“Eyes on the Street” examined

I recently spoke at the e-conference for World Town Planning Day on Jane Jacobs’ oft-cited phrase, “eyes on the street.”  The theme of the e-conference was “Going Public: Making Spaces in Our Communities,” and Jane, in her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, did as much as any person to express what made public places work.

She was, of course, talking about the natural surveillance any good place provides to its habitues and users,  just by virtue of attracting the eyes — and ears — of others.  We looked out for each other, to express the quality in terms of safety and security, but we also provide each other interest, by being willing to chat, or to play games together, or just to offer a subject for the mental storymaking of other strangers intrigued by the parade of life, as Australian David Engwicht suggests.

I came to conclude that “eyes” depended on there being “fabric” that links the place to humans.  This fabric consists of desire lines, places nearby that we can see which we want to get closer to, directly and immediately.  This is where “eyes” and “walkability” intersect.  Just as our city “streets-as-traffic-sewers” might reflect the architectural adage, “Form follows function,”  I suggest that “Feet follow fabric” is the antidote.

The most dramatic research on this fabric is that by Donald Appleyard and Mark Lintell (1972) which showed how three similar blocks that differed only in the amount of motor traffic that drove through them had much different patterns of neighbouring, in which the high-traffic-volume blocks had little of it, but the low-volume-traffic one had a rich network (in the form of many trips between neighbours and activity on front lawns and on porches).  So relevant is this work to today’s world that Appleyard’s son, Bruce, himself a professor of planning, is bringing out an undated reissue of the book.

Cars, ironically, are devices designed solely to be used in public places.  But those in their cars, first, aren’t able to see as much as pedestrians see (or cyclists or transit users), both because of traveling faster, and because they are distracted, as it were, by the heavy responsibilities of piloting a heavy, fast vehicle.  Second, their activity represents the number-one impediment to walkability, or reaching an destination of interest quickly, often contending with congestion and road work.  Motor traffic is the number-one degrader of fabric.

Car dependency itself even hurts what Harvard political scientist, Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone 2000) calls “civic engagement.”  He points out that each 10 minutes of extra daily commuting time correlates to a 10 percent decline in community involvement.  Cars may be thought of as a device to save time, but more often than not, they are more often used to allow people to live further from their jobs, from schools, and from activity centres.  Further, their vehicle “shells” both isolate them from serendipitous encounters, but prevent the driver from engaging in activities that transit users and passengers (and often walkers) can.

Jacobs identified several design features that maximize “eyes”: flanking buildings that face the street, clear demarcations between private and public property, and busy sidewalks (p. 35).  The latter didn’t mean only lots of walkers,  but also other activities, such as outside displays of merchants, which, to her, provide the most active form of ground-floor activity, a point she made in a 2000 speech in Washington, D.C. (I transcribed it from video).

But the most intangible quality was the sense of “proprietorship” felt by people, usually those living and/or working along that specific block, or at least nearby.  I pointed out that this “sense of ownership”  provided a sense of responsibility.  This consists of three features: 1) knowledge of the area such that conditions that change are clearly noticed, 2) concern for the health of the public area, based on feeling dependent on its health, and 3) efficacy, a can-do attitude about taking action to make improvements, alone or with others.

She was, of course, referring to security, the absence of fear of being robbed or attacked, by denying the potential perpetrators the chance that their acts will not be noticed and reported, often so quickly that they will be caught red-handed.   In the area of safety — freedom from fear of being injured — eyes have less of a role, since, over time, drivers feel less scrutinized, partly because they travel faster, partly because they are further from their own area where they would be recognized, partly because cars are  now enclosed and glass is tinted, and partly because they are fairly successfully claiming a greater and greater level of personal freedom and privacy.  Reporting dangerous driver behaviour to police with a license plate number and vehicle description will produce nothing more than an official chuckle.  But if the driver is a local, the informal local network will whip into action to send at least a warning.   Tighter driver accountability would bring a much greater level of walkability to our cities.  Today, those not in cars are told to be cautious, even though they are not endangerers as motorists are.

The “eyes” are both those that are in the public area, and those inside the nearby buildings.  The proprietorship attitude makes looking outside onto what is going on a natural thing.  Both the home owner and the shop owner traditionally find excuses to actually go out onto their stoop to sweep and to pick up the mail.  They will also let their ears guide their eyes and they body to a good vantage point to find out what discontinuity — siren, shouting, emergency braking, or even a crunch — caused the noise.  Likewise, in quieter hours, those in the public areas — as well as neighbours — might notice things being not quite right inside one of the buildings, e.g., spousal or child abuse; a break-in.  Because these are co-proprietors, they are less likely to appeal to “authorities” but to use the local network to “investigate.”  Never underestimate the power, in such circumstances, of the “raised eyebrow.”

