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How to Make Cities Safe
On which street would you rather live? This one:
Or this one?
Most people would probably prefer the second street. But why?
There are plenty of opinions out there about what makes a neighborhood or street attractive:
“Buildings should be orderly.”
“Building height should be limited to six floors.”
“The ratio of sidewalk to roadway should be at least 1:1.”
“There should be people on the streets.”
“There must be many parks.”
“We should split different functions, like residential areas, commercial ones, and industrial ones.”
“Buildings should be high.”
“Make it dense.”
“You need lots of mass transit.”
“Lots of trees!”
“You need enough street parking for people to move freely!”
“Car parking is the death of a city!”
And so on…
Here’s the problem I’ve always had with these rules:
How do we know they are true?
What’s the rationale behind them?
Since nobody agrees, they can’t all be right. Who is wrong? Who is right? Why? Without understanding in depth, we can’t know.
You’d think by now urbanists would have figured it out, but if that were true, ideal neighborhoods around the world would be popping up and people would flock to live in them. Instead, we get new neighborhoods like this:
To take another example from Spain, this is Sanchinarro, in Madrid:
Even recent urbanism has failed to consistently create streets that are enjoyable to live on or visit. That means we don’t yet understand the underlying principles of good streets, so we can’t replicate them.
Further evidence that urbanists don’t understand what makes a good street is that the most important reference in the field is still The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a long book from 1961, written by Jane Jacobs—a journalist!
This gap in understanding is what this series of articles will cover: What do we know about livable neighborhoods? What about building heights? Cars? Parking? Crime? Zoning? Should we aim for more suburban sprawl or higher density buildings? How do we reduce the cost of housing? Should we invest in real estate? Nobody has the answers, so let’s look at what we know today.
To begin, let’s take our magnifying glass and turn our attention to the single most important factor in making a neighborhood livable: safety.
If a neighborhood is safe, with a low crime rate, people will go out and hang out with each other. They will consume goods and services. They will meet new people. They will interact. Others will come, attracted to the bustling streets. Life will flourish, and with it, business and neighborly feelings.
But safety is such a core human need that we’ve evolved tremendous instincts to tell whether a space is safe or not. If it doesn’t have everything we need to make it feel safe, we will not venture there. If we don’t venture there, the streets will be empty. If the streets are empty, they will feel even less safe. Plus, they will not be lively or interesting, so people won’t want to go there.
So how do you make a street feel safe?
Eyes on the Street
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs argues that you can only make an urban street safe through eyes on the street. What does that mean?
You need people. If a street is empty, you don’t know who might be lurking. If you’re assaulted, there won’t be witnesses or any potential help.
But not all people are the same.
If there are lots of strangers, it’s more likely that one of them might have bad intentions, and it’s less likely that someone might come to your aid, since they don’t know you nor the codes of the street. Why?
Because there’s no accountability. You don’t know where a stranger lives, so they can do something bad and escape, or they can avoid supporting you in times of danger, and run away. Strangers lend a sense of danger and lack of support to an area.
Villages and small towns don’t have this issue because everybody knows each other, so they police each other. They keep each other accountable. They know where to find you. They will tell you if they think something is not OK. And of course, because they know you, they’re more likely to help you.
In settlements that are smaller and simpler than big cities, controls on acceptable public behavior, if not on crime, seem to operate with greater or lesser success through a web of reputation, gossip, approval, disapproval and sanctions, all of which are powerful if people know each other and word travels.—All quotes in this article are from Jane Jacobs’The Death and Life of Great American Cities, unless specified otherwise.
You don’t have that in cities. They’re full of strangers. So how can you create a safe environment?
You need watchmen.
The public peace of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.
A street will feel safe if people there know somebody will intervene if something happens. For that, you need two things:
People watching what’s happening on the street.
A way for these people to know that, if they intervene, others will have their back. They won’t be alone.
You can always learn a lot through extremes, and in this sense, Japan is a great example. In the show Hajimete no Otsukai (Old Enough!), two and three year old children are sent to do errands in the neighborhood, alone.
Why do parents feel comfortable doing that?
First, because the streets are safe from cars: They’re built to limit speed, and yielding to pedestrians is a must.
But more importantly, people know their neighbors, and they know these neighbors will have their children’s backs.
In other words, you need a network of people who are consistently watching the street, who know each other and can police the streets together.
There must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.
Many Local Shops
First and foremost, you need visible presence: the same locals who might be consistently present on the street. And the best way to achieve that is with shops.
Shops have shopkeepers who tend to be around for years. They know a lot of people in the neighborhood, they know each other, and they have a vested interest in making sure the street is safe and lively. They are, at the same time, active members of the community and tacit police.
The best situation is when there are a lot of shops, with stable business (the shops don’t come and go), and the street-facing representative is stable too (usually the owner).
Shops might not fulfill this role if they have too many employees, as the street-facing responsibility gets diluted. They may also be ineffective if they belong to a chain, as the owners are less likely to be consistently present.
This is a simple requirement, yet how many times do you see streets that are only residential? Where the ground floor has no commercial presence?
Or where individual shops occupy such a long stretch of the street that there are only a few of them?
