Reformers have long observed city people loitering on busy corners, hanging around in candy stores and bars and drinking soda pop on stoops, have passed a judgment, the gist of which is: ‘This is deplorable! If these people had decent homes and a more private or bosky outdoor place, they wouldn’t be on the street!’
This judgment represents a profound misunderstanding of cities. […] The point of…the social life of city sidewalks is precisely because that they are public. They bring together people who do not know each other in an intimate, private social fashion and in most cases do not care to know each other in that fashion.
The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop, eyeing the girls while waiting to be called for dinner, admonishing the children, hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist, admiring the new babies and sympathizing over the way a coat faded. Customs vary: in some neighborhoods people compare notes on their dogs; in others they compare notes on their landlords.
Most of it is ostensibly utterly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all. The sum of such casual public contact at a local level—most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone—is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need. The absence of this trust is a disaster to a city street. Its cultivation cannot be institutionalized. And above all, it implies no private commitments.
Jane Jacobs, “The Uses of Sidewalks: Contact,” The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)
In short, street life cultivates trust among the public towards one another. It may not be as intimate as the relationships we keep with our friends, family, or neighbors, but having faith in the public is something worth maintaining: one public sidewalk contact at a time.
The sense of a public identity, and their connectedness in place, in collaboration with the built spaces of the city, is the source of that trust that Jacobs writes about. And we lose that when we try to force people into private commitments, or private spaces.