Plans are underway to expand Toronto’s PATH system. Developers and planners would like to extend the network of underground walkways keeping the downtown commercial district warm. New condos and schools coming into the area would be linked in. More shops would line the streets lit with florescent tubes. Commuters would buzz about, tourists would continue to get lost in the poorly-signed maze, undesirables would be kept out and the streets would fall silent at night and on weekends. Could this be that vision for Toronto we’ve desperately been searching for—climate-controlled Fraggle Rock equipped with an off-switch?
The Toronto Star’s recent coverage of the issue doesn’t fail to mention the late Jane Jacobs, a prolific researcher of city life and the rule of thumb by which we measure city planning (though many of her followers find this easier said than done). The wonderful thing about Jacobs is that she is that rare author whose original work is better than any reference to it (this post included). The lucidity of her writing, particularly her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, reveals a progressive yet unyieldingly practical approach to urban issues.
Chronicling the deteriorating urban cores and greying suburban areas of 1950s America, Jacobs detailed the secrets of successful cities. City life attracts us because we adore our privacy and anonymity—and the freedom of social and material mobility that comes with it. Strangers keep us safe. We meet in what Jacobs terms "the sidewalk" which is any public space—park, shops or bus stops—where we enjoy functional relationships with unknowns who help us take care of our basic needs (getting food, driving us around and watching us walk home safely). It is the absence of strangers ("eyes on the street") willing to act on our behalf that makes us nervous, not the presence of them.
In contrast, the suburbs offer fewer ‘sidewalks.’ There are, of course, more actual walkways, but there are fewer people on them. We need to know people better in order to carpool (no bus stops here) and to invite each other into our homes (compare this to the strange mix of intimacy and anonymity that is the urban laundromat). Our fear in the suburbs is not knowing one another well enough. When everyone fits in and belongs together in a suburban neighbourhood, things work beautifully, but given any degree of diversity, things break down. Over time, isolation—punctuated by the visits of our trusted friends who drive over to see us—becomes the order of the suburban day.
In Jacobs’ analysis, the city with the thriving public sidewalk is the ideal. The in-between world of the ‘not city, not suburb', full of strangers who choose not meet each other on the street, is the nightmare.
Where would an über-PATH lie in Jane’s eyes?
Urmi Desai is an economic analyst and a freelance writer specializing in urban issues. She is editor of the Move Smartly blog.
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Dreaming the Big Dreams in Toronto: New Urbanism, Smart Growth and High-Density Development