Bi-weekly blog by guest writer Lia Leendertz
I have been sitting on Ellen’s steps, in the sun. Ellen is my friend and lives nearby, and while her back garden is north facing and in shade most of the time, her front steps get the sun when it shines. And I have sat many times on these steps, watching our kids play in the street below, drinking tea and eating biscuits, drinking wine, laughing. She nods at the neighbours, or engages in full gossipy chats with them, supervises her children, relaxes. It always struck me that the steps are a precious thing to have.
It was Ellen who introduced me to Jane Jacobs, and Jane Jacobs would have delighted in Ellen’s steps. Jacobs was an urban planner and campaigner who wrote a book called ‘The Death and Life of American Cities’ in which she critiqued the predominant urban planning policies of the 1950s. Her interest was in ‘organic urban vibrancy’, the street in general, and the pavement in particular.
Jacobs felt that housing should be designed around wide, interesting pavements, with shops and destinations on residential streets, and with places for adults to be. The more people that are naturally in the street, passing through, sitting or playing, the safer the street becomes, because everybody acts as a small, regulating force, policing behaviour without even intending to. There is also a low-level interaction – those nods and gossiping – that allows for friendship and sociability and guards against loneliness and social exclusion. Many old neighbourhoods do this very naturally, but Jacobs saw developers and town planners moving in and trashing the very things that make these neighbourhoods tick, and all in the name of improving quality of life. The predominant model of her time was the high rise block, which has areas that are open to the public but unwelcoming, so anyone could be in them but very few are, a much more scary combination. She was particularly basing her ideas around the vibrant streetscapes of The Village in Lower Manhattan and other New York neighbourhoods, and took part in grass roots campaigns to preserve them. What she wanted to do was to celebrate the city, and what it does, rather than ship people out to isolating suburbs or housing blocks.
I live in a city, and mine is no high rise block, but likewise I have no steps to sit on and chat. I think perhaps we are some way between the two extremes: we do have shops, a park nearby, and reasons to be out and moving about, but equally we each have our own little front garden to insulate us from the street, often planted with hedges to keep the neighbours at bay. But while we can’t really change our architecture, it turns out that we can do something almost as good: Playing Out. Collectively a group of neighbours now has a permit to close our street once a month, and to release our normally screen-addled children out to whoop and scoot among the parked cars, to scrawl chalk flowers and hopscotch games down the middle of the road. A few hours of anarchy.
Except it isn’t quite anarchy. It gives them a little taste of what it is like to feel full ownership of an area, and all under the safe gaze of adults who are themselves tentatively taking control of their street, and getting to know their neighbours from behind the hedges. It helps turn my street into what I would like it to be, a place where we stop and chat and feel watched over, and that is vibrant, lively and safe. There is talk of a street party, of dinners, and book clubs, all fostered through spending just a little time standing out in the street with mugs of tea. It may not quite be Lower Manhattan, but we are enjoying our space and our neighbours, and reaping the rewards of living in a city.