Yesterday I posted questions I had about how the suburbs were created and why they were patterned on a grid-system. Well, I started reading a terrific book to quell my curiosity about urban planning, published in 1961 by Jane Jacobs, titled The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I’ve only read the first couple of chapters, and yes, it is a book that is almost 50 years old. However, most communities were built around this time, so many of Jacobs’s points are still current today.

The first few chapters discuss the importance of bustling sidewalks and short blocks. She described how in New York City, the safest streets are streets that have multiple uses with lots of pedestrians. For instance, the street might contain a grocer, a dry cleaners, a deli, a florist, and a restaurant or bar that is open late. This gives people on the streets a destination to go towards all day long and even into the night. The movement of these strangers gives individuals a common feeling of safety, even though they don’t know each other. The inhabitants in the area know each other, if only by acquaintance, and this adds to that feeling of community. Jacobs’s points out that it doesn’t matter if there is a park, or grass nearby, that’s not what makes the area safe. The short blocks and cohesiveness of the area provides that feeling.

When a city “revitalizes” an area they feel has become run down, they often build expanses of spaces that people don’t use. The fewer the people, the less safe the area becomes. The taller the apartment complexes, the less connected the people living in them feel to the block. Current urban planning is based on a Garden City plan that is over 100 years old. It was a utopia-driven plan with the goal being to thin out the city of London. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now.

When a sidewalk becomes desolate, there are fewer eyes watching it because there is nothing to watch. It becomes, as she says, “…a gray, dull area.” Who wants to watch a gray, dull area? No one. As this happens, the sidewalk becomes a little less safe since no one is watching.

This got me thinking about my neighborhood. I grew up in the suburbs and still live in the suburbs. Jacobs’s states that her observations and research don’t include the suburbs since she focused on dense cities. Yet, much of what she says about cities, holds true for the suburbs. For instance, when I was growing up in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, I played out side on the sidewalks and in the street. There were plenty of kids outside, with parent’s eyes watching from inside our homes. We felt safe in numbers. We felt safe because we could see our parents peeking out from kitchen windows.

There was a huge shift in the late 80’s and early 90’s, a fear of strangers and the beginning of a two-parent working household. This lead many children inside or to the backyards. In my community, our backyard fences are frequently 6-feet tall. Today, I rarely see children playing on the sidewalks or in the streets in their neighborhoods. Since fewer children are venturing out of their houses, there are fewer eyes watching, making the neighborhoods seem less safe. In my opinion, this not only is affecting the safety of communities, it is affecting children’s social skills.

What are your thoughts on this? Am I right in saying that neighborhoods, whether suburban or urban, need eyes watching? Does a bustling sidewalk equal safety?


  1. RainyDaySaver Reply

    As long as it’s the right kind of watching, it’s definitely necessary for creating a ‘safer’ neighborhood. I had the same kind of experience you did growing up — we were outside in the morning and back home when the streetlights came on. But everyone’s parents were watching us, and some of the older neighbors, too. We felt safe. Now, things are different in the suburbs — and not as safe, as a result.

  2. Little House Reply

    @Susan, there is another book Jane Jacobs wrote called Battling Moses, or something to this effect. Basically it describes her unhappiness with Robert Moses’ urban planning. If I have time, I will try and read that one as well.

    @RainyDaySaver – thanks for the comment. I should have emphasized that the ‘eyes watching’ should be the right ones, not the scary ones! But, you’re right, the ‘burbs aren’t as safe because no one is watching their streets. It’s so sad 🙁

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