Accidental Activist

What You See is Where You Are

Look outside. Our streets truly are a barometer of a neighbourhood's success.

By Ben Bull
Published November 26, 2010

I'm an advocate of new urbanism but not much of a student. I got halfway through The Death and Life of Great American Cities before stuffing it back on the shelf. Jane Jacobs was a riveting and enlightened individual, but even John Le Carre would have trouble sexing up this material.

I don't feel bad. I think, in many ways, Jane Jacobs was the same. She wasn't an urban student in the traditional sense. She had no degrees. Her knowledge was gleaned, for the most part, through enlightened observation - walking down the street and taking a look around.

I'm the same. I'd rather see things with my own eyes than read about them in a book.

One thing that resonated for me, though, during my 200 page or so foray, was Jacob's assertions around street life. She talked about 'eyes on the street', short walkable blocks and, of course, density.

As RTH succinctly puts it in the RTH First Principles:

The public life of the city is in its streets, or it's nowhere.

That's a bold statement, and one I questioned it the first time I saw it, but the more time I've spent observing the neighbourhoods I've visited and lived in, the more I've come to realize it's true.

Many Kinds of Streets

I've lived on many kinds of streets. In the Leeds suburbs, the streets were quiet. I used to watch the cars go by for hours, or else head out with my mates to go hopping into people's hedges, or hanging out by the chip shop. There was nothing else to do.

When I lived near Hamilton's Gage Park, I'd usually stay indoors or else jump into my car and drive to the shop. There weren't that many people on the street. There weren't that many places to walk to.

In each and every neighbourhood I would do the same thing. I'd sit and watch wonder: "Where am I?"

Public life defines our neighbourhoods; it's what we are about. If you can't see what your neighbourhood is about - and where else can you see it but on the street? - well, then it's not about anything.

When I was living in Hamilton, I commuted to Toronto. One day, while I was walking to pick up a rental car at Carlton and Church, I saw a bloke hustle past me with a laundry bag slung over his shoulder.

"What the hell is he doing?" I thought as he skipped across the street and disappeared into a nearby house. "Is he lost?"

For some reason, the sight of an ordinary dressed-down bloke going about his everyday chores, in the middle of the day, downtown, seemed out of place to me.

I was used to a definitive division of street life:

So what was this guy doing mingling with the shoppers, the tourists and the workers, carting around his laundry?

I was curious enough to take a closer look at my surroundings.

A Closer Look

The street on Carlton from Yonge to Church doesn't seem that remarkable at first glance, but on closer inspection it's gets interesting. There's the Gardens, of course - nice to look at but not many folks going in.

The Carlton cinema, a hotel, shops, places of work, and Allen Gardens. Places to live. Apartments, semi-detached homes and row houses.

I noticed that this neighbourhood really did have a little bit of everything, and thus its street life defied my usual view of people-type separation.

It was an epiphany!

Of course, given the types of establishments I've described, you can imagine what the street life was like. There wasn't just Laundry Boy lolling around. There were kids on their way to school, cinemagoers, tourists, and folks like me, on their way to work.

It all seemed so right, so nice - so real.

Neighbourhood Barometer

Five years ago, I moved to a downtown neighbourhood for the first time in my life. Here, in Toronto's St Lawrence Market district, the streets are always varied and busy. It's easy to tell what the neighbourhood is about.

As I stroll around watching the walking world go by, it seems clear to me that the single most important indicator of successful neighbourhood development is - the streets.

Perhaps I'm over-simplifying? Well, think about it - just take a look outside. Ask yourself:

What you see is where you are. Our streets truly are a barometer of a neighbourhood's success.

Jane Jacobs knew this. That's why she mentioned streets so often. In order for a street to be interesting and engaging at all times of the day, the neighbourhood must comply with several of Jane Jacob's urban principles. The street must:

  1. Support mixed uses;
  2. Lead somewhere, and that somewhere must be easy to get to (short blocks, frequent turns);
  3. Be interesting (or else we'd cycle or drive); and
  4. Serve a large portion of people (density).

So if you want to find out what your neighbourhood is about, there's only one thing you have to do: Go for a walk.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By Paul V (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2010 at 17:37:00

You're right Ben, Jacobs had a miraculous understanding of how cities function (and fail), she might say with clarity not clouded by planning discipline rhetoric and preconceptions.
What would she say about Hamilton's most important streets, like Main and King?

'these are single-purpose throughways',

but we know how to fix this Jane!

