Look outside. Our streets truly are a barometer of a neighbourhood's success.
By Ben Bull
Published November 26, 2010
I'm an advocate of new urbanism but not much of a student. I got halfway through The Death and Life of Great American Cities before stuffing it back on the shelf. Jane Jacobs was a riveting and enlightened individual, but even John Le Carre would have trouble sexing up this material.
I don't feel bad. I think, in many ways, Jane Jacobs was the same. She wasn't an urban student in the traditional sense. She had no degrees. Her knowledge was gleaned, for the most part, through enlightened observation - walking down the street and taking a look around.
I'm the same. I'd rather see things with my own eyes than read about them in a book.
One thing that resonated for me, though, during my 200 page or so foray, was Jacob's assertions around street life. She talked about 'eyes on the street', short walkable blocks and, of course, density.
As RTH succinctly puts it in the RTH First Principles:
The public life of the city is in its streets, or it's nowhere.
That's a bold statement, and one I questioned it the first time I saw it, but the more time I've spent observing the neighbourhoods I've visited and lived in, the more I've come to realize it's true.
I've lived on many kinds of streets. In the Leeds suburbs, the streets were quiet. I used to watch the cars go by for hours, or else head out with my mates to go hopping into people's hedges, or hanging out by the chip shop. There was nothing else to do.
When I lived near Hamilton's Gage Park, I'd usually stay indoors or else jump into my car and drive to the shop. There weren't that many people on the street. There weren't that many places to walk to.
In each and every neighbourhood I would do the same thing. I'd sit and watch wonder: "Where am I?"
Public life defines our neighbourhoods; it's what we are about. If you can't see what your neighbourhood is about - and where else can you see it but on the street? - well, then it's not about anything.
When I was living in Hamilton, I commuted to Toronto. One day, while I was walking to pick up a rental car at Carlton and Church, I saw a bloke hustle past me with a laundry bag slung over his shoulder.
"What the hell is he doing?" I thought as he skipped across the street and disappeared into a nearby house. "Is he lost?"
For some reason, the sight of an ordinary dressed-down bloke going about his everyday chores, in the middle of the day, downtown, seemed out of place to me.
I was used to a definitive division of street life:
So what was this guy doing mingling with the shoppers, the tourists and the workers, carting around his laundry?
I was curious enough to take a closer look at my surroundings.
The street on Carlton from Yonge to Church doesn't seem that remarkable at first glance, but on closer inspection it's gets interesting. There's the Gardens, of course - nice to look at but not many folks going in.
The Carlton cinema, a hotel, shops, places of work, and Allen Gardens. Places to live. Apartments, semi-detached homes and row houses.
I noticed that this neighbourhood really did have a little bit of everything, and thus its street life defied my usual view of people-type separation.
It was an epiphany!
Of course, given the types of establishments I've described, you can imagine what the street life was like. There wasn't just Laundry Boy lolling around. There were kids on their way to school, cinemagoers, tourists, and folks like me, on their way to work.
It all seemed so right, so nice - so real.
Five years ago, I moved to a downtown neighbourhood for the first time in my life. Here, in Toronto's St Lawrence Market district, the streets are always varied and busy. It's easy to tell what the neighbourhood is about.
As I stroll around watching the walking world go by, it seems clear to me that the single most important indicator of successful neighbourhood development is - the streets.
Perhaps I'm over-simplifying? Well, think about it - just take a look outside. Ask yourself:
What you see is where you are. Our streets truly are a barometer of a neighbourhood's success.
Jane Jacobs knew this. That's why she mentioned streets so often. In order for a street to be interesting and engaging at all times of the day, the neighbourhood must comply with several of Jane Jacob's urban principles. The street must:
So if you want to find out what your neighbourhood is about, there's only one thing you have to do: Go for a walk.
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