News

Let the light in, and don’t be blinded by blocked-out windows


Opinion: Having many ‘eyes on the street’ enhances connectivity, security and our mental health

Article content

The acclaimed urban designer Jane Jacobs often talked about the importance of having “eyes on the street.”

Advertisement

Article content

In her fight against designing cities based on fear — of other people, of hidden danger, of burglaries — the American-Canadian author urged architects to avoid creating bunkers. Instead she called for ways to encourage connection, neighbourhood aliveness and people watching out, literally, for each other.

Jacob’s philosophy has not panned out in large swaths of North America, where, as Vancouver architect Bruce Haden says, we often produce buildings and attitudes that isolate us. It can contribute to declining social trust, particularly when a pandemic is also keeping us apart.

While to some the subject may seem trivial, few things are more opposite to the philosophy of “eyes on the street” than perpetually closed window blinds, shutters and curtains. And they are everywhere in North America, including Metro Vancouver.

Advertisement

Article content

Although local academics don’t appear to have studied this alienating phenomenon, informal observations suggest a sizeable proportion of Metro Vancouver residents keep their window blinds and curtains down — almost all the time, even in daylight.

It’s not surprising, given the fear-filled public messaging. The manufacturers of blinds allege blocked-out windows reduce burglaries . Some police departments suggest something similar , even while the jury is out on the the effectiveness of the fortress strategy.

Property developers often encourage isolation, too. “The real-estate industry tells people that there are three things you should pay extra for: ‘Privacy, luxury and control,’ ” says Haden. But hunkering down often goes against life satisfaction, he says, since interaction is one of the keys to happiness.

Advertisement

Article content

The practices of many Metro Vancouver residents provide a sharp contrast to customs in northern Europe, where North Americans are often amazed by how many residents keep their windows uncovered , even when it’s dark.

Since I’ve had the privilege of travelling frequently to Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Iceland, I’ve seen the remarkable way many residents allow those walking by to look into their dwellings. In the evening it creates a warm glow on the street . Many put candles and ornaments on their sills.

What explains the cultural openness? It relates at least in part to studies suggesting northern Europe has the world’s most trusting citizens, while Canada scores slightly lower . The issue has heightened relevance now, given research showing mistrust has worsened during the pandemic .

Advertisement

Article content

My unscientific study on Vancouver’s west and east sides determined roughly 50 per cent of houses surveyed kept their front window blinds down in the daytime. The proportion of shuttered windows jumps even higher in wealthy Kerrisdale and Shaughnessy.

Haden, a principal with Human Studio Architecture, says isolation is bad for physical health and emotional resiliency.

The “transparency of buildings” is crucial, he says. “Being able to see inside another’s home is psychologically important. And you also want a sense of what’s going on in the outside world.”

Haden often argues with city officials who fixate on preserving residents’ privacy, including by making it hard to see into someone’s yard. But such “fear-based” social policy, he says, reduces our connections.

Advertisement

Article content

Indeed, an anxious bunker mentality might actually encourage burglaries. A criminal does not seek out a block of homes where people keep an eye out for each other. Potential thieves, he says, do not like it “when you can see them and they can see you.”

The problem appears to grow worse in luxury neighbourhoods. “As people get wealthier they get more uptight about privacy,” says Haden, who thinks it contributes to NIMBYism, the so-called Not In My Backyard syndrome, which leads some to oppose higher density.

When he has travelled to West 33rd Avenue in Mackenzie Heights and Dunbar, Haden has been startled by the hollowed-out neighbourhoods  where many mansions are under-utilized. “I don’t remember seeing a single person on the sidewalk anywhere. And this is some of the most desirable real estate in the world. I think it’s a tragedy.”

Advertisement

Article content

For his part, Haden and family live in a small home in the Strathcona neighbourhood of Vancouver, where he says there is vibrant street life. Acknowledging he’s extroverted, he likes to keep the living-room windows uncovered, including at night.

His house also receives about 300 kids on a typical Halloween. Like urban planner Andy Yan of Simon Fraser University, who monitors Metro Vancouver’s trick-or-treating patterns , Haden believes tight-knit neighbourhoods get more young ones out on Oct. 31.

“As people get wealthier they get more uptight about privacy,” says architect Bruce Haden. That leads to fewer eyes on the street. (Photo: Arlen Redekop, PNG)
“As people get wealthier they get more uptight about privacy,” says architect Bruce Haden. That leads to fewer eyes on the street. (Photo: Arlen Redekop, PNG) Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Even while northern Europe might be the gold standard for neighbourhood transparency in the West, it still has challenges, says Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design.

Advertisement

Article content

“In their work in Rotterdam, the Happy City team became aware of strong cultural differences in the use of window blinds,” Montgomery says.

“Traditionally, the Dutch keep their windows transparent. But new immigrants from the Middle East found the inside-outside views far too invasive of their privacy, especially for women. So they closed all their blinds, leaving streets feeling barren. The problem, as I see it, is that architecture had failed to respond to a new culture’s needs.”

Vancouver-based Montgomery says architects have come up with solutions in a London neighbourhood called the Elephant and Castle. “The building designers acknowledged that many immigrants preferred more privacy, so they created balcony railings that were semi-permeable screens. This allowed residents to hang out on their balconies or even inside with blinds open, feeling they had the privacy they desired while still being able to engage with the street when they wanted.”

Advertisement

Article content

Clearly, there are many different reasons why some want seclusion. But I’m with those who urge a more open attitude to the streets, the neighbourhood and others, especially in a multicultural city where the Vancouver Foundation has discovered many residents feel lonely and disengaged .

The good news is that it’s not only better for your mental health to have an outward-looking vista on your neighbourhood, it’s also likely to decrease the chances you’ll be robbed. Enlightened police departments suggest a middle way to making your home look occupied: It’s OK to keep some blinds and curtains closed — but keep others open.

You have little to lose, and a lot to gain.

dtodd@postmedia.com

twitter.com/douglastodd


Start your day with a roundup of B.C.-focused news and opinion delivered straight to your inbox at 7 a.m., Monday to Friday by subscribing to our Sunrise newsletter here .


CLICK HERE to report a typo.

Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email vantips@postmedia.com.

Advertisement

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.





Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.