One of the first specific topics Jane Jacobs tackles in The Death and Life of Great American Cities is the sidewalk. Her thesis: that “a well-used city street is apt to be a safe street.”
Jacobs cites a number of different examples and concepts in defense of this idea, though frankly it’s rather intuitive to me. However, by way of explanation, she offers three qualities that a safe, vibrant street needs:
1. Clear demarcation between public and private space.
2. People looking at and watching the street.
3. People continually on the sidewalk.
All three qualities are mutually informative, but the point she’s making is that vibrant, lively streets are the safest. That’s because, she says, when people are out and about they essentially police the streets themselves — sometimes inadvertently, other times not.
Jacobs writes that the best way to ensure a safe and vibrant street is to “sprinkle” stores and other public places along sidewalks, with the aim of increasing the number of people in the area. Today, we call this “walkability” though I think that’s really just a zeitgeisty label for an old concept.
You can’t make people use streets they have no reason to use. You can’t make people watch streets they do not want to watch. […] The safety of the street works best, most casually, and with the least frequent taint of hostility or suspicion precisely where people are using and enjoying the streets voluntarily and are least conscious, normally, that they are policing.
Talking about this in the context of Provo almost seems like preaching to the choir; after all, there’s a tremendous amount of support for a dense, revitalized downtown.
But it’s not always easy to keep in mind what our future streets should look like. If Jacobs is to be trusted — and she is — one of the biggest visual changes we need is to see our sidewalks filled with people.