Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

The sidewalk life of Anacostia means more than retail dollars

February 23, 2012 - 01:10 PM
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(Photo: Google Maps)

A Feb. 19 Washington Post article explored the broader issue of how to bring retail to the parts of Southeast D.C. across the Anacostia River. One issue that a restaurant owner pointed to was the amount of pedestrian traffic:

Paul Cohn, who owns Georgia Brown’s, said he dropped the idea of opening a barbecue restaurant in Anacostia after parking on MLK Avenue for a couple of nights to measure the volume of pedestrian traffic, an important indicator of potential patrons. “The daytime demographic was fine, but at night it was just cars going by,” he said. “I didn’t feel it.”

Evening pedestrian life matters to businesses at night, yes, but I found myself thinking over its broader implications hours after I first read this Post article. Jane Jacobs, the iconic writer responsible for The Death and Life of Great American Cities a half century ago, emphasized the importance of pedestrian life to a community in more crucial ways.

To walk freely on the streets at night, Jacobs wrote, requires these "substantial quantity of stores and other public places sprinkled along the sidewalks of a district; enterprises and public places that are used by evening and night must be among them especially."

In a chapter on sidewalks, Jacobs describes how a community's safety really comes not from police presence so much as a broader set of pedestrian eyes out on the street. Consider this passage about the virtues of walker surveillance:

You can't make people use streets they have no reason to use. 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 city streets voluntarily and are least conscious, normally, that they are policing.

...Stores, bars, and restaurants, as the chief examples, work in several different and complex ways to abet sidewalk safety.

The Jacobs passage gives a deeper understanding for why bringing such retail to Anacostia matters. The desire harmonizes well with other initiatives at work, such as the EPA's partnership with D.C. to green the blocks around the Anacostia Metro station. What all these efforts, from retail to trees to better sidewalks, seek is simply a more natural circulation of people walking their city streets. Don't underestimate that value.

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