My favourite line from Chapter 4 on assimilating children into the uses of sidewalks is not by Jacobs but from a 1928 report on city recreation by the Regional Plan Association of New York. The excerpted report tellingly describes one of the main challenges of keeping city children in parks and playgrounds, where planners would prefer they stay in their leisure time: “The lure of the street is a strong competitor.” The carnival of the street and its gritty sidewalks, in the eyes of the report’s authors, are clearly a dangerous and dissolute place to be avoided by and spared from children. What good could possibly come from children playing on sidewalks?
The answer, of course, as Jacobs reveals in her observational-evidential style, is plenty of good. Little eyes on the street beget bigger eyes on the street. As children play on sidewalks, they naturally engage the attention of surrounding adults. It doesn’t matter whether the attention is watchful or incidental, adoring or disapproving, from a porch or through store window, just so long as the people giving the attention are there in the first place and “take a modicum of responsibility for each other.” The right sidewalk is a lively and protected place for even a city’s most vulnerable population—kids under the age of 15—while secluded, underpopulated parks and planned playgrounds are easily more threatening or illicit.
The problem with applying this to the behaviour of kids these days is, well, kids these days. They are no longer just squeezed out of street life by planners and engineers as Chapter 4 rightly tells us, but their leisure time is also much more heavily programmed, scheduled, and cybernated. The lure of the street now has a troupe of new competitors for kids’ time and attention in the form of lessons, sports, clubs, and social media.
Indeed, the child’s world of 1950s New York that Jacobs describes at times feels closer to Oliver Twist than it does to 2012 Toronto. Threat and temptation lie around every corner and lurk in every park in Chapter 4, and children have heaps of unsupervised idle time to go exploring. How many modern kids or parents would recognize this world? Streets now are both less dangerous and less enticing as the busy lives of modern kids mimic the busy lives of their parents. And since a wall of technology has been erected between kids and the street, the precious time they do “waste” isn’t spent playing on sidewalks.
It’s also worth noting that progress has been made in the contrived and underused Garden City play spaces that Jacobs rails against in Chapter 4. We are doing a better job with these and other successful planned public play spaces in downtown Toronto. Dufferin Grove in the west end, Sibelius Park in the Annex, and Rose Avenue field in St. James Town are all safe and well-used by children. They are justifiably celebrated for the vibrancy and mix of populations they attract.
Worth taking away from Chapter 4 are Jacobs’ broader points that children need a variety of places in which to play, including sidewalks, and that it is foolish to try to compartmentalize children’s play in parks and playgrounds. A sidewalk will always be the first best option for kids’ play, and a wide, well-used sidewalk is even better since if “sidewalks on a street are sufficiently wide, play flourishes mightily right along with other uses.” How wide is sufficiently wide? The upper end of the range of ideal sidewalk widths Jacobs describes (over 10 metres) are a fantasy for most of our streets, and would blow up a document like the City of Toronto’s Vibrant Streets Guidelines with its pedestrian clearways of a couple of metres. But a narrower sidewalk will do just fine provided it has those key Jacobsian elements of a successful neighbourhood—vibrancy, stability, and people who care even a little.