Atlantic Cities

A New Way of Understanding 'Eyes on the Street'

A New Way of Understanding 'Eyes on the Street'
Courtesy of Justice for Families

Even if you've never read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs's 1961 masterpiece of urban observation and theory, you probably are aware of one of its key concepts: the value of "eyes on the street."

Jacobs wrote that in order for a street to be a safe place, "there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street."

These words have been repeated countless times in the 50-plus years since Jacobs wrote them. But it is worth going back to the idea at this particular moment in history, and asking what those eyes are doing.

The national nonprofit Justice for Families does exactly that with a new poster that it has created for an upcoming event called Night Out for Safety and Democracy on August 6th.

The poster shows an image that Jacobs would have loved: an older woman leans out of her window, surveying the street scene, while a young boy rides by on a bicycle and a mother and child read together on a stoop. "I don’t watch my neighbors," says the copy. "I see them. We make our community safer together."

Zachary Norris, co-director of Justice for Families, says the poster and the Night Out for Safety and Democracy event came in response to National Night Out, an annual event sponsored by the National Association of Town Watch. National Night Out began in 1984 and aims to "promote involvement in crime prevention activities, police-community partnerships, neighborhood camaraderie and send a message to criminals letting them know that neighborhoods are organized and fighting back."

In the view of Justice for Families, a coalition of groups around the country who want to see reform of the juvenile justice system, this law-enforcement-based approach can be counterproductive. "We think the vision of National Night Out has been very limited," says Norris. "The idea that you are the 'eyes and ears of the police' is not only too simplistic, but can be in fact dangerous. It can reinforce fear and violence."

Norris says that the poster and the Night Out for Safety and Democracy are part of a larger effort to change the national conversation about how best to prevent crime and make neighborhoods safer.

"The event is really about challenging and talking to neighbors about a more holistic view of neighborhood safety," says Norris. "It’s taken on an additional symbolism in light of the Trayvon Martin case." George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Martin, was a member of his community’s neighborhood watch group.

Norris says the message of the poster is to encourage communities to approach neighborhood safety not simply as the "eyes and ears" of the police, but also as people with common interests and concerns about jobs, economic stability, and other issues. "We want to make sure people have the voice to say what their vision of community safety is," he says.

Jane Jacobs wrote eloquently about her experience watching the "sidewalk ballet" in her New York neighborhood, where people of different races and income levels mixed together without conflict in large part because of the multiple "eyes on the street." But she emphasized that people don’t watch a street because it is their duty. They do it because they are naturally drawn to the human interest and activity they find on a healthy street.

You can’t make people watch streets they do not want to watch. Safety on the streets by surveillance and mutual policing of one another sounds grim, but in real life it is not grim. The safety of the street works best, most casually, and with least frequent taint of hostility or suspicion precisely where people are using and most enjoying the streets voluntarily and are least conscious, normally, that they are policing.

An artificially constructed "neighborhood watch" will have trouble providing the same level of safety and ease as a street where people are constantly interacting – and truly seeing one another.

Image courtesy of Justice for Families.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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