Comparative Book Review #2: Sidewalks and Planning for Pedestrians.

While the tones of either book could not be more different (Jacobs: novel, Garvin: textbook), the theories behind their words are very much the same. However, the modern text has completely ignored the obvious…

First, I read Jacob’s chapters entitled, “The uses of sidewalks: safety,” “The uses of sidewalks: contact,” and, “The uses of sidewalks: assimilating children.” Jacobs focuses entirely on mixed-use neighborhoods and includes many anecdotes from her own street in NYC at the time (late 50s).

The chapter on safety concerns me, but then again puts me at ease. Her main argument in this section is that the more uses on a street, the more people, and therefore, the less crime. Here’s how it works: if a street has a bakery, retail space, and a bar or nightclub  on the ground floors of mixed-use buildings with apartments on the upper levels, you are in the safest possible neighborhood. Why? Eyes are present at every hour other than perhaps 2am – 4am. The nightclub or bar closes at the usual 2 am, keeping the street populated in a positive way with employees and bouncers always about. The baker begins to mix the day’s donuts, rolls, and breads in the wee hours to be prepared for the morning rush at a predictable 4 am. Their eyes may be on their work, but odds are they know exactly the comings and goings of outside before anyone else- or the dough- rises. I love this argument because it calms me. This situation assumes another key piece to her argument, though- everyone is inherently responsible for everyone else, be they residents or strangers, on their street. She gives examples of the few times someone has tried to lure a child away from their mother by day, and a drunk harassing a young woman late at night, in which the residents of those places, whose eyes were present and always peeking out the window, crept from their homes and offices to protect the innocent.

I will close the safety section with my favorite paragraph, from page 54;

      “Horrifying public crimes can, and do, occur in well-lighted subway stations, when no effective eyes are present. They virtually never occur in darkened theaters where many people and eyes are present. Streetlights can be like that famous stone the falls in the desert where there are no ears to hear. Does it make a noise? Without effective eyes to see, does a light cast light? Not for practical purposes.”

She then focuses on the importance of informal contact. She argues that easy relationships between acquaintances can be found and forged here, and only here. That the neighborhood’s attitude and sense of community is completely reliant upon these informal bump-ins and subsequent conversations. While I do not agree that this is a be-all/end-all, I will admit she is correct about one thing:

      “The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called, “self-appointed public characters.” A public character is anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character. A public character need have no special talents or wisdom to fulfill his function- although he often does. He just needs to be present and there need to be enough of his counterparts. His main qualification is that he is public, that he talks to lots of different people. In this way, news travels that is of sidewalk interest.
Most public sidewalk characters are steadily stationed in public places. They are storekeepers, or barkeepers, or the like. [Also important to sidewalk safety, per the previous chapter.] These are the basic public characters. All other public characters of city sidewalks depend on them- if only indirectly because the presence of sidewalk routes to such enterprises and their proprietors.” (89)

I agree with the importance of a ‘public character,’  however I believe it simply happens organically. In my rural town, odds are you’ve had a conversation with the manager of the pizza place. You’ve probably also gotten to know the owner of the local brewery over a fresh pint. I find this likely to occur in an urban landscape, though each character would most definitely cover a significantly smaller geographic area.

While I admire her vigor for this ‘Pleasentville’-like scenario, I have yet to see where this deep sense of community could realistically occur. Maybe I don’t get out much, but I myself do not see this commentary to be very useful in a modern city.

Lastly in Jacobs, we discuss the importance of sidewalks to children. I have a few favorite bits form this part because I find it highly relatable. She explains that:

“In real life, what significant change does occur if children are transferred from a lively city street to a park or to the usual public or project playground? In most cases (not all, fortunately) the most significant change is this: the children have moved from under the eyes of a high numerical ratio of adults into a place where the ratio of adult is low or even nil. To think this represents an improvement in city child-rearing is pure daydreaming.” (101)

I adore this. It is completely true and you know it- be you a city or rural child at heart. Why do you want to go to the playground? It’s mostly, if not all, children around your age doing what kids do. It’s a haven from the word, “No.” It’s the proverbial chuck-e-cheese of the public, if you will, where the games are indefinite and constantly evolving and there are no gold coins- just bark-chip tender exchanged for pretty leaves or a cool walking stick.

