In the end, or maybe the beginning, everyone who writes about life in the city ends up writing about Jane Jacobs, the activist and theorist whose work has become synonymous with urban issues like gentrification and preservation, renewal and regeneration.
The title of her breakthrough work in the early nineteen-sixties,, provides a neat summary of her views. At the time it offered a sharp rejection of the notion of sweeping destructive urban clearance as progressive: Jacobs argued in favour of maintaining existing communities and neighbourhoods instead.
One of the mantras that people associate with Jacobs is ‘eyes on the street’ — the importance of having life lived in the streets of a town or city, with people walking and shopping and meeting and chatting. Not sitting in cars and shuttling from one place to the other, but using the streets as living areas and not just facilitating the flow of traffic.
Using the street as a conduit from one bland, soulless zone to another bland, soulless zone is precisely the opposite of Jacobs’ theory that having people out on the street creates a community, helps the inhabitants build closer ties, makes the environment safer and instils a greater commitment to the community among its inhabitants.
Unfortunately, modern life had already been inclined towards pods and bubbles, towards a self-contained insulation, long before we were hit by the pandemic, which has only reinforced that inclination. Much as we’d like to revert to a happier, simpler time when everyone was in and out of their neighbours’ houses, that time is gone and unlikely to return.
But that’s not to say we need give up on building communities. The difference is that we need to do that work consciously rather than hope it’ll occur organically, as it did decades ago.
Here’s a suggestion we could borrow from London, one which involves an obvious meeting point, a place with huge potential for creating networks of mutual support and community: the school drop-off.
However, rather than people meeting and chatting at such places and building those networks, we have at many schools a toxic intersection of selfish and dangerous parking, disregard for pedestrians, traffic problems, raised blood pressure, carbon emissions, simmering conflict between residents and drivers . . . the combination of car horns, brake squeals and grinding gears is hardly the auditory backdrop to a strong community.
In London, a simple solution was found for this — the School Streets scheme. I read a report last week which made strong claims for the scheme, which is blindingly simple: streets around schools are closed to car traffic for the morning drop-off and then for the afternoon collection.
The report claims that the scheme “reduced nitrogen dioxide by up to 23 per cent during morning drop off; 81 per cent of parents and carers supported the measures at their children’s school; and research also showed that 18 per cent of parents reported driving to school less as a result of School Streets”.
The benefits are immediately obvious.
Children’s exposure to harmful fumes and gases is drastically reduced. The closure of the streets to traffic makes them all the more amenable to kids cycling to school, or at least walking from the edge of the traffic-free zone. It’s got to be safer if there aren’t any Chelsea tractors parked eight inches from the school’s front door.
Go further: we all hope that social distancing is a thing of the past, but who’s to say that we won’t have to abide by the 2-metre rule at some time in the future? School Streets makes distancing easier but also facilitates contact. What’s not to love about that?
Closing streets seems a counter-intuitive way to give them new life, but other places go even further than London to build their communities.
In America, the city of Philadelphia has had a Playstreets programme for over half a century, and in that time it’s built up to a point where it now includes over 300 streets participating in the programme every summer.
It’s another blindingly simple idea. A volunteer in the area closes the street to traffic every weekday from 10 am to 4 pm, enabling people to get out and enjoy the street without risking death by dodging cars.
Last year, in fact, Philadelphia went even further. Despite the pandemic, Playstreets became a fully-fledged summer camp scheme. There were activities for kids and summer jobs for teenagers running those activities, with music and food on offer as part of the scheme.
Why the emphasis on kids as part of improving life in the city?
Two reasons. The first is a truth often acknowledged by urban planners and designers - a city which is welcoming and accessible to children is, by definition, welcoming and accessible to all. A city’s ability to accommodates children is a metric which reflects its ability to accommodate everybody.
Which relates it directly to the second reason: urban planners’ ‘popsicle test’, though for Irish sensibilities we might rename it the Choc Ice test. It means that ideally, a child could leave his or her home, walk safely to a shop, buy a Choc Ice (Brunch, Iceberger, whatever you’re having yourself) and walk back home before it melts.
Tim Gill, who wrote, told some years ago: “It’s a good test, precisely because it focuses on a central idea in child-friendliness: children’s everyday freedoms and choices. And it links this directly to local geography and perceived safety.”
It’s also the kind of test that School Streets and Playstreets would help cities to pass.
What also appeals to me about those projects is the low cost involved: monitoring the air to get those results in London doesn’t come for free, while paying teens to run the summer camps in Philadelphia has a cost, obviously enough.
But if we’re serious about getting people to live in the city - to thrive in the city - surely we should be proactive in doing so, and making the city a place that’s attractive to kids.
In an increasingly apartment-centric country we need to be more imaginative with children in urban areas anyway: wouldn’t these be a good way to start?
The other reason for focusing on children is less obvious and has a slower return on investment, but it’s arguably the most important.
If today’s kids grew up in an environment where the street is not a stand-in for Mondello Park, but a community space where everyone feels at ease and people mix freely, that surely augurs well for the next generation, and the generation after that.
Today’s adults may have come of age with insulation as the norm, but that’s a trend that can be reversed if we choose to do so.
Come to think of it, maybe we should be re-writing Jane Jacobs altogether. ‘Kids on the street’ could be the idea that leads us all to a better city.