dildos, bongs and all-you-can-eat sushi: the role of streets in the creation of social trust

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When one typically thinks about a great city visited, or any city for that matter, what is it that comes to mind? Hold on. Before you start thinking too deeply at this early morning hour, perhaps we should begin with an even more foundational question. We should start by asking what exactly it is that defines a great city. Take out a pen and some scrap paper and consider this for a moment…I’ll wait.

Okay. So, there are probably as many answers to this question as there are respondents; however, one thing that all answers probably share is some sense of physical place, of being in the city. Cities are imagined in a multitude of different ways, but are all experienced primarily as physical space. And this physical space is itself a reflection, more actively perhaps, an expression, of who we are as people, and as a society. Whether it is in a humbling cathedral or the magnificence of a colonial palace, a library filled with books, a public square bustling with people and activity, or simply a tranquil local park, one experiences the city as more than a collection of buildings arranged in a particular pattern. More than a geographical location.

They are us. The city is where we live, we work, we play. They are above all other things, human ecosystems. As Lewis Mumford explores in his tome, The City in History, cities are arranged in such a way as to be physical manifestations, and indeed expressions, of our dominant social relations. While the medieval city is dominated by the cathedral, the industrial city the factory, the post-modern city is dominated by its streets.

While we experience the city physically, we do also experience it mentally. We live in cities, move through them, and we are – particularly those of us who actually live in cities – all the products of them. The values expressed in our built environments are essentially those we hold collectively, and as such work to reinforce these values, these sets of ideas, assumption, and practices through which we govern ourselves. And so the built form of the city – the physicality of the city – is encoded with a certain set of beliefs of who we are, who we are expected to be, and of how we are expected to behave.

Cities as places of strangeness

We can live in [the city] only because we have found a way to eliminate some of the ‘strangeness’.  We can live in the world of strangers only because we have ordered our cities such that it is possible to identify these personally-unknown others with some degree of accuracy.[i]

As in any medium to large city throughout the world, what defines urban environments more than anything else is, according to Jane Jacobs that they ‘are, by definition, full of strangers’.[ii] Indeed, a city may be thought of as ‘a locality and dense settlement of dwellings forming a colony so extensive that personal reciprocal acquaintance of the inhabitants is lacking’.[iii] If cities then are indeed filled with strangers, it is important to recognise that not all strangers are as strange as they might first appear. In many places in the world, urban dwellers are rightly considered strangers to each other, but they also often tend to all hold similar cultural and social values, have had similar experiences, and have internalised the same myths and morals. Basically, they all share the same culture. And this makes strangers less strange, more predictable, and thereby, more trustworthy. 

A shared culture, or more basically, some sense of social trust – a reasonable expectation that the person loping towards you on the street will not harm you and will treat you in accordance with some basic precepts of morality – is essential in making city living possible. Indeed, as Jacobs continues, ‘[t]he bedrock attribute of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers. He must not feel automatically menaced by them’.[iv]  Given that a modicum of trust is fundamental to any social interaction and is a quality based on shared beliefs and that imply expectations and reciprocation, the more experience we have of those around us, the more ‘personally safe’ and unmenaced we will be.

It is the face-to-face encounters of the everyday, the multitude of contacts one has in the course of life that builds this trust over time. It is the invisible codes of behaviour built from this trust that silently underwrite the predictability of all but the most unconventional encounters. Yet, we are left with the nagging question of how a churning sea of urban chaos so full of strangers can be experienced as something coherent and meaningful?  The question we must now pose, the answer that we must henceforth seek is how social trust is created and how it is maintained.

For the sake of applicability and relevance, let’s consider my own neighbourhood in Vancouver’s Westend.

Davie Village

The Davie Village is a low-slung strip of restaurants, clubs, coffee shops, and an eclectic variety of other businesses that cater to the dense residential neighbourhood surrounding a four-block stretch of Davie Street. Roughly demarcated, the village runs west from the roaring commuter corridor of Burrard Street to Jervis, and stands sentry over the tumbling residential avenues as they drop down from the city into English Bay. The Village itself is nestled into the south-east corner of a much larger area of Vancouver known locally as the Westend, and is known as being a bastion for the gay community of Vancouver. However, this is not to mistake it in any way, shape, or form as a homogenous quarter of the city filled with people, who to varying degrees, share similar goals, beliefs, or even lifestyles. No, in fact, this neighbourhood is vigorously, and some may venture, consciously, diverse and is distinctive from other areas of the Westend, notably from the high-end shopping street to the north, Robson. Where Robson Street is mostly unrecognizable from similar high streets throughout the world and offers the typical globalised and indistinctive assortment of haute-couture and mid-range dining halls specializing in overly-sweet cocktails and mediocre tapas, Davie mixes its own particular Vancouver flavour and offers a rare glimpse into the distinctive culture of the city. So often bulldozed under by towering condo developments that have come to dominate not simply the skyline of Vancouver, but more importantly, the streetscape as well, this vibrant neighbourhood is in many critical ways anchored by one of very few highly functional streets in the city.

