And are suburban areas safer? Actually...
It's 15 years since I got turned on to Jane Jacobs while I was in the midst of travelling around Europe with my dog. Her writing is both dense with insights and so damn readable!
I spent two months in Paris and became a short term street character because my dog was so recognisable and friendly. I replicated that experience in other locations. I've also been part of informal neighbourhood watch groups based around dog owners collecting in local parks. We check in on each other, and because we all walk our animals so much, are invested in our neighbourhoods.
This is an interesting approach to crime and safety!
Based on my experience living in a few North European countries I would like to bring another viewpoint. If we take The Nordic (Sweden, Norway, Finland) and the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) as examples, then the only streets that are unsafe due to crime are the suburbs of Stockholm, Malmö, Gothenburg and some other cities where there is a high concentration of unemployed and immigrant population. Put together hundreds or thousands of people who lack economical opportunities, are poor and have a lot of time to hang around and you get a concentration of crime, drugs and unsafe streets. Eventually riots.
On the other hand, if it weren't for cars, I would not be afraid to send a 10y old child walking on any street in Estonia, Finland, Latvia or Lithuania even though all the streets of all the cities of all these countries absolutely lack the local small business owners keeping an eye on things. A big part of this is weather. Mostly it is so rainy, snowy and cold, that the (double) shop doors have to be closed - thus nobody watches over the street....but nobody also hangs around on the street, because it is cold. :-)
The other thing is that in North Europe people don't talk to each other. You don't talk with the shopkeeper or your neighbour or any other stranger. Thus such local safekeepers cannot appear. But the streets are safe!
(When it comes to crime, but could be much better in regards of traffic.)
Thank you for your fascinating articles. I’m always impressed by your knowledge of the topic and the data you provide to backup your conclusions. Until now, I have not been an expert in any of the article topics. In this piece near the end, you talk about lighting in the urban environment and its relation to crime. Lighting design in the urban realm is something that I do know a lot about.
Your summary about the value of lighting at night is basically right. But I’m concerned with statements like “but they can’t see what is happening around them, crime can take place unabated.” Do you have any evidence that this is true, or do you just think it’s intuitively obvious? I fear you may be reinforcing two misunderstandings that dog us in the lighting design community. These are: “Light prevents crime” and “more light means less crime”. There has been very little research to prove or disprove this, but my understanding is that there is scant evidence that light reduces crime and in some cases there is evidence that it increases crime. And of course, plenty of crime takes place during the daytime!
You do say “good lighting”. I’m not sure what you mean by “good”, but hopefully you mean high-quality. There is much low-quality lighting out there installed in the name of security and crime prevention. Sometimes it can make a neighborhood less secure when glare makes it harder to see a threat, or when you abruptly move from an area with excessive light levels into an area with appropriate light levels that now is perceived as too dark.
The “more is better” approach is also terrible for the environment, bad for wildlife, and in some cases human health. Excess light = wasted light = wasted energy = increased CO2 emissions. Excessive light increases skyglow making it harder to see the stars and maintain a direct visual connection with the Universe. A lot more evidence has piled up in recent years showing that anthropogenic light at night is bad for all kinds of wildlife, and plants too. And then there are humans. We need darkness at night for good sleep and if we don’t get good sleep, many negative health effects ensue.
And lighting in the urban realm is a social justice and equity issue. Cities have lit up “high-crime” neighborhoods with high-quantity, low-quality lighting in the hope it will reduce crime. Everyone should have access to high-quality lighting that makes their neighborhoods comfortable, reassuring, and secure. And every resident should have the right to darkness at night in their home and on their property.
And two more things:
You say: “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.”. Any evidence, or just intuitively obvious to you?
The Batman movie pic (I assume) ironically exhibits some of the principles of high-quality outdoor lighting. Light the “walls” of the outdoor room so you can see what’s out there and people will be silhouetted against the wall. Light the destination as the brightest thing in field of view (the doorway?), provide sufficient light levels on the ground so you can see any trip hazards. The reason it looks dark is mainly because all the vertical surfaces are very dark materials, not because there isn’t “enough” light. The “rookie mistake” would be locating four big unshielded floodlights in each corner blasting down into the space.
People need green in their life! Trees that can branch out in every direction provides a natural and safe environment. And as a bonus keeping the city streets cooler.
