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the presence of strangers

Some of the specific tactics Jane Jacobs describes in her seminal work on urban planning, 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' (1961), may be outdated half a century later. But what hasn't aged at all is the power of her observations - sharp, down to earth and openminded - about the intricate workings of the city.

A great example is the way Jacobs defines a city neighborhood, as opposed to a village or small town neighborhood. One of the defining characteristics of a city, she observes, is the presence of strangers.

Great cities are not like towns, only larger. They are not like suburbs, only denser. They differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers. To any one person, strangers are far more common in big cities than acquaintances. More common not just in places of public assembly, but more common at a man's own doorstep. Even residents who live near each other are strangers, and must be, because of the sheer number of people in small geographical compass.

This seemingly basic observation turns out to be the foundation of much of her subsequent argument. For one, the presence of all these strangers is, economically speaking, the city's reason for being. It is their daily bustle, the infinite variety of their needs and interests, that supports a city's highly diversified economy.

Classified telephone directories tell us the greatest single fact about cities: the immense numbers of parts that make up a city, and the immense diversity of those parts. Diversity is natural to big cities.

But the presence of strangers also provides one of the biggest challenges for cities (and urban planners), namely how to keep them safe.

The bedrock attribute of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers. He must not feel automatically menaced by them. A city district that fails in this respect also does badly in other ways and lays up for itself, and for its city at large, mountain on mountain of trouble.

This, too, depends on what will become Jacobs' mantra throughout the book: diversity. In order to thrive, cities need as much economic, social and cultural diversity as possible, as well as aesthetic diversity in architecture and street layouts. Abundant diversity creates a lively and intensive street use, which in turn ensures their being safe. In a strange paradox, diversity knits these sheer numbers of anonymous strangers into a (mostly) safe and even neighborly social fabric.

Most of 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' is concerned with how to create the conditions for diversity in cities, and how to avoid its opposite, the thing Jacobs dreads most: the Great Blight of Dullness (her capitals), which is found in suburbs and means the death of both the city and the countryside.

The strategies she proposed have been hugely influential, and still make for an insightful read, that will make you look at your own city differently. After all, the book starts with a short note about illustrations (the book contains none).

The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.

my public space

The NAI exhibition My Public Space takes a critical look at the changing concept of publicness of city space. Public spaces are being privatised as a result of the decrease in state intervention, they are assigned a particular them… Read the full post »

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