Monday, September 13, 2010

Sidewalk Redefined

In this compelling recent article, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Reina Ehrenfeucht describe the downfall of sidewalks in the US, and suggest how planners might bring them back to life. They identify five essential purposes of sidewalks:

Movement This one's pretty self-explanatory. Sidewalks are how pedestrians move from one place to another.

Encounter Sidewalks are the places where you meet people: people you know, people you don't know, and people you might not want to know. And sometimes, this purpose of the sidewalk trumps the "movement" purpose, as in when a street fair temporarily closes a pathway to normal traffic. As the article describes, sidewalks are where, "Spontaneous and planned festivities break the rhythm of everyday life and give collective expression to people’s joy, sorrow or aspirations."

Confrontation Not every activity that takes place on a sidewalk is comfortable. Rallies and protests, sit-ins, or even talking loudly might be distruptive or violate social norms. Still, the authors' believe that these activities should be accomodated on "democratic" sidewalks.  

Survival We don't always like to dwell on it, but for some people the sidewalk is "home," and the only place where they can carry out the ordinary activities of daily life (eating, sleeping) that the rest of us more commonly do indoors. Sidewalks are also, often controversially, the places where some people like street vendors or day laborers go to earn a living.

Beauty Although this purpose is often sorely neglected, sidewalks can be a place of lush beauty, with trees, plants, street furniture, art, and other items that give the sidewalk--and the community it serves--its own identity.

What I find most challenging about this article is the authors' insistence that sidewalks must accomodate "both enjoyable and disruptive activites." In other words, all those street protests, loitering youths, homeless people, vendors, festivals, and marches that disrupt pedestrian flow and make people uncomfortable? They're vital to a good sidewalk.

Planners and community leaders don't always like to make room on sidewalks for all that unruliness, as evidenced by the proliferation of heavily-regulated, highly-sanitized pedestrian zones (Third Street Promenade, anyone?) where even something as simple playing a guitar on the sidewalk requires a permit. I admit I understand where they're coming from. Sometimes I dream of sidewalks that are nothing more than evenly-spaced places full of flowers, entrancing music, and friendly people.

Reality can be so different. I recall one childhood outing on the streets of downtown Seattle, when my Girl Scout troop had to flee the sidewalk after a large homeless man threatened to stab us (in retrospect, I find it hardly likely that he had a knife). I'm certain our troop leaders could have done without that encounter, but would we really have been better off growing up oblivious to the difficulties (poverty, mental illness) that other people struggle with?

I suspect not, which is why I appreciate the authors' exhortation to make sidewalks that are "places for more than just movement." It feels unsettling, and it almost certainly goes against our planner instinct to cultivate worlds of order and predictability. Nonetheless, we'll never have the truly vibrant sidewalks that we dream about unless we allow them to serve all of their many purposes.

If you'd like to learn more, check out Loukaitou-Sideris and Ehrenfeucht's book Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation over Public Space.

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