A motley crew of forces have grown up together over the decades, and within these city blocks one can visit a local sex shop for a wide selection of dildos, feast on cheap and abundant sushi, visit the doctor, buy a loaf of bread, get a haircut, have a beer in the sports bar, see a drag show, and buy a bong, all within a mere stone’s throw of the local Starbucks! The physical layout of Davie Street is itself also critical to it success as an integrating rather than dis-integrating place. The architecture of the street, its low, street-oriented buildings with businesses that often pour out onto the street makes the sidewalks interesting places to be, and gives them a lively energy throughout the day. A mingling of building types and storefront displays provides an exciting streetscape, a dance of colours, shapes, and movement to tantalise the eyes. Indeed, what distinguishes Davie from its richer, more upscale cousin both to the north and to the east is just this eclecticism.[v]

A great number of small, independent shops caters to a wide range of needs and satisfies a multiplicity of desires gives rise to an almost continuous stream of people uses the street day and night. This is also crucial to the ordering, the reduction of strangeness, and thus the safety of the neighbourhood. The diversity of businesses in the area regularly pulls people from their homes, from the private sphere into the public realm. During the day, the sidewalks and crosswalks, the shops and the cafes are bustling with shoppers, but just as importantly, a variety of restaurants, bars, and clubs entice people out into the evenings. As Jane Jacobs points out, ‘[t]he trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts’.[vi] It is these little contacts that construct all social life, in particular urban life. The crisscrossing human paths this variety and density of businesses entices is key to a reduction of strangeness and thus to the ability of huge numbers of people who know little-to-nothing about each other to live together. My daily shopping routine, for example, generally takes me to four or five stores as opposed to just one giant supermarket residents in other parts of the city might rely. The trip would look a lot like one of those infuriating – yet strangely poignant – Family Circus cartoons (where Billy goes running round the neighbourhood and you can track him by the perforated trail he leaves in his wake) as I cross back and forth across the street from the local supermarket to the deli, visiting two separate bakeries, the local vegetable market, the pharmacy, and finally the corner store for a newspaper and a chocolate bar. This fifteen minute shopping trip puts me in contact with dozens of separate cashiers and store employees, not to mention the countless other relationships I enter into with every step, with every other customer and shopper I have to negotiate with as I make my way through this daily routine. And this same journey is repeated thousands of times a day by a thousand other people.

As opposed to suburban, or more car-oriented neighbourhoods, the Village draws its residents out into the street, and thus into more personal social interactions with each other, whatever forms they make take. This need to use the street, to access stores and engage in these relationships, renders the street itself more predictable, and thus, less strange. The more predictable and personally-known the street, the more well-used it will be. And as is well known gambit in any ‘street fight’, a lively street is a safe street.

The sheer number of strangers encountered would be unmanageable where it not for the ‘intricate, and almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards’ that emerge in a place by a regularity of uses and thus users.[vii] You begin to recognise patterns, see the same faces, increasingly bid casual hellos to those who have ceased being unknown others, but rather have become known, predictable, and less strange others. Through the inevitable demands of urban living, we are all of us turned, or more poetically, morphed from strangers into neighbours.

The strong personal networks that come about by my daily activities are further cemented by the fact that a great many people who work in the village, live here too. Indeed, it is this contact that stands at the core of social trust in the city and constitutes ‘the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow’.[viii] While strangers are integral to city life, the intricate web of relationships that are established in the daily lives of those who live in the neighbourhood reduces the strangeness of those sharing it with you. Indeed, the more knowledge we have about a place and the people who inhabit it, the less it seems like an alien place, full of strangers and danger, and the more it begins to seem like home. It is the certainty and predictability associated with these well-tread urban pathways that can in some sense, establish areas of the city as ‘home territories’.[ix]

Davie Street, among only a handful of such streets in the city, is, however, an exception. And even the majority of this space is given over entirely to cars moving through the area. The vast majority of streets in this city, Vancouver, and indeed in North America, are experienced in a profoundly different way. Instead of contributing to the creation of a shared culture, they divide us. They cut one off from each other, both physically and mentally. Streets typically act not as the public places they once were but rather as the private domain of one category of citizen to the exclusion of all others.

Speed kills...