However, when you have a lot of smaller shops on the same street, it suddenly comes to life.
Here I’m using SF streets for comparability, but SF is really not that great at local shop concentration. Here’s Tokyo:
Although this is more a shopping area than a local neighborhood area with plenty of shops, you can see the same concept in a more mixed commercial-residential place like New York’s Greenwich Village:
OK, we have a residential area with shops. Is it enough? No. Shopkeepers and long-term residents need to know each other, trust each other, and have each other’s backs. They must know who is local to keep them accountable, and who is a stranger, to monitor their behavior.
In speaking about city sidewalk safety, I mentioned how necessary it is that there should be, in the brains behind the eyes on the street, an almost unconscious assumption of general street support when the chips are down—when a citizen has to choose, for instance, whether he will take responsibility, or abdicate it, in combating barbarism or protecting strangers. There is a short word for this assumption of support: trust. The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop, eying the girls while waiting to be called for dinner, admonishing the children, hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist, admiring the new babies and sympathizing over the way a coat faded.
The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level—most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone—is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need. The absence of this trust is a disaster to a city street. Its cultivation cannot be institutionalized.
Within that web, however, some nodes are more important than others.
The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called self-appointed public characters. A public character is anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character. A public character need have no special talents or wisdom to fulfill his function—although he often does. He just needs to be present, and there needs to be enough of his counterparts. His main qualification is that he is public, that he talks to lots of different people. In this way, news travels that is of sidewalk interest. Most public sidewalk characters are steadily stationed in public places. They are storekeepers or barkeepers or the like. These are the basic public characters.
Without these basic public characters, word doesn’t move around, people don’t connect, trust doesn’t form. But you need many such people, which means many such shops.
Efficiency of public sidewalk characters declines drastically if too much burden is put upon them. A store, for example, can reach a turnover in its contacts, or potential contacts, which is so large and so superficial that it is socially useless. An example of this can be seen at the candy and newspaper store owned by the housing cooperative of Corlears Hook on New York’s Lower East Side. This planned project store replaces perhaps forty superficially similar stores which were wiped out (without compensation to their proprietors) on that project site and the adjoining sites. The place is a mill. Its clerks are so busy making change and screaming ineffectual imprecations at rowdies that they never hear anything except “I want that.” This, or utter disinterest, is the usual atmosphere where shopping center planning or repressive zoning artificially contrive commercial monopolies for city neighborhoods. A store like this would fail economically if it had competition. Meantime, although monopoly ensures the financial success planned for it, it fails the city socially.
Meanwhile, a street full of people who move frequently will not form a community: Nobody wants to make the effort to do so because they will leave anyway. And since there’s little community to join when people arrive, it’s much harder to form it from scratch.
So streets need a fair amount of stability to form communities, which will then be able to ensure their safety.
The high-rent tenants, most of whom are so transient we cannot even keep track of their faces, have not the remotest idea of who takes care of their street, or how. A city neighborhood can absorb and protect a substantial number of these birds of passage. But if and when the neighborhood finally becomes them, they will gradually find the streets less secure, they will be vaguely mystified about it, and if things get bad enough they will drift away to another neighborhood which is mysteriously safer.
Does this mean we should push strangers away? No. Streets don’t need a big share of stable locals. They just need a critical mass of them.
Once a street is well equipped to handle strangers and has a basic supply of activity and eyes, the more strangers the merrier.
Of course, if there are plenty of people but they can’t see what is happening around them, crime can take place unabated. That means you need good lighting at night:
It attracts people to walk on the streets.
It attracts local residents to look at the streets—and at the people walking in them.
It makes it easier for people to see what’s going on, and thus monitor the street.
It allows the eyes to see farther, thus allowing for more witnesses at any given time.
Lack of visibility is one of several reasons why parks are actually crime spots: The less well-lit and farther from buildings (and hence potential witnesses), the riskier an area.
Cities should also avoid building streets that have low visibility, like back alleys without windows or much foot traffic (which adds witnesses, potential helpers, and interest to the street, attracting people to watch from the windows).
In summary, according to Jane Jacobs, and supported by research, the most important thing to make a neighborhood livable is to stave off crime, and to achieve that, you need eyes on the street to police each other. That means you need a lot of people, of whom many should be local and resident a long time, with lots of visibility for everybody to see what’s going on. This includes tall buildings and mixed uses (with residential and commercial uses).
But this is not the only thing we know about crime and urbanism. What other human environments promote crime? Which ones don’t? Which are safer: suburbs or cities? I’ll cover all of this in the premium article this week.
In the rest of the series, we’re going to look at other aspects of urbanism: how tall should buildings be? Should we promote suburban housing? Is it causing housing shortages and the affordability crises?
And of course, I’m not even talking about suburban areas—not walkable at all. One day I went to Pennsylvania for work and rented a hotel room 10 minutes walking distance from my client’s office in a suburban office park. Rookie mistake. There were no sidewalks! At one point, I had to run with my suitcase across a 6-lane highway! Forgive the digression, but why are you reading the footnotes if you don’t enjoy them?
I have lightly edited some for clarity
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