In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs pioneered understanding of modern cities and their neighborhoods that allows a nuanced sense of the relationship of the physical structures within cities to the maintenance of safe, friendly, lively and socially meaningful communities and neighborhoods.  In three wonderful chapters that set the stage for the entire book, she identifies the vital connections that may be created and maintained through actively used paths and sidewalks.

Jacobs eloquently demonstrates that the width of sidewalks, the frequency with which they cross and cut through blocks, the mix of businesses and residences along them, and the number of friendly eyes looking out windows across them, are all tied to higher levels of safety, fun, sociability and overall neighborhood health. Kids playing on them lead to mixing of adults and kids in ways that further the well-being of both. In contrast, she argues that when kids are forced to play in parks away from adults, and youth workers are hired and paid to look after them, the sidewalks lose life, and the kids become age segregated in semi-dangerous autonomous areas.  As a result of this fragmented community more police will need to be hired to guard the sidewalks.

In other words, actively used and watched sidewalks contribute to self-regulating communities whereas neglected sidewalks require institutionalized people, practices and structures to control the activities of the neighborhood.

In addition to the important role that sidewalks serve, according to Jacobs, another defining element of lively communities is their ability to provide a subtle balance between public and private life.

She described the store owner of a delicatessen who acted as the custodian of keys for residents in her neighborhood (people would drop off their apartment keys at the delicatessen where they were kept safely until picked up later by friends or family). Jacobs further identified candy stores, grocery stores, coffee shops, barber shops and drug stores (among many others) as similar sites where people leave their keys.  “The point, wherever they are left, is not the kind of ostensible service that the enterprise offers, but the kind of proprietor it has” (p. 79).

According to Jacobs, these key custodians are selected because they combine a feeling of good-will with no personal interest in the private affairs of those whom the keys belong to.  The essential line between public service and private affairs is maintained through this informal practice and Jacobs argues that it “…cannot be institutionalized” (p. 74).

Neighborhoods flourish when they cultivate an actively used, casual public sidewalk life. Jacobs challenges the modern city planner, aloof structures that harm community life, and professionals taking the place of real people and real communities.

Jacobs, J. (1961/1993). The Death and Life of Great American Cities – Part I