Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sidewalks are not like roads

Beacon Hill
One of my favorite aspect of Jane Jacobs's writing is her masterful usage of anecdotes to illustrate a point. In chapter 3 "The uses of sidewalks: contact" she writes:
I have seen a striking difference between presence and absence of casual public trust on two sides of the same wide street in East Harlem, composed of residents of roughly the same incomes and races. On the old-city side, which was full of public places and the sidewalk loitering so deplored by Utopian minders of other people's leisure, the children were being kept well in hand. On the project side of the street across the way, the children, who had a fire hydrant open beside their play area, were behaving destructively, drenching the open windows of houses with water, squirting it on adults who ignorantly walked on the project side of the street, throwing it onto the windows of cars as they went by. Nobody dared to stop them. These were anonymous children, and the identities behind them were an unknown. What if you scolded or stopped them? Who would back you up over there in the blind-eyed Turf? Would you get, instead, revenge? Better to keep out of it.
The obvious criticism of such evidence is that they each constitute but a single observation in a vast and varied city. But no dull presentation of statistics is going to illuminate her point like a well chosen anecdote can. She relies on the reader to understand the context. The story about residents who leave their keys at the local delicatessen does not imply that this custom is integral to a lively urban neighborhood. Instead, it shows one instance of the separation between public personae and private life.

One of the mistakes the "Utopian minders" make is to treat sidewalks like roads. That is, they are purely ways to travel, and not destinations in themselves. People don't drive their cars to interact with other people -- and if they do it is likely to be a negative encounter -- rather, they are focused on getting to their destination. Nominally, a sidewalk does have the purpose of letting people walk to places. But when not encased by two tons of metal moving at high speed, people have a tendency to interact with their surroundings. Most people walking are not out to socialize -- they probably do have somewhere to be. But by being in the same place with other people and by moving at normal human speed, they contribute to a self-generating social situation that Jacobs describes as "sidewalk life." When planners gut neighborhoods, when they remove businesses and hide them behind acres of parking, then sidewalk life is strangled because it cuts down on the number of people around for any purpose. It is a self-perpetuating problem: nobody wants to go there because nobody wants to go there. Walkways are not highways for feet.

Nowadays, I think this point is relatively well taken, although not completely understood. Sitting in community meetings I sometimes hear about the plans from developers to create "interesting spaces" or "attractive street-fronts." I think they may be trying too hard. Very few people are going to be attracted to a street just because the buildings are "varied in styles", "have floral planters in front", or an "eye catching design." There seems to be almost a consensus that there is an "architectural solution" to the problem of boring streets. Alternatively, the plans might include a coffee shop or convenience store on the corner, as some kind of outpost of urbanism. I find these to be expressions of a "cargo cult" approach to city planning: imitate the superficial features of successful districts in hopes that the liveliness will come along too.

San Francisco
Developers may still be trying to figure out what makes a neighborhood successful. Tenants vote with their dollars. Jacobs observes what would soon be coined as "gentrification":
But nevertheless, many of the rich or near-rich in cities appear to appreciate sidewalk life as much as anybody. At any rate, they pay enormous rents to move into areas with an exuberant and varied sidewalk life. They actually crowd out the middle class and the poor in lively areas like Yorkville or Greenwich Village in New York, or Telegraph Hill just off the North Beach streets of San Francisco. They capriciously desert, after only a few decades of fashion at most, the monotonous streets of "quiet residential areas" and leave them to the less fortunate.
What's frustrating is that fifty years later, we still haven't figured out how to reliably increase the supply of urban districts with lively sidewalk life, and in many cases, have taken steps to squelch what areas do exist.

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