Perhaps Jane Jacobs’ most acclaimed contribution to urban studies in The Death and Life of Great American Cities is her “eyes on the street” theory. “[T]here must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street . . . to insure the safety of both residents and strangers” (1992, p. 35). According to Jacobs, this high-density street life not only provides safety, but a shared sense of civic duty.
People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other. This is a lesson nobody learns by being told. It is learned from the experience of having other people without ties of kinship or close friendship or formal responsibility to you take a modicum of public responsibility for you (1992, p. 82).
The need for “eyes on the street” is merely one of many rationales Jacobs gives for high-density urban life. Other benefits include demographic diversity (p. 151), economical use of space (p. 154), and the entertainment value of people-watching (p. 35).
While economical use of space and diversity are necessary functions of urban density and thus should stand the test of time, public safety and entertainment value may prove to be functions of the pre-21st century media dark ages. The street culture that I grew up with in Brooklyn didn’t gradually disappear in the 1990s due to gentrification, but rather vanished quite suddenly with the rise of video games. Mobile gaming devices allow people to take back the streets; though air conditioners and public prohibition of drugs and alcohol go a considerable way toward keeping people indoors. Even in places where vibrant street-culture remains, such as NYC’s Washington Square Park, citizens’ eyes seem to be focused less on the streets and the people on them, and more on the people within each individual’s mobile media devices.
The public safety aspect of the “eyes on the street,” however, is rapidly becoming the least relevant benefit of urban density, as public life increasingly falls under the purview of video surveillance. Absolute street surveillance, a historically unprecedented potential panacea for public health and safety, unfortunately, has little support among the progressives who champion Jane Jacobs’ citizen “eyes on the street.” The reason for this, of course, is that ruling governments have proven time and again their willingness to harness technological advancements for citizen repression, not safety.
Is the nefarious nature of the nation-state, however, a legitimate reason to reject world-altering technological advancement? Every technology–from railroads and radios, to the splitting of atom–have been used by governments against their citizens, but have also contributed to the power of citizens to resist oppressive governments. Even nuclear weapons, while only used on large civilian populations twice, have contributed to global solidarity via a multi-cultural sense of terror.
Perhaps widespread, public, video surveillance could have a similar cultural effect. The sense that humanity can’t have nice things due to oppressive governments could ultimately contribute to a global movement to manifest a system of non-oppressive government. In the meantime, it will certainly reduce crime; the only problem being that crime in this world means driving-while-black, profiting-while-poor, and mechanical-engineering-while-Muslim.