Changing behavior, changing the world . . with four little words


Source: From the New Mobility Fine Arts Collection at


The hard fight, the war one might well say, to create sustainable, efficient, happy and resilient cities is, above all, based on our ability to convey certain ideas, eventually new ways of thinking, and in the process make a dent in changing people’s minds.  Your mind, my mind and their minds (including those of elected officials and decision makers). So that we and they in turn will modify our/their behaviour, our choices, for our own good and that of the community as a whole. To achieve this ambitious objective, we need to put to work every tool, every device at our disposal.

Here is an example of how a few words can change the world.

death-and-life-jane-jacobsIn 1961 the American housewife, mother, reporter, social critic, activist and keen eyed observer of life in cities, published her great book “Death and Life of Great American Cities”. Still a stunning read half a century later.

If you turn to page 36 in the original edition, you will run across an expression consisting of no more than four short words that have over the years made their mark on what makes our cities work (or not).  The simple phase: “Eyes upon the street”.

The  exact context is this:

“A city street equipped to handle strangers, and to make safety an asset, in itself, out of the presence of strangers, as the streets of successful city neighborhoods always do, must have three main qualities:

First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects.

Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.

And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.”

“Eyes upon the street.” How many times have we heard that phrase over all these years? And not only do we remember them, but we can also see that it ALWAYS works.  Four simple words that pieced together open our eyes, open our brains, open up our hearts, and then open up the gates of a happy city.

Thank you Mrs. Jacobs.

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Editor’s note:


Mrs. Jacobs and her vigorous opponent Robert Moses

When I was a young student at Columbia just out of the US army back in the late fifties I lived in Greenwich Village in New York and hung out in Washington Square Park, where one day I spoke briefly with a lady about the age of my mother, from the neighborhood with a couple of kids who were collecting signature to protect the park as social space against the onslaught by New York City planning authorities to run Fifth Avenue right down the middle of the park. Her ten or so year old son explained to me the situation and I signed, innocently, not knowing that with this casual encounter I was embarking on the first step of a very long quest.

The only thing people are going to remember about me will be my books.

We then met from time to time, corresponded and swapped ideas and news right up through 2006, with our last collaboration being her support of a joint project we organised with the Sierra Club in Toronto for a New Mobility Week in 2004. She was not so very young then, had great difficulty in moving about, and she was terrific. Once we had helped her up to the stage, she mesmerised the audience and in the process did a splendid hatchet job on the uncertain hand of the then current mayor and the city’s public officials more generally.

I will always remember a conversation we had as we wrapped up the Toronto New Mobility Week in her home, in which she said (and here I quote from memory): “Eric, I really like what you are doing and want you to know that it is important and worthy of success. But while it was good to be working with you over this last week, I have to make the point that time is short and I really need to concentrate on my own contributions — and the only thing that people are going to remember about me and what I have tried to accomplish over all these years will be my books. ”

Well, not quite Mrs. Jacobs. Of course your books, but also your example. And as you can see here and in many other places, there is a whole world that remembers you for both.

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* Cover image from the New Mobility Fine Arts Collection


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Have something that you think World Streets readers might appreciate as they wander  the Fine Arts  Collection in 2017? Post it to and we will share it with some of our curators


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About the editor:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | | #fekbritton | | and | Contact: | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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4 thoughts on “Changing behavior, changing the world . . with four little words

  1. My thesis is that security is the primary purpose of community. Throughout human history, watchfulness, has been a key to survival. Animals keep this ability, but the built-environment of humans has come to separate us from each other, contrary to safety in numbers. Dispersion, not proximity, suburbs not cities, was the planning protocol that Jane Jacobs was seeing being implemented. Efficient use of resources was not a concern. Safety in the dispersed settlement became the personal automobile, whose attendant needs flattened the built-environment landscape. Minimal transit by automobile, where the passenger doubles as driver, displaced demand for mass transit as door-to-door became a longer and more complex route. Efficiency lasted only as long as roadways had excess capacity and were free flowing. City building that is alternately outward and upward on a multi-utility grid of municipal investment halted and suburban home buyers had the cost of developer built infrastructure rolled into the purchase price of the home, boosting housing costs. Market rates for that infrastructure – 6.5% or more compared to municipal bonds of 2.5% or more. Just because there’s lots of land in the natural is no reason to convert as much as possible into the built-environment. The natural-environment is self-maintaining; the built-environment is not. Simply more technology will burden us with more waste. Self-perpetuating city-building is a design challenge that all of humanity is engaged in. To be sustainable in our now depleted global environment requires restoration of the natural environment and efficiency within the built-environment.

  2. Eyes Upon The Street was a great article. I had heard the phrase but not known it’s origin until now. Thank you for reminding us of the history of Ms. Jacobs book and it’s long standing impact on our cities.


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