Even though walkers are at the top of the scale for their eyes being available to provide surveillance, a lively place becomes more successful if those eyes can dwell longer.  This happens by partaking of a number of activities: window shopping, sitting and watching, engaging in conversation with an acquaintance, engaging in games or reading and book or newspaper, or even the now-ubiquitous activity of communicating with one’s “smart” phone or portable computer or book reader.   Even though the eyes might be fully engaged in the activity, the ears and other senses remain alert.

Ray Oldenberg’s seminal 1991 book, The Great Good Place, lovingly introduced the idea of “third places,” which provide free exchanges and companionship that “first places” (our homes) and “second places” (our workplaces) can’t provide because of highly defined and rigid assigned roles.

“Eye-deas” that her concept have germinated include: Oscar Newman’s “defensible space” (the lands around social housing projects, “traffic calming” that slows down traffic and makes places more inviting, “patio-ization” of restaurants that add tables and chairs for patrons in the public area (usually paying the city a fee), revival of main streets and heritage market areas, redesign of streets and parks based on CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design), commemorative bench programs (private parties pay for a bench with a memorial plaque at sites planners recommend needs them, and the “broken window theory” that spurs property owners and municipalities to quickly repair vandalism or remove graffiti, as the best way to discourage future similar actions.

How can we measure and use “eyes” to design better public places, and to “repair” existing ones?  William “Holly” Whyte, who wrote the seminal Organization Man in the 1950, undertook research of public places in New York City for the rest of his life.  His PBS show and accompanying book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, used hours and hours of observation and high-speed movies (for later analysis by slowing the motion down) to understand what features of NYC’s many plazas worked and which didn’t.  In 1988, he wrote City: Redicovering the Center in which he extended his work to the city streets, showing meticulously how street hawking and chance encounters between acquaintances supported economic goals of cities (which was the subject of three later books by Jacobs).  He coined the term, “triangulation” for the phenomenon of an encounter between two friends, which expands when a person known to one of the conversants passes and is roped into the conversation and introduced to the second party.  This can be repeated many times as the original “introducer” leaves, but the new person ropes in a fourth person.  This is the way personal and business networks, even in the age of smart phones, are nurtured.  On the issue of “undesirables,” Whyte said, “The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else.”  Which is the opposite of what business interests do to discourage vagrants.

In my mind, the most accurate measures of a healthy number of “eyes” is the presence of children, the elderly, and those in wheelchairs.  They are our most vulnerable and have the highest need for eyes.  They are part of the PED-CIVS group (poor, elderly, disabled, children, ill/infirm, visitors, and “simplicits”) that constitute the half of the population that planners forgot exists when doing their work.  They may not have the best or most informed eyes, but they easily become what attracts the eyes of others.  And their presence near the curb clearly inhibits drivers, assuming things are arranged so they can be seen.  To use video of public places, much improved since William Whyte’s day, along with software that can analyze not just what people are doing, but what they are (probably) hearing and seeing, and we’ll move along our knowledge of the dynamics of public places and what they mean to us.

The way to improve “eyes” is not to harden the roadway corridors by further separation by mode.  Rather, it is to soften them.  Hans Monderman, the late Dutch traffic engineer, took the woonerf concept — no curbs, meandering vehicle path — from residential streets to the main streets (“shared space”).  There he removed not just the curbs, but many of the signalized intersections that establishes the idea of “rights-of-way” that are designed to keep pedestrians and cyclists out of motorist’s way.  He pointed out that these all establish a “false sense of security” and speeds so high that vulnerable roads users who are struck are almost certain of dying.  Rather, road users should all defer to each other in a kind of “dance” which requires slowing down and lots of eye contact.

The other major change in culture of streets and transportation is the replacement of private cars with shared one (taxis, rental cars, ridesharing, and the newest, carsharing).  The present regime, OPOCO (one-person, one-car orientation), causes the car population to be much larger than necessary, considering how little time each one is on the road (1.5 hours a day) and how many seats in those on the road hold a person (1.2).  It is hard to say which of the two main problems created by OPOCO — road congestion or sprawl — is worse.  But neither will be addressed by “green cars.”  But MASC, metered access to shared cars, as I term the merging of the various forms of shared vehicles, will.

MASC will: a) inhibit the choice of using a car, as there will be fewer of them available, dampen demand by the shifting costs from “sunk” (fixed) to variable, and require a longer walk to get access to a vehicle), b) increase scrutiny of driving, thanks to the self-interests of the companies that own them (and need to know the identity of the driver for every kilometre the car is being driven), c) improve individual health indicaters via reduced collisions, reduce drivers’ stress, and greater fitness from using more human exertion in travel, and d) improve environmental conditions, including air quality, green-house-gas reductions, noise, and general urban grime.

And crime, as the increase in “eyes” will jump appreciably, especially through reduce “imprisonment” of the PED-CIVS.


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