'so what's your plan?'

Ummmmm ...

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 26, 2010 at 19:42:56

One of the most important parts of truly observing a city is to let go of your own assumptions, and appreciate things for what they are. This is why people often appreciate cities so much more when they travel to exotic lands, even if they're a million times dirtier and more crime-ridden than here. Lacking the social cues which we've been taught designate a "bad" area, it's a lot easier to appreciate simple beauty and elegance.

My neighbourhood may be full of slums and have a bit of a "drug problem", but it's constantly filled with playing children, friendly seniors and generally interesting people. While not every property is maintained to suburban standards, I have a hard time believing that nicer gardens exist anywhere in the city than what some of my elderly Portuguese and Italian neighbours do with their properties. The aged brickwork and old-time mouldings still have an impressive and imposing character, enhanced with trees just as old which cover the area (take a look off the escarpment in summertime).

There's a serious problem in this town's discussion of inner-city issues where anything and everything in working-class areas falls under the image of "crippling poverty". There are a lot of problems in poor areas - I'll be the first to admit it - but just because someone has a pony-tail and a Nascar hat doesn't mean they're unemployed, addicted to drugs, mentally unstable or any of the other stereotypes applied to people in these areas. The fact is that a very large chunk of this city thinks things like sports-bar karaoke and pickup trucks are really really cool, and it's not our job to "re-educate" them. Middle class preferences (Survivor and SUVs) are just as ridiculous - most culture is. But unless we appreciate and accept people for who and what they are, we're just going to be left bickering over silly aesthetic preferences.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted November 26, 2010 at 21:30:33

Eh, I don't know if I agree, Undustrial. Good points, but I've experienced that used a lot as an excuse.

I like Nascar, which alone should tip you off. I come from a family of truck drivers, hydro workers, and carpenters. And just because I've gone and got myself a fancy education doesn't change that (except to put myself into student debt, necessitating that I get a job at a higher wage than minimum to pay it off, and avoid falling into the yawning abyss of pride and excess new money can bring)

But it also doesn't mean that I look at serious problems and go "what a wonderful part of working-class life!"

I react that way because I see the exact opposite of what you're talking about, to be honest. I keep hearing middle-class people say "Hamilton's a working class city" used to defend things like prostitution, drugs, violence, property crimes, sexism and a whole host of other things - as long as they don't happen in their neighbourhood, of course.

And generally, when I hear that, it implies anyone who doesn't think that such things are A-OK (or at least an unavoidable part of the lives of the the poor/desperate/morally inferior people who are working-class) should get out of their elitist, wealthy bubble.

And that's a load of bull. Again, I'm not saying - at all - that's the intent of your statement, but usually that's what it implies when I've heard it.

Comment edited by Meredith on 2010-11-26 20:35:24

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted November 27, 2010 at 09:30:39

My neighbourhood may be full of slums and have a bit of a "drug problem", but it's constantly filled with playing children, friendly seniors and generally interesting people. While not every property is maintained to suburban standards, I have a hard time believing that nicer gardens exist anywhere in the city than what some of my elderly Portuguese and Italian neighbours do with their properties.

I know someone who lives in a nice, new suburb, in a nice-sized house, on a crescent, in the kind of neighbourhood where if you paint your front door an unusual and interesting colour it would raise many eyebrows, but where a grow-op had been flourishing for a while, in a nondescript house, under everyone's noses.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 27, 2010 at 09:41:00

It isn't that I like prostitution, or crack, or hearing domestic violence echo for blocks on a hot summer night. But as someone who's been working on poverty issues for a very long time, I get very worried at the way some of these issues are discussed in this town (especially around James North lately). And Meredith, it's totally not directed at you, as it's pretty obvious you think things through before putting them on the internet (unlike that dude suggesting mass expropriations of dingy-looking properties the other day).

The point I was trying to make is that there is an aesthetic character to life in the poorer parts of Hamilton which has nothing to do with drugs or hookers. And while I'll never understate the problems faced by poor communities, I get a little offended when the discussion begins to centre only around how poor people affect the higher-income people who live in these areas or come there to shop.

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By Tnt (registered) | Posted November 27, 2010 at 10:21:14

I think the greatest blockade to city growth is ghettoizing groups. We kind of isolate the rich in the downtown and assume everyone else is the underclass. To have vibrancy you need old buildings and old houses mixed with new. This may be way out there: You need corporate and independent business thriving beside each other. IMHO

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