What Jane Jacobs Saw in Cities That Thrive

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It's difficult to get to know your neighbors if the only time you're likely to meet them is in the elevator of your high-rise apartment block. Meeting them at street level is more neighborly, provided the street environment is safe and friendly. All too often it isn't, and many blame architects, urban planners, and urban designers for this. That is not unreasonable.

Neighborhoods are better understood when viewed from the perspective of their residents. Back in the 1960s, Jane Jacobs tried to get planning professionals to do just that. Architects, urban planners, and urban designers owe her a huge debt for her contribution to our understanding of how cities really work.

Jacobs wasn't trained in any of these disciplines; she had studied zoology, geology, and political science, not obvious subjects for someone interested in the design of cities. But perhaps there was an oblique logic in the acquisition of these skills for someone interested in how cities work.

The study of zoology would have helped Jacobs develop skills in taxonomy, which she could then apply to her analysis of cities. Her study of geology would have provided her with a ready analogy for the normal pace of bureaucratic change, which is often almost imperceptibly slow, as well as an awareness of how a sudden earthquake can shake things up, sometimes for the better. And her political science studies would have trained her how to interact effectively with authorities, especially when it was necessary to dispute unhelpful presuppositions.

Her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) proved to be something of an earthquake itself. It is a very accessible book, for her writing is both lucid and elegant. I have still got my tattered copy, which I bought in the mid-sixties.

Two Vantage Points

In the book, Jacobs attributes the "death of cities" to a tendency of planning professionals to study cities abstractly and from a distance. They looked at large-scale plans, models, and aerial photos in order to comprehend the city as a very large machine. She, however, wanted to study the city from the ground, on a local scale, and to see it from the perspective of the people who lived in its neighborhoods.

In short, the professionals studied the city from the vantage point of a helicopter; she studied it from the vantage point of a person on the street—literally, as it turns out, for Jacobs decided that the best way to get to understand a city neighborhood would be to look at the public spaces where its residents carried out their lives, especially the streets.

She discovered that city streets worked well when they accommodated a wide variety of activities throughout the day (and night). The bustle might look messy and ugly to purist planners, but there was a harmony in all the goings-on that worked for the area's residents.

As an example, Jacobs pointed to a district in Boston called the North End. Urban planners saw it as chaotic and grubby, a prime example of a slum. It was overcrowded, and its homes, factories, and shops were all hopelessly mixed together. Children played in the streets! The area was thought to be in such need of renewal that it was regularly given as an assignment to urban planning and architectural students at MIT and Harvard to reshape into an example of what a modern city ought to be. "Correct" reshaping typically meant doing away with the messy juxtaposition of residential, industrial, and commercial facilities. Tall, rectangular residential blocks, separated from each other by large sterile spaces, would be designed for people to live in. They would go to work in distant industrial ghettos, and do their shopping in vast retail shopping malls.

"Eyes on the Street"

But Jacobs discovered that, at street level, the North End worked very well as it was. Its crime rate was very low, and the mood of its people was cheerful and friendly. She perceived that the low crime rate was largely due to what she called "eyes on the street." Anyone behaving badly was noticed and accosted by the locals, who were not afraid to intervene in such situations and, if necessary, call the cops. Eyes on the street proved to be an effective means of deterring bad behavior.

Jacobs also observed street life from her 1950s home at 555 Hudson Street in New York. This neighborhood had plenty of diverse activity from early morning until late at night. She described this activity as "street ballet"—the movements of pedestrians, as they paused to greet each other, to catch up on news, or to respond to questions, formed an intricate pattern. Some people walked fast, while others sauntered or just stood around. Shopkeepers kept an eye on their customers, actual or potential. Strangers were greeted with perhaps a friendly nod. Residents who lived in the apartments above the shops kept an eye on the happenings on the street through their overlooking windows. As in Boston's North End, suspicious activity was not ignored but acted upon—discreetly but emphatically.

On one occasion, Jacobs noticed a struggle going on between a little girl and a man who was trying to get her to go with him. The girl kept herself rigid as the man tried to cajole her one minute, and assumed an air of nonchalance the next. As Jacobs began to wonder if she should intervene, she noticed people emerging from nearby shops and heads poking out from upstairs windows. "That man did not know it," she wrote, "but he was surrounded. Nobody was going to allow a little girl to be dragged off, even if nobody knew who she was." Fortunately, the girl turned out to be the man's daughter.

An important point made by Jacobs is that these local communities were not reflexively suspicious of strangers—visitors were welcome to enjoy the neighborhood. But they would not go unnoticed and in fact would be treated just as if they were part of the community, meeting with either cordiality or reproach, depending on their behavior.

"Defensible Spaces"

A decade after Jacobs's book was published, architect and city planner Oscar Newman wrote his own book on the topic, titled Defensible Space (1972). Newman was concerned with safety in public housing projects, and he noticed that crime rates were higher in high-rise complexes than in developments with mid-rise buildings or walkups. He concluded that this was because residents in high-rises did not feel responsible for the communal spaces in and around their buildings, which were not designed to be conducive to easy monitoring. Also, they were shared by too many people, making it hard for residents to tell their neighbors from strangers.

The "stranger-danger" attitude, the idea that people, children especially, should always be extremely wary of people they don't know, had quite an influence on planning policy, but critics pointed out that many other factors contributed to high crime rates in high-rise buildings, one of them being the high proportion of young people in such buildings, who were more likely to engage in crime.

Newman argued that areas with lower-rise buildings had less crime because they weren't so densely populated and because their communal spaces, especially the streets, were more easily observable from windows that were much closer to the ground. He therefore advocated for construction of the kind of housing developments whose common spaces would be visible and easily accessible. Residents would identify with spaces they could see and use in common with neighbors they knew, and strangers in such a setting could be easily identified and confidently dealt with.

