In praise of sidewalks

One of the core challenges of urban planning is to sift through complex, entangled social-political-economic-environmental-political problems to find policies that are feasible and really helpful. One of those policies is the promotion of good sidewalks: no trip-hazards, no projecting hardware or branches, wide enough for two people to pass each other, and connected with curb ramps throughout an area.

Jane Jacobs praised sidewalks in Death and life of great American cities, praising the public social quality of the ‘sidewalk ballet.’ I encountered the need for an integrated sidewalk network when I oversaw the rebuilding of two city blocks in San Francisco in 2000-2001, when the city was working out its accessibility policies for public areas outside of buildings. I have seen the broad general benefits of curb-ramps, especially for parents with strollers, people with roller-luggage, and people using wheeled baskets for shopping and hauling laundry.

This third group–those who haul small bits of freight up and down curb-ramps–may be the most important for urban living and overall sustainability. My colleague Ria Hutabarat-Lo has been researching ‘informal’ circulation networks in Jakarta, Indonesia, and she points out that the vast majority of urban movement in that city–and in most cities–is pedestrian paths. But it is not just people walking to and from destinations, which is the classic way that transportation planners conceive of transit needs. For many people the sidewalk is the destination, as vendors push their carts along and sell to passers-by. It is the place to find a lot of casual goods and services, such as shoe repair and used books. This ‘casual’ economic activity is often maligned, but if you think about the ‘proper’ people doing the maligning, it is a pretty raw class-based process of wealthier people disparaging poorer people. Hopefully, that sort of elitism is becoming ethically indefensible, and it is certainly something that planners should oppose, both for the sake of broader social justice and for the sake of economic development.

We need to thank the disability-rights community for an extraordinary and unforeseen contribution to city life in the twenty-first century and beyond. The ‘accessible path-of-travel’ standards in the ADA design guidelines are the first set of standards for sidewalks that I know of. Roads have been carefully engineered since the 1920s, but sidewalks have been neglected or even eliminated in many cities. Ironically, the paving of vehicular streets was most strongly advocated by bicyclists in the late 19th century, and in due time, bicyclists may become the dominant vehicles on roads. Yet, sidewalks are the carriers of the most sustainable traffic in the world: pedestrians and wheelchairists. And they do a lot of business and haul a lot of freight on sidewalks.

So! If you are in a city where sidewalks are being neglected or disrupted, here is an argument in your favor. Over time, I will gather documentation and peer-reviewed publications that support this argument and link them to this blog-page. But right away, here is an important argument that planners in many cities should consider: when I go to a city, what gives me a sense that it is modern, developed and attractive? I look for a place where the city is supporting the urban life of its inhabitants. One of the most obvious ways an urban government can show its capacity, its modernity, is to shape its streets so that they work for people. Big, shiny buildings and cars are thin indicators of wealth, because even Dubai can suffer sudden market collapse. But sidewalks that allow and support full public life show a deep wealth that will survive sudden shocks to the economy. So if you are a planner in Jakarta, or Rabat, or Peoria, what I look for in your city is the system of sidewalks you maintain. That is what signals ‘development’ to me.

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