A better way to live, by design

Posted: September 16, 2013 in Book review
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Jacobs-The-Death-and-Life-of-Great-American-Cities

How do you create community? What makes a place good to live? How can urban planners influence the way people behave?

Jane Jacobs attempted to answer those questions more than half a century ago and the conclusions she came to still resonate today. Sadly, the lessons on what makes a neighborhood attractive haven’t yet sunk in: It takes more than wealth and window boxes, mansions and manicured gardens.

When public places fail to work, people retreat into private spaces. It’s why we see the rich move into gated communities, where life is safe but sterile. It’s why so much of suburban sprawl is drab and lifeless. And it’s why teeming cities can be isolating and lonely.

Jacobs the social anthropologist documents in great detail the small and often casual interactions between people that become the essential building blocks of community.

Favors and kindnesses take many forms: It might be the deli owner who keeps spare key for a customer, or the grocer who takes parcel deliveries for people who are out at work. These “transactions” – exchanges of trust – are just one aspect.

Equally important are the neutral spaces where small talk and casual encounters can occur regardless of socio-economic standing. These, she notes, rarely happen at the formally-designated, urban-planned, appointed meeting places.

Street life has changed a great deal since she wrote the book and her safety in numbers argument holds less sway now than it did then. We’re more likely to pass by than to intervene (though we might film it on our smartphones) but the essential truths remain.

We are drawn to other people. Small shops, diverse businesses and places where people mix freely to interact are essential to the social fabric of life and in ways that malls and footfall will never be.

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