Newman himself coined the term "defensible space," and he defined it as a "residential environment whose physical characteristics—building layout and site plan—function to allow inhabitants themselves to become key agents in ensuring their security." He identified five factors that made an area a defensible space: (1) territoriality (one's home is sacred), (2) natural surveillance, (3) the capacity of the design to engender a feeling of safety, (4) proximity to police stations or busy, populated areas, and (5) safe adjoining areas.

The Limited Benefits of Cameras

When I was studying urban design in the early 1990s, one idea for improving safety that became current was the use of artificial surveillance: If CCTV cameras were mounted in public spaces, could they become the eyes on the street? Twenty-five years ago, we had no idea back then how ubiquitous this form of surveillance would become. We certainly did not anticipate the proliferation of privately owned smartphones, bodycams, dashcams, and drones, which would record all manner of street activity in full color and sound. Videos showing the most extraordinary criminal activities are uploaded to YouTube daily. Perpetrators are seen on such videos committing or attempting to commit all kinds of crimes, from the horrific to the hilarious.

Should this relatively new fact of life affect the way we design the urban environment? Instead of planning for the surveillance of public spaces via windows, balconies, and stoops, should we rely on ubiquitous cameras?

Before answering this question, we also need to ask: Does the presence of security cameras make public spaces safer? The not very helpful answer is: Maybe, sometimes. Various studies indicate that footage from surveillance cameras can provide evidence of crimes already committed, but it's doubtful that digital surveillance does much to deter crime. It often turns out that when crime has decreased in an area where cameras have been installed, it's mostly because the criminal activity has been displaced to other areas.

For example, in 2005, the British Home Office undertook a study to gauge the effectiveness of the thousands of CCTV cameras that had been installed in London. The researchers found that, when crime decreased in one location, it increased in another, leading them to conclude that the cameras had little net effect on crime rates. Overall, in fact, "research on the effectiveness of CCTV has painted a somewhat confusing picture. There are plenty of studies showing successes, but plenty highlighting failures, too."

A meta-analysis of 44 separate studies of the effectiveness of video surveillance in public places found that such surveillance worked best at reducing crime in parking lots (51 percent decrease) and on public transportation systems (23 percent decrease), but that in other public spaces it had little, if any, effect.

CCTV seems to be most useful in the identification, apprehension, and conviction of criminals who are largely unaware of the presence of cameras. Those who are more camera-wise are careful to commit their crimes outside the range of camera lenses.

I can cite a personal example. Neighbors of ours who had installed a sophisticated security system at their home, with cameras both inside and out, recently had a burglary. The thief who entered their garden was obviously aware of the cameras because he had removed his red woolen sweater, folded it into a large square, and set it on his head like a giant fluffy beret. It looked odd but was effective in hiding his face. He smashed a small window and then used a pool leaf net with a long handle to scoop up various valuables from inside the house. Though the alarm sounded and security officers came, the thief had plenty of time to get away before they arrived. So all the homeowners got out of their expensive security system was a high-definition color recording of the burglary.

All this suggests that, whatever benefits CCTV surveillance might provide, it is still a second-rate substitute for the "eyes on the street" described by Jane Jacobs. Such eyes—real people's eyes—are backed up by real people's active concern for the wellbeing of all the participants in the street ballet. But even these eyes are only effective in local communities that foster a real sense of responsibility among the residents toward all those who use their spaces.

Making Good Neighbors

Jacobs's eyes on the street had this essential difference from Newman's defensible space: strangers were not seen as the enemy, but as welcome visitors who were expected and encouraged to behave according to the standards of the neighborhood. According to Jacobs, trust was the key to maintaining this attitude. Strangers were given the benefit of the doubt, but they were expected to behave in a trustworthy manner. If they did, they were entitled to the same neighborly protection as the residents of the community. Concern was shown for all who might be in danger, residents and strangers alike. This is how the people of Boston's North End and New York's Hudson Street behaved.

It is significant that during the 1950s, when Jacobs wrote her book, the Ten Commandments were not only taken seriously in the public realm, but were largely taken for granted as the shared code of ethics. That is hardly the case today. Aggressive secularism has led to rejection of, if not outright disdain for, the Ten Commandments in the public square. There are few shared standards of behavior; instead, people are commonly assumed to have the right to decide for themselves what is right.

With this change in ethics there has also come a decline in trust and mutual concern. All too often the commission of a crime is accompanied by the "bystander effect": the failure of those who have witnessed the crime or its aftermath to do anything to help. Ironically, this is more likely to happen if there are many witnesses. Whatever the reason for the bystander effect—indifference, fear, the expectation that someone else will intervene—it is a far cry from the neighborly concern shown by the people Jacobs wrote about.

In Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, after thieves had beaten and robbed a traveler on the Jericho Road, the first two people to happen on the scene, a priest and a Levite, exhibited the "bystander effect"; each walked past the victim on the other side of the road. It was only the Samaritan—who was on enemy territory since the Jericho Road was in Judea, not Samaria—who stopped to help, in obedience to the commandment to love his neighbor as himself.

Today, the teaching of the Ten Commandments to children in public schools is considered tantamount to a violation of the Constitutional prohibition on the establishment of a religion. Yet who could honestly say that not teaching them has led to a more caring and supportive society? If we want our neighbors to be like the residents of Boston's North End in the 1950s, perhaps we need to revive the standards they lived by.

studied architecture at the University of Cape Town and urban design at Oxford Brookes University. He has worked in South Africa, the Middle East, and the United Kingdom.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #45, Summer 2018 Copyright © 2019 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo45/streetwise-neighbors-eyes