The lesson that city dwellers have to take responsibility for what goes on in city streets is taught again and again to children on sidewalks which enjoy a local public life. They can absorb it astonishingly early. They show they have absorbed it by taking it for granted that they, too, are part of the management. They volunteer (before they are asked) directions to people who are lost; they tell a man he will get a ticket if he parks where he thinks he is going to park; they offer unsolicited advice to the building superintendent to use rock salt instead of a chopper to attack the ice. The presence or absence of this kind of street bossiness in city children is a fairly good tip-off to the presence or absence of responsible adult behavior toward the sidewalk and the children who use it.
— Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Chapter 4: The uses of sidewalks: assimilating children
In September 2010, my partner and I travelled to the Balkans and quite unexpectedly fell deeply in love with Sarajevo. It was walkable, friendly, and had the most reliably amazing coffee, ice cream, and cake I had tasted in quite some time. I highly recommend it.
One of the most startling things that Sarajevo showed me about Toronto was how deeply “stranger danger” and fears for our children’s safety has affected our sidewalk cultures. In Sarajevo, I could not detect this fear which I have come to take for granted.
Sarajevo is the type of city that turns your head, slows your step, and asks you to sit for a while — preferably with an espresso. One afternoon, I spent a long while sitting at Sebilj Fountain, a public water fountain nicknamed “the pigeon square”, watching street dogs romp and play and the crowds ebb and flow.
I was surprised to see parents let their toddlers run across the square through a crowd to play with the dogs. I fully expected the parents to run along behind them, calling to be careful on the cobblestone street. I expected cautions about playing with strange dogs and strange men. These cautions never came. In fact, the parents seemed entirely unconcerned about it.
Instead, I saw children who felt at home in the streets. I saw strangers who were able to help a child who had fallen, without fear that they shouldn’t be interacting with a stranger’s child. I saw parents let their young children wander a long way, aware that the strangers around them would come to the child’s aid if needed.
I do not have children myself, but my partner and I have the privilege of spending time each week with two young Torontonians. Here is my partner with our friend Ada (now five years old) in Toronto’s Kensington Market:
When I returned home from Sarajevo, I remember walking through Toronto Pearson International Airport and thinking “Well, we certainly couldn’t let Ada run around freely here. It’s much too busy!” But I quickly realised that the square in Sarajevo was just as busy, just as full of strangers. Not only that, many Sarajevans my age survived a 3-year siege in the early 90s — my childhood was much safer than theirs. My city’s parks have not been converted into cemeteries as theirs have.
So what is it about my neighbourhood that makes me reluctant to let Ada run on our sidewalks? My local park is full of well-socialized dogs romping and playing, owners watching closely, and I would still be nervous to let her play freely with them as I saw children do in Sarajevo.
Originally, I suspected that this was a town/city difference and that I was nervous because I grew up in a village and am now in a city. In Chapter 2, Jane writes,
“[Cities] differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers… The bedrock attribute of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among these strangers. He must not feel automatically menaced by them.”
As I mentioned in my post about Chapter 2, I feel safe in my neighbourhood due to the intensity of the ‘eyes on the street’ effect here. As I thought about this chapter, I realised that I don’t think about ‘stranger danger’ for myself most of the time in Toronto — just for kids. Sarajevo showed me that this is not a default thing: it is possible to feel safe enough in a city to let kids run around a bit in a crowd of strangers. Emma Williams also wrote about the effect of varying levels of stranger danger as she raised her kids in New York City, Senegal, Jerusalem, and Belgrade. Toronto is not more dangerous than any of these places, but it is more wary.
Here are some questions this chapter sparked for me:
- What is the effect of this wariness on children? How does it affect their sense of ownership of the city, or their knowledge of adjacent neighbourhoods?
- What is the effect on us as parents? Does this wariness isolate us at a time when we need support?
- Jane writes that “The myth that … city streets, filled with ordinary people, are innately evil for children boils down to a deep contempt for ordinary people.” How does this affect our capacity for civic pride and civic engagement?
I think these are the kinds of questions Jane is pointing at when she writes,
In real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children learn—if they learn it at all—the first fundamental of successful city life: People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other. This is a lesson nobody learns by being told. It is learned from the experience of having other people without ties of kinship or close friendship or formal responsibility to you take a modicum of public responsibility for you…
It is a lesson that parents, by themselves, are powerless to teach. If parents take minor public responsibility for strangers or neighbors in a society where nobody else does, this simply means that the parents are embarrassingly different and meddlesome, not that this is the proper way to behave. Such instruction must come from the society itself, and in cities, if it comes, it comes almost entirely during the time children spend at incidental play on the sidewalks.
This ties extremely strongly to the importance of casual contact on our sidewalks, but it requires something more: the inclusion of children in that casual contact. How can we encourage this in our cities, particularly when we have such strong fears for their safety?