I've been subscribed for a year I love how you are able to dissect huge topics such as seaflooding as well as these tiny but important topics as urban design. I love your example of little kids free to roam around.
I want to provide a couple personal examples. I grew up in Downtown Vancouver, specifically in Yaletown. This is known as one of the urbanist haralded successes, supposedly inspired by Jane Jacobs, and it even has its own name, "Vancouverism".
For what its worth, the only great parts of Yaletown worth going to (in my opinion), is not the new parts with shiny towers and parks. The problem is that some of these areas are far away from any shops, and they're purely residential. The only saving grace is the old industrial part built 100 years ago now lined with restaurants, shops, tech companies and brick facade buildings (Mainland & Hamilton Streets).
Without these 2 blocks, all Yaletown would be would be some suburban towers along some tree lined streets and far away from any shops. In fact, there's a place across town with just this situation, called "Coal Harbour". It's mostly the same development pattern as Yaletown, but it didn't have any old industrial buildings, so today is 100% residential and only luxury condo towers. The local saying is that half of these condo towers in Coal Harbour are owned by the Chinese and are empty.
So even in the most supposedly "successful" urbanism of the last 30 years, the only part that makes it work is the part that was built over 100 years ago.
My second point, is that we actually know how to build good "urbanism" today. They're called "malls". Most people drive long distances to go to these places, and they like to hang out inside them for hours. In reality, there is nothing really special about malls, other than that they are lined with storefronts, car free, and weather protected.
There is one exceptional urban place, not in my hometown, but nearby in Whistler. The car-free downtown mall is probably the most charming ski town in the world, and it's part of what makes it internationally famous. People travel from across the world to stay in Whistler, and pay upwards of $500 a night in the local hotels. I just wish we built more of these places.
My question to you is as follows... Do you know any places around the world that are not small towns, where young kids are free to roam around without fear of being run over by cars, harassed by child protection services, or other safety issues (eg kidnapping in china)? I'm asking this question for myself. Thank you!
Would you rather live in google street view or an HDR photo? tsk tsk Thomas.
Bias-inducing imagery aside, cool article. Eyes on the street & visibility seem like real useful concepts.
Although now that I say that, there are dark sides to environments with that kind of social power / control over behavior. I wouldn't want to live in Japan because of the overwhelming every day pressure to conform. But also Burning Man has eyes on the street but high non-conformity?
Remember growing up in Mexico City, when I was probably not older than 8 or 9, my mother used to send me to pay her department store credit account to downtown. I never feared being attacked or anything. By 12, I used to ride my bike all over the city.
Crazy how much time has changed our cities
I feel like it’s also old city building vs new city building. Everything that was built a long time ago is brick and stonework, which are beautiful buildings to put homes and shops in. Everything that was built more recently is metal with no shape, it’s whatever building materials are cheapest and the street level is barren and ugly with no character. It’s like IKEA built a city.
No one will build large stone or brick buildings anymore because it’s too expensive and requires too much labor, but the result is a place no one wants to live or work or dine or shop, we go to the older districts for that!
I’m loving this series Tomas!
Very cool article Tomas. Looking forward to the rest of the series.
I'm glad also you talk about safety, an issue often viewed with contempt on the left but that is so central to people's well-being. I'm in Japan this month and the safety is amazingly liberating, it just completely changes the outlook on life that the world outside is not a hostile and dangerous place.
Urbanism helps but many neighbourhoods are pretty much like the infamous French "banlieues", but are still very safe. Major difference here is the poor are not desperate: unemployment is low, they can find a job, "low-skill" workers are treated politely by most and generally not disrespected by society, their kids can have decent education and health, and they can expect a good life - starting with a life expectancy that's close to the richest (the U.S. being the extreme case of the opposite).
Also, I think there may be a darker side to this safety. It's just observation and intuition, I'm not sure there are formal studies on this, but I think there is an emergent cooperation where police sort of outsources the policing of rowdy youth to organized crime (as in, very organized and hierarchical crime). Basically the Yakuza are left to kill each other freely, and (very effectively) scare rowdy youth in line, as long as they don't threaten (most) civilians. This sort of "cooperation" is almost palpable in keeping clients safe in the nightlife areas (or at least was, when I hung around there 30 years ago). Any drunk or brute causing trouble, and almost immediately some scary dudes come out of nowhere and disappear dragging the trouble maker away from view. Police will come too, within ten minutes, but by then business is already back to normal. Not sure that's a good thing. But it's effective for sure, at least in the short term.
