“Sidewalk Life:” A Global Asset

   While Robert Moses was the mogul that valued the “big picture” over the needs of the people living in the streets he was destroying, Jane Jacobs approached city planning in a manner that placed larger emphasis on “city” over “planning.” In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs asserts that city planning should not be executed in a standardized manner, as standardization creates lackluster isolated cities and limits the growth of productive ones. Unfortunately, there is a bias that rudimentary city planning has against the true essence of a city. Jacobs stresses that current city planning considerably idealizes the “private” and “friendly” ambience of suburbs. Cities cannot function if planners continue to believe in the existence of a quintessential suburban “togetherness”. What needs to be realized is that suburbs lack diversity; differences are not celebrated but are diminished in monotony and repetitiveness. In fact, cities achieve a sense of harmony much more effectively than suburbs. Successful cities provide diversity and encourage interactions amongst strangers while maintaining comfortable boundaries. The resulting balance leads to a sense of public identity that further nurtures a city’s foundations.

      Jacobs explains how one of the ways cities maintain this is through “sidewalk life.” Sidewalk life gives people the comfort of interaction without any severe commitment. Public contacts formed from sidewalk life lead to a general trust in city streets. This can be compared to suburban public interactions which can only occur when people broaden the door to their private lives (Jacobs 62). Other than this, sidewalks also ensure safety through the “eyes on the street” and they form the interconnected bonds that bring in public traffic (Jacobs 35). Jacobs illustrates the importance of sidewalks by comparing two sides of the same street in East Harlem (57). In the old-city side, which had a sidewalk life, the children were much more behaved compared to the project side, which did not have sidewalk life. The public trust that emerges from the existence of sidewalks and their interactions is not just an asset, but ultimately relates to the quality of self-government.

       While Jacobs’s overview of the issue of preserving numerous sidewalks to sustain public trust focuses on American cities, the relatability of the matter expands to cities all over the world. In 2010, students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) School of Architecture and Planning took a trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to map out the street life of the city (public space, vendors, beggars, etc). According to Annette Kim, lead of this research approach, the cities of developing countries are seen as very expendable. “The tendency is to view them as a cut-and-paste list of problems to fix – rapid urbanization, migration, housing, traffic, pollution, corruption” (2). Due to the failure of city planning procedures, the approach to solving these problems has done nothing but destroy the essence of cities. One way in which this destruction ensues is by the wrecking and removing of sidewalks. In this MIT trip, student photographers assembled to showcase the complexity of sidewalks and their many uses in city life. Student cartographers worked to map out the city in a dynamic manner that displayed sidewalk life, instead of concealing it. This mapping out will allow city planners to have no excuse of disregarding the many vendors and public services that exist when clearing sidewalks. Although not referenced, it is clear that this new emphasis on the maintenance of heterogeneity throughout different cities and streets stems from Jane Jacobs’s revolutionary conclusions. While it is unfortunate that city planners are still destroying sidewalks to “fix” other prioritized issues and are disregarding the functionality of them, it is still fortifying to see the impact of Jacobs. Perhaps, this new mapping structure may truly allow city planners to take into consideration the intricate yet productive nature of sidewalks.

Works Cited:
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, 1961.

“MIT School of Architecture + Planning.” In Celebration Of Sidewalk Life | MIT School of Architecture + Planning, sap.mit.edu/article/standard/celebration-sidewalk-life.


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