Crime & the City Solution
Brian Sholis interviewed me on his podcast this week. We discussed how digital technology has affected our relationship to physical space, how cities have struggled to adapt, and what makes good public space. It’s short—less than 30 minutes—so give it a listen!
In August, Paul Graham tweeted a pair of observations about downtown San Francisco, calling them “two visions of two possible futures of SF”:
Graham’s contrasting observations illustrate the juxtaposition of abundance and abjection that today’s San Francisco harbors: He presents the two images as inconsistent, as though a band of gun-firing joyriders (or “car robbers”) could not possibly share the streets with the technological cutting edge that self-driving cars represent—at least not in any believable universe.
Although it can be difficult to separate the perception of street crime from the quantifiable reality in any city where that perception exists—whether San Francisco, New York, or anywhere else—it is plausible that self-driving cars and elevated street crime would go hand in hand, for the straightforward reason that automation removes humans from environments they have traditionally occupied, including urban streets and public spaces. As those environments become emptier, there are fewer civilians present to casually supervise their surroundings, a process that happens more or less automatically in busy areas.
Self-driving cars are not currently responsible for this, of course—there haven’t been enough of them on the road for a long enough time to have that impact—but their proliferation promises to extend the logic of automation, which has already come to characterize many private spaces, into a new domain, along with its various side effects. This transformation is perhaps most visible in brick-and-mortar retail, where self-checkout and related developments have enabled stores to operate with minimal staffing, necessitating customer-unfriendly loss prevention measures like the notorious locked cases that seem to enclose 95 percent of the merchandise at so many CVS and Walgreens locations.
In The Death and Life of American Cities, Jane Jacobs makes the case for vibrant street life as an organic means of maintaining public safety. “There must be eyes upon the street,” she wrote, “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.” This is an environmental feature that tends to occur naturally but is all too easy to snuff out, as many urban districts have done over the past century. The empty retail store with all its merchandise locked behind glass thus foreshadows the increasingly automated city: bereft of those “natural proprietors,” along with their eyes on the street and the safety they provide, and filling that void with more abrasive—and less effective—security mechanisms in a self-reinforcing cycle.