Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Whose sidewalks are they, anyway? Part 2

I've written before about Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Reina Ehrenfeucht's important work on sidewalks and their crucial role in creating and sustaining a vibrant city--along with city officials' ongoing attempts to thwart that role. Last week in LA we were treated to yet another example of a city trying to limit the use of sidewalks to specific, sanctioned activities.

For the non-locals, downtown LA is in the midst of a renaissance that includes an extremely successful nighttime Art Walk on Thursdays. Last week Occupy protesters organized a "chalk walk" during the Art Walk festivities, writing their slogans on the local sidewalks and--in the process--impeding the flow of pedestrians. When they refused to move, police got involved, and (as the pattern goes here in LA) things got out of control.

It would be easy to make this about the sometimes-unruly Occupy movement and their politics, but the real issue has nothing to do with the specifics of this incident. Instead, it highlights a fundamental disagreement over the purpose of sidewalks. As quoted in the LA Weekly, the LAPD argues,

"One thing that's getting lost is...we had people writing on the sidewalks and, because so many were doing it, they were blocking the sidewalk and forcing pedestrians to walk in the roadway."

The unspoken implication is that the sidewalk serves one purpose only: moving pedestrians (while of course keeping them out of the way of all-important flow of vehicle traffic).

But sidewalks do so much more than that. They're a place for social interaction, expression, discovery, art and beauty. They're the place where the shopkeeper and the millionaire executive can nod to one another as equals. For some people, they're even home.

Until Los Angeles acknowledges--and even embraces--the many reasons sidewalks exist, we're never going to have a world-class walking city.


  1. According to the Dept of Highways the sidewalk belongs to the person who owns the property where the sidewalk is. I recently had a nasty harassing neighbor try to make a path on our snowy sidewalk before we had a chance to clear it. It was 19:30 am and I was ready to make breakfast and then go out to clear the sidewalk. We have two different-sized snow blowers and three snow shovels. We do a great job. So I told my neighbor that we clear our own sidewalk and he told me the sidewalk was not mine but belonged to everybody. He was sarcastic. I called the Maryland precinct and told them about the matter and they agreed with him that he had the right to shovel our sidewalk if he pleased. I then called another precinct and they too agreed that the sidewalk could be cleared by him without our permission. So yesterday I pursued the problem and called the State's Attorney General and they said it WAS my property and to call the Dept. of Highways who are are in charge of roads and highways and sidewalks. I was told that our sidewalk indeed belongs to us and that the neighbor was not simply walking across our sidewalk which is the permitted but clearing our sidewalk without permission and against our permission meant he was trespassing and should have been arrested.

  2. The law concerning who "owns" the sidewalk can vary from state to state, which certainly can lead to confusion. Beyond this, the actual property boundaries (where the public right of way ends and private property begins) aren't always as obvious as you might imagine--sometimes "private" features (fences, landscaping, even buildings) are actually placed within the public right of way. At the same time, sometimes private property owners build a walkway in front of their homes that people assume is a public sidewalk, but technically isn't. As with so many things regarding access and property rights, it's often more complicated than it seems at first (and even officials who theoretically *should* know the law sometimes don't, or have different interpretations of the same law).