Today, we tend to regard the streets as motor thoroughfares, and we tend to project this construction back to pre-automotive streets. In retrospect, therefore, the use of streets for children’s play (for example) can seem obviously wrong and thus the departure from streets with the arrival of automobiles can seem an obvious and simple necessity. Only when we can see prevailing construction of the street from the perspective of its own time can we also see the car as an intruder.[x]

The term street is of particular interest. In the above discussion, I used the term to describe an urban environment. Not a place in the physical sense per se, but rather an atmosphere, a psychological place. In my previous essay, and indeed above, I have made some very broad and sweeping remarks on the role of streets in the wider cityscape. Admittedly, I have made no genuine attempt to define the word in a meaningful way as I was more interested in drawing the reader into a more abstract consideration of cities, what they are, and why we live in them. But this reluctance to define precisely my use of the term in favour of encouraging you to consider the matter from your own perspective is backdropped by the necessity of looking both outwards to the dominance of a particular use of the space but also inwards, as it is very much our own perceptions and assumptions that determine the reality of a physical space.

The elasticity of the word we use to describe what is essentially our primary, and indeed our last remaining, public space is problematic. That, as a record of our cultural consciousness, the lexical definition of a street is so confused does speak to how profoundly we have become disconnected from the idea of the street as a human space, a social space, a living space. As was discussed in my previous essay, modern city streets have been given over entirely to movement. But in the transformation of the city as human places into maniacally economic places, as public space has given way to movement space, we have forgotten that streets have traditionally functioned as social spaces. They were - and still are - in older, denser areas of cities, places of shared experience, of socialisation, places of culture. We forget, however, at the risk of not only rendering the city itself an obsolete idea, but also of endangering our civilisation.

The roadway, the public right-of-way through town was for thousands of years prior to the invention of the automobile essentially an anarchic place.[xii] City streets were public places in very real ways. Those on foot, whether traveling, doing business, meeting neighbours, or simply strolling along on a leisurely Sunday afternoon were, by custom and common law, entitled to the whole street.[xiii] In fact, the only restriction on the use of the street was that all travelers had equal rights on the roadway.

Up until the early part of the twentieth century, the definition of the street as a public place was unchallenged. The invention of the motorcar in the late 1800’s began a process, however, that would fundamentally alter this arrangement. More and more cars came to find themselves competing for the right to occupy the streets. And as automobile speeds increased, they began to obstruct, endanger, and ultimately made incompatible any other use of the street.

Higher speeds, so it seems, had upended the old customs and necessitated a shift in how roads were used. But perhaps more profoundly and importantly, speed has changed the way we relate to each other on a daily basis.

Evolutionary biology, in its infinite wisdom, has shaped the human being in such a way as to render communication impossible, or at vey least severely diminished, at speeds above 30 kph.[xiv] Speeds beyond this threshold altogether shift the regulation of shared space. Eye-contact is all but impossible and so the constant informal interactions and negotiations of our urban spaces that take place on foot or bicycle are no longer possible. There is simply no time! We are moving too fast.

Consider a busy sidewalk as an example. There are no rules regulating it, no yellow lines down the centre. No stop signs or traffic lights telling us when to go and when to stop. We are generally free to make our own decisions and things generally flow quite well. It is otherwise on roads. People on foot do not require lanes or other instructive markings as we are interacting through visual cues and clues, through body language and a general consideration for the other by virtue of their being there, occupying space with us. We don’t run into each other, or, when cut off, we mostly don’t start screaming obscenities at the top of our lungs, cursing as we might when behind the wheel. When we have to look someone in the eye we – by necessity – must act at least moderately civil. In cars, as the immediate contact is lost, so is the need, even the desire to be civil.

While quantity of traffic most certainly plays an important role in how streets are used and experienced, it is essentially the speed of that traffic that determines the legibility of the space. According to David Appleyard, who documented in his extensive studies of the impact of traffic on neighbourhoods, our sense of ‘home territory’ decreases in proportion to traffic volumes and speed.[xv] Not only does this discourage and degrade the public life of the city as discussed earlier, but also fails to foster any sense of ownership over neighbourhood and can lead to serious social and economic decay. As people retreat from the street as traffic speeds up and increases, so too do they take with them their eyes and brooms. Safety and upkeep suffer accordingly, further rendering the street an inhospitable and neglected environment. 

(Indeed, so inculcated is efficient movement in our consciousness that most traffic engineering decisions and government regulations are explained by long-standing and little-questioned assumptions about how things should be and should work.[xvi] We see this at work in the more general discussion around speed. Despite the fact that the likelihood of pedestrian injury and/or death spikes dramatically beyond the 30 kph mark – whereas fatalities of pedestrians involved with motorised transport sat at about 5% at 30 kph, the percentage rises to 45% at 50 kph and 85% at 65 kph – speed limits within cities remain startlingly high.[xvii] In spite of continual efforts to calm traffic, the legal structure in place to regulate behaviour still insists that 50 kph is a reasonable speed for a city street.)


