The Benefits of “Eyes on the Street”

According to Jane Jacobs, more people on our streets means safer neighborhoods

There must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. — Jane Jacobs

As I was reading Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), it inspired me to think about the importance of city streets. City streets are important places where people can come together and get to know each other in the neighborhood. As Jacobs states, her neighborhood in New York City, was very accessible for people, and that almost all people knew one another’s daily activities, which created a sense of social cohesion and security on the street. This is Jacobs’ example of East Village in 1961, where she knew most of her neighbors and activities taking place throughout the day.

Jacobs refers to the concept of “eyes on the street” which is the activity taking place in city streets that keeps the movement and security of the street intact. She suggests that where there is a crowd of people, our streets are safer to use because if someone is in trouble the eyes on the street are ready to assist and protect from danger. She refers to this constant mix of strangers on the street as an “intricate ballet” or a dance where everyone contributes to the well being of the street in making it a liveable place.

Many cities lack this friendly congenial atmosphere that Jacobs’ neighborhood had and to this day her critique of urban planning is not solved with thin suburban neighborhood and urban sprawl still in existence. She suggests that living in high density neighborhoods increases the social character of public space because it makes it more convenient for people to get to know one each other.

“When there are people present in a public space such as city streets, it strengthens the space and inspires social cohesion.”

This led Jacobs to advocate for mixed-use neighborhoods where she suggests that the “eyes” get stronger when there are a range of activities taking place on the street. She suggests pubs and shops are a good strategy to maintain neighborhood safety. When there are people present in a public space such as city streets, it strengthens the space and inspires social cohesion.

Jacobs gives the example of Boston’s North End neighborhood, which was a small “slum” but had very well used streets where the residents felt safe to use the streets on a daily basis, creating a vibrancy in the area. She suggests we need more neighborhoods like North End where people’s activity and close proximity to one another is important.

Although Urban Planning has changed since 1961 when Jacobs first wrote the book, there is still a lot that could be improved, especially when it comes to city streets. People often avoid the use of streets that are unsafe or unused, however, instead of demolishing these areas, there is a need to bring in people and make it safe rather than avoiding them.

Jacobs’ concept of eyes on the street is still beneficial for today’s public spaces in order to make them more welcoming and beneficial for people to use. Since Jacobs’ book there has been many more public spaces being erected akin to her philosophies. People use the public spaces and city streets a lot more to interact with other people today and there is an idea that public spaces are useful for our cities, as the public uses them on a daily basis. Many scholars have taken Jacobs’ ideas and put them into practice. This includes Jan Gehl, who is an active advocate for public spaces in support of Jacobs’ ideas.

Therefore, if the concept of eyes on the street is utilized well, it can really change the way architecture and city planning are used to create the vibrancy of not only our streets but also public space on the whole in today’s cities.

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