urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

D&L 2-3: Sidewalks, gated communities and free speech

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Chapter 2 – The uses of sidewalks: safety
Chapter 3 – The uses of sidewalks: contact
I’m catching up to the book club this week, so I’m combining these two chapters in one post.

If there’s an overarching theme between chapters two and three of Death and Life, it’s the role of sidewalks in providing an incontrovertibly public space. Their very public nature of city sidewalks that both guarantees their safety and allows for a vibrant neighborhood life.

As Jacobs notes, there are three qualities that make a city sidewalk feel secure. There must be “eyes upon the street”; “users on it fairly continuously”; and “a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space,” with the spaces not “ooz[ing] into each other as they do typically in suburban settings.” This last characteristic made me pause for a bit, but a look as suburban settings in which public and private “ooze” (what a word!) into each other is illustrative.

Take the gated community, particularly prolific in the South and West. The sidewalks, if there are any, and streets of these communities are absolutely private spaces. Gates prevent other city or suburban denizens from walking, or more likely, driving in. And these these communities don’t do too well on the other criteria, either: there’s definitely no demarcation between public and private spaces; while buildings might superficially face the street, it’s really often the driveways facing the street; and there are rarely users on these sidewalks.

Yet these gated communities seem safe. (Whether they actually are safer is a matter of debate — the general conclusion seems to be that long-term crime rates are minimally affected, although violent personal crime may see a slight reduction.)

I think the key is that almost all of these communities are not city neighborhoods in the traditional sense — you almost certainly have to drive everywhere and there’s no commerce or any sort of vibrant street life by definition. One of Jacobs’ main points is that cities differ from towns and suburbs. While I don’t think this paradigm is completely true, this is one of the areas in which it is illuminated most strikingly. What works for ensuring safety in a gated community — heavy restrictions on access, an overwhelming dependence on vehicles, a lack of any sort of vibrant street life — doesn’t work on city streets and sidewalks.

I want to add that I’m not condemning those who choose to live in these communities. Among the faults of urbanists and planners, as Jacobs mentions in the Introduction, are a seemingly “top-down” approaches and moralistic judgments on where and how people choose to live. Rather, I think what’s important here is pointing out that in many ways, cities’ health is built on a specific equilibrium, and pulling in examples from other settings doesn’t always work.

As for chapter three’s discussion of sidewalks’ roles as places for public life and trust, I think Jacobs’ conclusions are drawn most illuminatingly again by contrast. Growing up in California, I often remember seeing signs in front of stores and shopping centers noting that solicitation was allowed by California case law — it was often explicitly stated the shopping area would certainly have prohibited it given the chance. The relevant case is Pruneyard Shopping Center v Robins (1980), in which the Supreme Court declared that citizens could exercise certain rights of free speech in private shopping centers, after the Pruneyard Shopping Center attempted to prohibit high school students from soliciting donations on private land.

While Pruneyard is centrally a free-speech issue, the motivations behind the case itself illustrate Jacobs’ conclusions.  She notes that city sidewalks play a crucial role in providing for an informal public life and for contact between individuals; they allow for public exchange to take place without encroaching on private life.

So how does this happen where there is very little sidewalk life, such as in many suburbs? One way is to try to take this public engagement to where the public has moved, and in many suburbs that is the Pruneyard-type shopping center. (The rights given in the case have been restricted in the past 30 years, and in general the court has seen more fit to restrict solicitation rights in front of individual stores instead of shopping centers.) People feel an instinctual need for the type of public-not-private life that they get in city sidewalks, and in many suburbs the shopping center is this place.

Looking forward, I’m excited to reread the chapters on children and parks — two topics in cities that so often inspire controversial discussion!

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Written by Andrew ACG

February 10, 2012 at 10:46 am

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