People have internalised a particular perception and use of the street. Much of what had traditionally been space for ‘public life’ has become strictly controlled and segregated, both from without by physical design, but perhaps more consequentially, from within. We live in a world in which the human being has had the role of pedestrian and driver, respectively, inscribed into our minds and bodies. There is now a certain habit of mind which belongs to those both in and outside of cars that assumes pedestrians should get out of the way…and do not belong on or to the street. We have been taught from a very young age that the street is not our space. It is the realm of the automobile. We understand the rules and are aware of the repercussions for breaking them.[xviii] One need only recall the trepidation we all feel stepping out into an empty street against a red light. We become jay-walkers, deviants in the eyes of the greater society, and we feel it in our bones. We know that we are intruding, and scurry much as we would sneaking through someone’s garden in the dead of night as a shortcut home. We are where we don’t belong. Then, as drivers we become owners of the space, exclusive operators and we come to see others as exactly that, others. Who amongst us hasn’t rolled their eyes, fretted impatiently, or even blared our car horns at someone taking “too long” to walk across the street. We no longer tolerate each other but compete. We no longer really interact, we just follow the rules.

Our neighbourhood streets can be imagined to be the connective social tissue of the city and yet most of our suburban and indeed urban neighbourhoods are set up along a particular pattern that most likely eases movement more than human contact. So, the vibrant street and its capacity for drawing people out of the private sphere and into the public is now a rare thing indeed. And without the frequent contacts among residents that occur when a street is a public,  people place, the social disintegration and isolation of the modern world is multiplied and cities ultimately fail in their most basic function – social integration!

We have reconstructed our city to privilege those moving through it over those actually in it. And here we at last return to where we began. If cities are indeed human ecosystems, representations of our dominant values, our morals, and not mere clusterings of buildings, then what does this say about us that we live and move through the city isolated from one another, safe from unwanted contact?

What does it say about the future of our society that the very possibility of building up social trust and cohesion is designed out of our public spaces? And that we consider this as a natural state of affairs, a wholly logical way of organising our cities?

But we rarely consider these questions. In fact, most of us can’t even conceive of any other way.


[i] Lofland, Lyn. A world of strangers : order and action in urban public space. New York: Basic Bookd,  1973: 176.

[ii] Before venturing onwards, it is important to note that the word stranger is used in many ways by many people for many different reasons. However, within the context of this paper, I will be using the term in as general a sense as possible, not implying anything sinister, but rather meant simply to define a stranger as someone not personally known to another.

[iii] Weber as cited in Hannerz, Ulf. Exploring the City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980: 106.

[iv] Jacobs, Jane. Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books, 1992: 30.

[v] A quick walk through Yaletown would the more homogenous and uniform built neighbourhood of where building frontage, often maintained facades are repetitive and very boring, to get a very clear sense of the impact of diversity on the landscape.

[vi] Jacobs, 56.

[vii] Jacobs, 32.

[viii] Jacobs, 32.

[ix] Lofland , 122.

[x] Norton, Peter D. Fighting Traffic. The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 2008: 2

[xi] Newman, Peter. “Walking in a Historical, International and Contemporary Context.” Sustainable Transport. Ed. Rodney Tolley. New York: Woodhead Publishing Limited, 2003. 48-9.

[xii] I am relying here on the distinction between anarchy as a state of chaos and anarchism as organising principle.

[xiii] Norton, 66. Pedestrians were, but are now presumably unable, to make a claim to the unrestricted use of any part of the roadway at anytime and anyplace through custom and Anglo-Saxon legal tradition of common law. The man responsible for the first set of formalised traffic rules that would serve as the template upon which would be constructed the modern regime of traffic regulations, summarised this right in 1926: “This ancient rule is that all persons have an equal right to the highway, and that in exercising the right each shall take due care not to injure other users of the way.”

[xiv] Hamilton-Baillie, “Urban Design: Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.” Journal of Urban Technology. 11.1 (2004): 43-62.

[xv] Appleyard, David. Livable Streets. Berkley: University of California Press, 1981.

[xvi] Clarke, Emily. “What’s Next for Shared Space? We Look at the UK Experience.” Traffic Engineering &Control. 49.6 (2008). 205-208.

[xvii] Hamilton-Baillie, 54.

[xviii] Sauter, Daniel. “Perceptions of Walking – Ideologies of Perception.” Sustainable Transport. Ed. Rodney Tolley. New York: Woodhead Publishing Limited, 2003: 200-209.

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