32. Crime and Fear: Yesterday’s Problems?

The Gallup survey reports that, while there is substantially less urban crime, there is more fear of crime. The kind of crime that most worries people—mugging, vandalism, robbery—mainly occurs in neighborhoods with empty sidewalks. Popular urban public spaces, on the other hand, evidence little crime or fear of crime. The latter, of course, is the principal problem, sometimes remaining as a public preoccupation long after crime itself has diminished.

Some research suggests that television and movie portrayals of  crime have become so realistic as to feed these concerns beyond the probability of threats to people and properties. Proxies for crime turn up in surveys of residents in improvement districts. Those responding to surveys in Center City District list “Reduce the number of people sleeping or lying in publics paces” as number one in their list of “Desired neighborhood Improvements”. An understandable reaction because most of the homeless are visible in the 200 block BID service area( residents in surrounding neighborhoods ranked this preference fifth). Both respondent groups listed  “Increase the visibility of Philadelphia police officers” among their top three preferences wishes for their fairly high density bases.

Attacking the effects of contemporary urban design, Jacobs saw “monotony, sterility and vulgarity”, wryly commenting that  the experts say it must be good for us “as long as it comes bedded with grass.” Nevertheless, the planned play areas didn’t attract the numbers of children who preferred playing in  streets.

Jane Jacobs and Sidewalks

“When people say a city is dangerous …what they mean primarily is that they don’t feel safe on the sidewalks,” Jacobs wrote. Cities are, by definition, full of strangers. A successful city district must enable pedestrians to “feel personally safe and secure among all those strangers.”

In her most famous prescription, Jacobs wrote that the public peace of cities is kept, not by police and guards but by “an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls.” She wrote that “No amount of police can enforce civilization where the normal, casual enforcement of iy has broken down” (the same might be said of the uniformed ,unarmed, radio equipped patrols finance by Business Improvement Districts in large cities). Jacobs’ formula for reduced urban fear was :

  • “Eyes on the street, eyes that we might call the natural proprietors of the street”
  • “ The sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously.”

One of the conceptual fads in the world of design that substitutes for observation and analysis is the current notion that the essential ingredient in urban success is “walkability”. If places are more attractive to pedestrians– strolling for its own sake, looking at buildings and window shopping, a  leisure activity—that is the new mark of success. Leisure walkers, however, are few, generally tourists, people with spare time. The overwhelming share of urban pedestrians are people with economic purposes—shopping, going to and from work—who see walking as transportation.

To produce the necessary pedestrian volumes and the observing residents and  shop owners suggests that cities and improvement districts save on the patrols, investing more in attracting  strong, new  businesses and sponsoring outdoor activities that draw pedestrians.

Jacobs saw famed planner Corbusier and his Radiant City as the principle source of bad design decisions, beginning with his vision of skyscrapers in parks (lots of grass) connected by elevated high speed highways. Inhabitants would be housed at 1,200 to the  acre, the towers occupying only 5% of the land.”The whole city,” he asserted, “is a Park.”

This formula served as the model for many  of the housing projects for the poor—elevators, no stores, lots of empty open space—and a few for middle income people in the Depression and immediate post war years. The first successful rebellion came in Saint Louis where the city found that the unthankful poor chose to live almost anywhere else. The entire projected was destroyed. Other cities had to wait until the Hope Six reform replaced the monumental failures with mixed income low rise projects.

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