In my freshman year of college, we read a few excerpts of Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities in my Public Policy class, and to be honest, it didn’t make a lasting impact on me, and I can’t say it really changed how I viewed much of anything. I found her writing boring, dull and unrelatable.
It came a surprise, then, to find how intrigued I was when I read this piece before class. Rather than being bored with her descriptive prose, I became invested in the words of this woman who observed and participated in the rhythms of city life, and who understood the vital elements of maintaining the life of the city. Central to the life of the city–and in the hope of staving off the “Great Blight of Dullness” she often mentions–are healthy city streets.
Specifically, Jacobs mentions three characteristics that separate the healthy streets of a thriving city from the unhealthy streets of a dying city: a clear demarcation between public and private space; the importance of having “eyes on the street”; a “fairly continuous” amount of users of the street. Of these three characteristics, it is the latter two that I would like to address.
What Jacobs gets right in making these statements is that they are what makes a healthy city street a key component of a living and thriving city. When I think of some of the great cities I have been in, both of these components have been present. At the same time, however, what makes these city streets great is also what makes them uncomfortable for me.
I grew up with my nearest neighbor being a half mile down the dirt road from me, and most of the eyes watching me walked on four legs rather than two. It is because of this that I am just now getting used to living in a somewhat urban setting. Having so many eyes watching me left me feeling like naked in a sense, as if my every move was being watched and evaluated. The continuous stream of users on the street made it impossible for me to really know what was going on in my surroundings.
What I’ve come to realize after a month here in Perugia–and after reading Jane Jacobs for a second time–is that her ideas are rooted in an urban perspective, and designed to address urban problems. On the other hand, I have realized that the reason I failed to grasp Jacobs’ ideas the first time I read her work–and why I still struggle with it–is because of my rural perspective on human social interactions in public spaces. And to be honest, I think her writings could use some rural perspectives, mostly because I do not believe the implied assumption that a quiet street is ostensibly a more dangerous one.