“You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.” – Sherlock Holmes, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”
Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities has been hailed for many insights, but, in my mind, the most important one was that planners and policy makers need to observe and respond to how people actually use cities, and not how we think they should. Jacobs was critical of planners that were so enamored of idealized, theoretical cities that they created new neighborhoods that didn’t work and were dismissive of old neighborhoods that did. She examined large, dense cities with the purpose of uncovering general principles of planning and design in those cities and then applying those principles.
Jacobs’ insight brings to mind Sherlock Holmes’ method of solving crimes – the “observation of trifles”. Holmes frequently employs systematic thinking, which involves deep analysis of his environment, as opposed to the more casual heuristic thinking we typically use. Careful observation of downtowns allows planners and non-planners to acquire information that may not be readily apparent through traditional public involvement methods. Downtowns and the people in them provide subtle (and not so subtle) clues that can guide planners and non-planners on potential improvements and changes.
Examples of useful information include:
- An area of a town square that is frequented by individuals rather than groups, which could indicate that the seating is not conducive to conversations. People sitting in chairs and benches that face each other can more easily talk than those sitting on individual straight benches. The city may want to consider replacing the existing seating or moving benches so there is a mix of seating for both individuals and groups.
- Parking spaces with dark oil stains, which are probably being used more often than those without those stains. While such an observation is not a true substitute for a detailed parking study, a city can consider this information when determining time limits on parking and where to place directional signs to underutilized spaces.
- A sidewalk with an adjacent patch of dying grass. This observation could tell you that the grass is not being maintained and the grass needs to be replaced, but what is probably more likely is that the sidewalk is not wide enough and people are regularly walking on the grass. Rather than replacing the grass with another patch that will soon die, the city should think about pavement options or leaving the area bare.
When assembled, this observation of trifles can have a significant effect on a downtown. The challenge for those involved in downtown planning is to slow down, take a look around, and see opportunities for positive change.