Great article, and looking forward to more of the series! As a former New Yorker and current San Franciscan (who's current street is featured as a negative example here!), I yearn for more lively streets -- though nearby Spark Social is a wonderful example of newly-built good urbanism.
I can't help but see parallels with current issues surrounding global supply chains; 20th century economics tends to conveniently ignore the accumulative impact of tiny externalities over time. If something's slightly cheaper to buy from a chain store (e.g. "I can get this for $2.75 from Walgreens vs. $3.15 from the local bodega"), many folks go with the former. Over time this erodes the small-but real benefit of having businesses invested in the community. Similar with supply chains and economic resilience or over-reliance on a supplier... I feel that we often weigh the immediate and more measurable impact of 'economies of scale' disproportionately higher than the longer-term, less measurable impact of 'resilience'.
In the long run resilience tends to find its way into the equation (resulting in wonderful old cities), but when developers primary goal is to build-then-sell, there's absolutely no incentive to think about long term neighborhood health. I'm all for making it easier to build new and more housing, but aligning developer incentives for long-term neighborhood health (which, as this ought to create value for the community, should be possible to make economically enticing) would go a long way.
Firstly can I just say how enjoyable this was to read, but at the same time fascinating and thought provoking. I will definitely get around to subscribing as I could read articles like this all day long.
As for the topic in hand, I'm sure it suffers from the problem of both being potentially "solvable" given enough central planning and aligned objectives (see the theme park or university examples mentioned in the comments), we have unlimited 'data' at our fingertips and enough examples of towns and cities to surely be able to have AI/machine learning give us 'next block' suggestions/analysis for the optimal way to expand existing urban centres (given rarely in the West entire cities are built from scratch). Basically we should be able to know what cities need to move closer to being desirable to live in.
But also at the same time with so many competing interests, and the fact most of us live in free democracies that aren't centrally planned, beyond what local governments have the power to do, which typically doesn't go quite far enough to equate to the theme park/university situations, it's typically an organic method of growth that prevails, with an uneven spread of 'desirable' locations in towns perfectly shown in the example photos in the articles. We really try to plan cities but as the article demonstrates, far too many modern streets end up lifeless and soulless.
I have faith that we can continue to improve cities, but am resigned to the fact that with so many competing interests, change is hard to come by in most countries.
It’s worth digging into Jacobs eyes on the street a bit more by paraphrasing an example she uses in the book.
She gives an example neighbors and shopkeepers noticing a young girl playing on the street. A man unfamiliar to one observer comes up and instructs the girl to follow him home. She refuses and he somewhat roughly begins taking her home by the arm. The observer intervenes only to discover through the intercession of another neighbor that this person is the girl’s father and she is expected home for dinner. (Again, I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have it in front of me.)
Jacobs point is that random people, including those wealthy transients, don’t have enough knowledge of a neighborhood and their eyes on the street aren’t as useful in sudsing out potential transgressions, they might even falsely accuse people! It’s the locals with deep community knowledge who can make more informed judgements.
One could imagine, for example, an eye on the street calling the police whenever a black person came by under a misguided and racist view that black people don’t belong there and will do crimes. This is why there has been a recent backlash to the eyes on the street idea, equating it with broken windows policing and NIMBYesque ideas of preserving neighborhood character. To be clear, I think this is a misreading of Jacobs!
As TP says, it’s not just any eyes but a specific set of eyes informed with local knowledge. Otherwise it’s just “Karens”!
Interesting series, Tomas… looking forward to all your info.
If not now, I hope sometime you’ll look at co-housing communities. The idea of deliberate architecture for living, often centered around a public square (of some sort) intrigues me, especially as I get older.
Tomas, are you familiar with Christopher Alexander and A Pattern Language? He has it laid out in design principles starting w architecture.
Thomas, if you haven’t already seen it, Strong Towns (https://www.strongtowns.org) has many good articles on improving city design, and the benefits of traditional, dense, smaller retail versus big box stores and drive-thru restaurants. I think you might find the deep dives on city revenue per block especially interesting!
Enjoyed reading this piece. Made for easy yet interesting reading.