Category Archives: Jane Jacobs

Life on the Streets

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In Death & Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs praises the humble pavement: its place in the city, she argues, is crucial to thriving urban life. Or, put another way, disregard for the cultural value of the pavement (and by extension the street) is profoundly damaging to cities.

That 20th Century urban planners looked to parkland as the ‘lungs of a city’ is to miss an oppertunity, she says, claiming that the isolation and often over-prescriptive design of a park does little to nurture ordinary city life. Given that many of us will be able to cite bleak urban parks, which often feel threatening to walk through, there is much in Jacobs’ argument to find convincing.

A recent trip to Porto attests to the fact that urban leisure and social exchange can successfully take place on the pavement. As one of the oldest cities in Europe, Porto is accordingly made up of small winding streets punctured by little informal squares or crossroads; the city is also built on the precipitous rocky banks of the Douro river estuary. Two factors that leave little opportunity for large public parks.

However, rather than discourage vibrant city life, these restrictions result in a city with intense civic culture, focussed on the pavement. Many factors influence this liveliness, not least the climate; however, it is worth remembering Danish cities such as Copenhagen or Aarhus demonstrate that cold weather does not necessarily discourage healthy street culture. So what other ingredients in Porto contribute its successful street life?

To begin with, Porto is relatively compact and dense: approximately 5200 inhabitants per kilometre. Physically, this is embodied in tightly packed streets with small shops at street level and apartments above. Street fronts are active, creating direct supervision of the street from the home, shop or café; and vice versa too of course.  What’s more, buildings generally house a diverse population: families, couples, the elderly, children, as well as tourists. This results in busy streets throughout any given day, which in turn makes what could otherwise be dark canyons, feel safe and inviting.

However, where feasible, pavements have been as generously sized as possible (especially when considered in relation to the city’s dense grain). Cafes and restaurants invariably extend into these pavements: at one end as grandiose and permanent fixtures and, at the other end, just as a few plastic chairs or a bench perhaps.

Street life is also encouraged at municipal level. The surface finish of most large pavements is treated as one might a building’s elevation: that is, with careful consideration for material and detail. And in implying such respect, the status of the pavement is raised to that of a genuine civic environment.

But what of transferability to the UK? Ultimately it is hard to reverse prevailing trends and policy. Central government, for example, is currently driving the creation of suburban ‘garden cities’; and in many major cities there is a move towards privatised ‘quarters’ and ‘villages’, be they covered (as in Westfield) or open air (as in Liverpool One). Ultimately, a regressive move evoking the zoning principals of 20th Century urban planning.

Neither of these moves is likely to encourage unplanned social activities or facilitate the passive supervision that the occupants of a street in Porto might naturally provide. Nor are the owners of malls likely to look favourably on the unauthorised ownership of streets by little plastic chairs. Shame really – it’s our loss.

Stuart McKenzie 2014