Jane Jacobs house at 555 Hudson St Greenwich Village (click for street view)

If people know only one thing about Jane Jacobs, it’s usually the phrase “eyes on the street”. She coined it to describe the idea that streets with plenty of activity and, most of all, custodians who care about what goes on in them, will be safe and secure streets.

Jacob’s key objective in her famous book, The death and life of great American cities, was to show how the major urban renewal projects of her day – the late 1950s – destroyed street life and fostered crime. She contrasted the empty, dangerous concrete and grass open spaces of “the projects” with the “eyes on the street” that maintained the peace in her own neighbourhood, Hudson Street in Greenwich Village (see first exhibit).

The most important “eyes” were the store owners. Just in her immediate neighbourhood there was Mr Halpert in the laundry, Joe Cornacchia’s son-in-law in the delicatessen, Mr Goldstein in the hardware store, Mr Lofaro the fruitman, Mr Lacey the locksmith, Mr Slube in the cigar store, Mr Koochagian the tailor, as well as the (unnamed) barber.

This idea has been tremendously influential. There’s barely been a Structure Plan written in the last ten years that hasn’t promoted “activation” of the public realm at least partly as a means of discouraging crime. Greater public safety and security is one of the key rationales for the higher densities, greater permeability and overall walkability of New Urbanism.

I bring this up because I’m rereading Death and Life in the company of thousands of others across the globe who’ve joined the on-line City Builder Book Club. This is our first book and we’re reading it a few chapters at a time – I posted my thoughts on the Introduction a few weeks ago.

So far I’ve read the first six chapters comprising Part 1, ‘The peculiar nature of cities’. They focus on the uses of neighbourhoods, parks and sidewalks. There are three chapters on sidewalks, dealing with safety, contact and assimilating children. Chapter 2, The uses of sidewalks: safety, is the one where she mints the famous phrase “eyes on the street”.

The thing that strikes me most about Jacobs work – something that I hadn’t fully appreciated before – is that it isn’t evidence-based. Her theories, at least in Part One, are based almost entirely on her own experience and perception. When she says “eyes on the street” hinder crime, she relies on a few anecdotes but doesn’t subject them to critical analysis, like canvassing alternative explanations.

Were anyone to argue this way today they’d be given short shrift for lack of evidence. There are many reasons her theories have nevertheless been embraced so wholeheartedly – she fought a noble battle; the enemy (and his cause) was unpopular; planners are innately interested in the public realm; and she seemed to provide the holy grail – something that looks like “a theory”. But most of all, I suspect propositions like “eyes on the street” just seem intuitively obvious to most of us.

The idea undoubtedly still has relevance today in certain contexts, but I think we need to have a more developed understanding. There are reasons for urban designers, in particular, to be cautious about assuming what was true of places like 1950s Greenwich Village and North Boston is also true of Australian cities more than 50 years later.

One reason to be careful is that subsequent events have called into question the effectiveness of “eyes on the street” in preventing or even reducing serious crime. Only a decade or two after Death and Life was published, Manhattan became notorious for high levels of crime, not just in “the projects”, but on the streets.  According to Edward Glaeser, employers had to pay a premium in the 1970s and 80s – he calls it ‘combat pay’ – to attract skilled workers to live in New York.

Some of the crimes that most worry people today in Australian cities might even have a positive relationship with crowds. For example, assaults often take place in very public places such as nightclubs, pubs or on reasonably well-used city streets at night. Travellers on public transport report feeling threatened notwithstanding the presence of other travellers and even drivers.

And it’s not just crimes against the person. Lists of suburbs where burglary rates are highest don’t appear to correlate with density and walkability.

Another reason to be cautious is that some dense areas have few “eyes on the street”, yet nevertheless have low levels of crime. Take this street – E 10th between First and A – in the East Village, not that far from Greenwich Village (see second exhibit). Apart from a Laundromat, this street has nothing like the rich variety of neighbourhood commerce that it doubtless enjoyed in the 50s.

There’re some specialist retailers like a florist and Turkish Baths but residents shop elsewhere for the basics of life, like at the supermarket near Union Square. The people who run the shops in this street (they’re not ‘stores’ anymore!) don’t always live on the premises anymore because it’s too expensive. Not all the shops even command a view of the street.

Yet the East Village feels at least as safe today – if not safer – than any inner city area in Melbourne or Sydney. Contemporary Manhattan is nothing like it was in the 70s and 80s and nothing like it was in Jacobs’ time.

E 10th Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A, East Village (click to look around)

All this suggests the relationship between public safety and the physical environment isn’t straightforward. It seems to partly depend on the nature of the crime e.g. how serious it is or whether it’s a crime against the person or against property. It also seems to depend crucially on social and economic factors like the incidence of drunkenness and drug abuse.

I think the high and homogeneous socioeconomic (and cognitive) status of Manhattanites today is likely to explain the relatively low level of crime far better than density, walkability and the mix of uses. The Greenwich Village of Jane Jacobs looks more like a stage in the evolution of the city rather than an end-state.

Now, nine times out of ten most of what’s proposed by urban designers in the name of crime mitigation isn’t going to worry me, because it will mostly be about enlivening the streets. That’s a desirable end in itself and property markets clearly show many people are prepared to pay big money to live in areas with an active street life (and with other people like themselves).

However, there’s a risk at the margin, where designers can sometimes over-reach, of getting it wrong. For example, in its Structure Plan for Southbank, Melbourne City Council has this clause:

In line with Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) principles, all buildings at upper levels must provide passive surveillance over the street by locating habitable rooms or commercial spaces to the street frontage at all upper podium levels.

This requirement is in addition to the mandatory activation of 80% of street-level frontage. The required height for podiums is 8-10 floors. Now I get that Council doesn’t want car parks or blank walls on podiums for aesthetic reasons, but it should say so, not invoke the doubtful notion that bedrooms on the upper floors – most of them shielded from traffic noise by thick glass – are going to have an additional effect on reducing street crime sufficiently large to warrant this regulation.

“Eyes on the street” is still relevant, but let’s keep it in perspective. Providing a vibrant street life and a walkable neighbourhood are valid ends in and of themselves. There’s no need to over-cook the pudding – it might burn.