Cities: The Importance of Chance Encounters

How 1960s urbanist Jane Jacobs can make the modern city thrive

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Whilst we all know how important our social networks are to us personally, is this a factor that’s being considered in the design of neighbourhoods?  And how do cities enrich our own communities?

Currently, what planners, developers, builders, and business owners are all thinking about when it comes to workspaces is distance, but despite what you might think this is an exciting opportunity to bring us all closer together as a community. Creating new ways of delivering work, and social, spaces are vital now but people crave connection and always will so we shouldn’t lose sight of what makes a city great for its people. By designing with communities in mind, we can create spaces that bring us together, whilst keeping us safe. 

Inspiration for our new model could be drawn from the works of 1960s urbanist Jane Jacobs. Though much has changed in the 60 years since Jacobs first published her thoughts on cities, and even considering the pandemic adjustments we must implement, her suggestions for a successful city are still as vital as ever.  Jacobs, above all, drove home the message that cities were for people and would only work if made for them. Her community-based approaches to planning, despite having no academic experience, led to her inspiring generations of planners. 

Fundamentally, Jacobs was a champion of the people, and more specifically how they interacted on street corners - bumping into each other as they emerged from winding back streets and alleys into the main thoroughfare in what she called the ‘ballet of the pavement’. Chance encounters with people you know and people you want to know were made possible by social spaces and city streets. As we see more businesses spread outdoors, there’s something that seems to be ignited in us by that cafe-culture, it encourages us to chat to the people over at the next table, to people-watch, and to absorb the city in a more open way. Could we replicate this openness in our workspaces too? 

Jacobs campaigned for a new urban design movement with short urban blocks to promote walking, a sense of place, and to help small businesses grow - effectively this is a trend we’re seeing again now in what is known as the 20-minute neighbourhood. This idea sees cities adapting to mimic a chain of independent but interconnected villages. Whilst density doesn’t seem compatible with pandemic-planning, without it our cities will work against its people. A density of city life doesn’t mean a lack of space, or overcrowding,  rather the creation of myriad mini-neighbourhoods where everything you need can be accessed by walking. 

We only need to look to the success of the local high street during lockdown to envision how cities of the future, built around this model, might look. Walking these micro-neighbourhoods increases interaction, and brings vitality to the streets. Shopkeepers and business owners become more familiar with their customers, citizens chances at making new connections or maintaining existing ones are hugely improved, and even from a distance we can be social, and without a huge sprawling city to traverse, we’re safe. Streetlife is a necessity for our happiness. 

Jane Jacobs considered cities to be eco-systems, she championed mixed-used development where the old and new rubbed shoulders - something we’re proud of at Bruntwood with our portfolio of historic, repurposed buildings as well as our new neighbourhoods like Circle Square. Jacobs campaigned for bottom-up community planning and a good, accessible consultation processes would support this - our Stretford consultation has been taken online to reach more residents. Finally, she believed in local economies, and our disruptive business model down at Hatch, where we incubate small businesses to help bring them offline into the neighbourhood would support this notion.

Revisiting the idea of neighbourhoods as mixed-use, mixed-income and intergenerational spaces promoted in the 1960s by Jacobs, whilst updating those ideas to reflect contemporary concerns such as sustainability and wellbeing, is something we can definitely get behind. 

 

Want to know more? We recommend reading Jacobs’ legendary book The Death and Life of Great American Cities or checking out the film Citizen Jane. 




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