place and scale but fail in the context dimension. Urban planning generally succeeds in people, places and context but fails in the scale dimension.

    Anyway, where does leading from behind come in? Well, planners should let the community drive the process and get the broadest viewpoints and groups possible. Second, planners should educate participants on constraints such as available budgets and legal constraints the participants must incorporate. (It would help to tell people that they can give preferences to projects but the process in itself is not allowed to recommend any changes to laws.) Third, it must allow for several opportunities to participate (in person, online and passively by putting up displays and information in public places and allowing people to drop in comments in a box).

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