Jane Jacobs, an influential community development and urban planning activist, published a book in 1961 called the Death and Life of Great American Cities. One chapter of that book focuses on the role of sidewalks in community safety. Here, I will examine her points and see how they apply to the City of Pittsburgh.
Where I grew up, we do not have sidewalks. My family lives in a rural area where there are few enough cars that you can safely walk in the road, merely stepping off the shoulder and into the grass when a vehicle approaches. My rural upbringing is part of what makes the study of urbanism interesting to me. Reading Jane Jacobs’s 1961 essay, “The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety” was especially fascinating as it raised points about pedestrian safety that I had never before considered. As a current resident of Pittsburgh, a large city, I am invested in my safety as I walk around the city. In her essay, Jacobs argues that an effective sidewalk allows city dwellers to feel safe travelling by foot, and she asserts that there are three fundamental characteristics that define an effective sidewalk. In this essay, I will explain Jacobs’s three characteristics of a good sidewalk, and I will analyze the sidewalks of downtown Pittsburgh to gauge their safety according to Jacobs’s model.
Jacobs’s first characteristic of an effective sidewalk is the clear demarcation between public and private space. Jacobs notes that the sidewalk, a pedestrian continuation of the street, is a public space that butts up against private spaces (residences, offices, stores, etc.). The line between public space and private space should be absolutely clear according to Jacobs, because private spaces are maintained and observed by their owners while public spaces must be patrolled and monitored by stoop sitters and other pedestrians. If it is unclear whether a space is public or private it is unclear who is responsible for that area’s safety and therefore the space is less likely to be monitored.
With a few exceptions, downtown Pittsburgh does exceptionally well at demarcating public and private space. Along most streets, the sidewalk extends from the road shoulder to the stone or brick wall of a building. The walls of the buildings create a clear line between the public domain and the private building, and as soon as you cross the threshold of a doorway it is clear you have entered a private space. In some places, however, architects have chosen to set buildings back from the street. Most notably, the BNY Mellon building sits diagonally off the corner of Fifth and Grant. The triangular area between the front of the building and the streets is raised a few steps, making it unclear if the area is a part of the BNY Mellon complex or not, and hence blurring the distinction between private and public. A number of buildings have this characteristic of setting the entrance to the building back from the street, creating an in-between space. Additionally, the green spaces at the corner of Oliver and Smithfield or at Penn and Seventh are unclear as to whether they are publicly or privately maintained, and Jacobs therefore deems them a failure. However, Pittsburgh overwhelmingly passes Jacobs’s public-private demarcation test.
Additionally, Jacobs suggests that a safe street has eyes observing it, eyes belonging to the street’s proprietors. It is necessary that the residents and shop owners on the street monitor the street on a regular basis. After all, the people who live and make their living on a given street are the ones most invested in the street’s safety. Jacobs believes that the street’s proprietors will do a good job of judging strangers and maintaining order so long as they do not turn their backs or blank sides of buildings on the street.
In downtown Pittsburgh, the prevalence of proprietors’ eyes varies greatly depending on the street. Large streets like Wood, Liberty, Smithfield, and Forbes enjoy plenty of storefronts and windows, making it easy for the proprietors of buildings to observe the street at any given time. However, on streets like William Penn or Strawberry Way there are many stretches where you only see the sides or backs of buildings with the occasional dead bolted door but no windows. These streets do not have the same level of proprietors’ watch. In Jacobs’s view, these streets are significantly less safe because they feature the blank sides of buildings. In terms of proprietors’ eyes, downtown Pittsburgh has room for improvement. However, as long as you stay on major streets the sidewalks are safe.
Finally, a street must remain populated on a fairly consistent basis according to Jacobs. The greatest deterrent of crime is the presence of plenty of witnesses. A great sidewalk will feature attractions (shops and restaurants) that pull people out onto and along the sidewalk. Jacobs says these people do not even realize they are patrolling the street when they walk to a neighborhood restaurant or local boutique, but they are.
During the day, downtown Pittsburgh’s streets remain consistently populated. There are a variety of stores and restaurants that keep people moving along the sidewalk, including fast food (McDonalds – 4th & Wood), clothing stores (Brooks Brothers – Smithfield & Fifth), and even commercial plazas (Market Square). On my tour, I saw a handful of people on every single street I walked down. Of course, some streets were busier than others, but all of the streets had a sufficient consistent population according to Jacobs’s definition. I have visited downtown Pittsburgh at night, however, and this is less the case. The attractions that bring people out during the day do not draw the same number of people in at night, and so Jacobs would consider Pittsburgh significantly more dangerous at night.
Overall, Pittsburgh’s level of street safety is suitable, especially during the day and along the major streets. One should use caution along streets that possess blank building faces and at night when there are fewer pedestrians populating the sidewalks. However, as long as you are aware of these issues, you can be sure that you will remain safe on a trip downtown.