A quote from this section that made me chuckle:

“The same report then deplores the stubborn tendency of children to “fool around” instead of playing “recognized games.” (Recognized by whom?)” (111)

The following is extreme, and I’m on the fence about this opinion. Both sides (against and pro-parks) have valid points. What I think that matters most on this topic: the time of day.

“The whole idea of doing away with city streets insofar as that is possible in downgrading and minimizing their social and their economic part in city life is the most mischievous and destructive idea in orthodox city planning. That it is so often done in the name of vaporous fantasies about city child care is as bitter as irony can get.” (115)



To compare, I read Garvin’s chapter entitled “Planning for Pedestrians.” While this is 1/3 the length and content of Jacob’s discussion on sidewalks (about 30 pages of Garvin v. about 90 pages of Jacobs), I still found it to be up to the comparative challenge.

Garvin sticks to the use of pedestrian pavilions replacing downtown streets as a means of reviving nearby businesses and empty office spaces in competition with suburban malls and business parks. He never strays from this topic, but delves into it deeply, describing in moderate detail many large cities’ means of forming a plan, funding it, approving it, implementing it, first responses (~2 years after construction) by the public, and long-term affects (~10-20 years after construction) the change had on the community or CBD (central business district). He described forming committees, examples including Bryant Park in NYC, a street management district in Denver, and many, many downtown cores that have either failed or flourished due to creating pedestrian-only areas and transitways downtown.

He even quotes Jane Jacobs! He notes that without, “tremendous numbers of people . . . there would be no downtown to amount to anything.” He praises the need to decorate, ‘pedestrianize’, and banishing the automobile in a DT core to attract shoppers and businessmen, but ultimately bawls at it in the end of the chapter. I don’t understand this man- he’s just all over the place. It’s as if I’m reading an argument in his head and he’s allowing both sides control the pen. Note to everyone: if you’re going to write a book, be decisive. I’m not even sure if he read this aloud to himself to make sure it sounded right- it’s just so disconnected and wishy-washy, or flip-floppy- however you want to put it.


In conclusion, and comparatively, I have to focus on the elephant in the comparison: Garvin didn’t talk about streets in general at all! This is the only mention of sidewalk culture in his entire textbook and he doesn’t even acknowledge any other city street than that which is per-only and in a downtown core. His thought process was like watching power lines at a high speed- it just goes up and down and turns and drives into the ground instantly, then pops back up again to show itself again. I can’t compare much here, as Jacobs was so thorough in her explanation of how sidewalks intricately manifest community almost organically, just with a nudge of traffic calming, correct zoning, and mixed-use buildings that house a wide range of local small businesses. Jacobs’ piece was elegant and it flowed- whereas Garvin chopped up his work into short anecdotes that fail to come to a concise conclusion.

If I had to write one paragraph to compare the two pieces’ philosophies, however, it would be this:

Jacobs and Garvin agree on a few things: one, mixed use buildings are vital to success, be at a metropolitan or block level. Two, people should want to be out and about in the community constantly- be it in nightclubs, diners, offices, or their homes. Three, sidewalks should be as wide as feasibly possible, minimizing the use of the automobile and putting emphasis on public transit, if demand requires. They do not, however, agree that the local neighborhood should be the focus of every resident’s life and that everything should be within a friendly walking distance (Jacobs). Garvin, not Jacobs, thinks that the downtown core of a city defines its personality and economic success. He also tends to believe that those who are not willing to travel to obtain goods, services, and enjoy entertainment, should not be added into a city’s overall equation for future success. Jacobs concludes that the ‘slums’ are in reality some of the friendliest and safest places you can live and do your daily shopping. Neither explore the possibility that the other ignores: Jacobs should realize that sidewalks are important everywhere- especially in a downtown core that forces whoever is there (resident or suburban visitor) to walk, and Garvin should realize that a resident’s main relationship with sidewalks is outside their from door, not necessarily in a 4-, 20-, or even a 150-block downtown core.


I realize this one’s a big’n, but hopefully I’ll become more concise with practice. Thank you so much for your patience if you’ve made it this far. Thank you, and good night!

Note: this was all written without outline, notes (other than referring back to the books for direct quotes, of course), or a revision, and in a single sitting.


About Aascot Holt

Staff News Writer for the Easterner. Urban and Regional Planning Major. Senior. Has fingers in all proverbial pies.

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