Sidewalks: Not Just for Walking, Karen A. Franck

Sidewalks: Not Just for Walking

Karen A. Franck describes the many ways of using one type of space

The name given in the United States to the linear, hard-surfaced space stretching between roadway and building frontage suggests its major purpose: pedestrian movement. But because of its location and because it is an outdoor public space accessible to all, the sidewalk supports a greater variety of activities than just walking. In many cases citizens appropriate sidewalk space for their own purposes, for short or long periods of time, unexpectedly or on a regular basis. The sidewalk’s social and physical features contribute significantly to it becoming a ‘loose space’: the presence of others, a paved surface, an open expanse, connectedness to other spaces and permeable boundaries to gutter and roadway and to building interiors (Franck and Stevens 2007).

It is on the sidewalk that residents and visitors experience a neighbourhood most directly and most corporeally. That is where we see, hear, feel and smell the city without the mediation of cars or through building windows. It is primarily from our experiences on the sidewalk that we come to know a city’s neighbourhoods and sense local character. The distinctive social and spatial features of the sidewalk, its diversity of uses and significance in helping to create a certain kind of neighbourhood merit scrutinizing and designing sidewalks as discrete, public spaces rather than subsuming it under the category of ’street’ or ‘streetscape’.

Diversity, Synergy, Overlap

Sidewalks are most definitely places of pedestrian movement, both along their length and across their width. People may be walking, strolling, jogging, pushing a baby carriage, pulling a suitcase, walking a dog. They stand on the sidewalk, waiting to cross, waiting for a bus or taxi. Sidewalks are the location of a variety of services: garbage and mail collection, bicycle storage, parking meters and pay telephones. Some of these services, as well as deliveries to stores and residences, make the sidewalk a place of temporary storage. Both as a discrete place and as an extension of adjacent shops and restaurants, sidewalks are also a place of commerce: vendors sell food and other items; shops extend their displays and restaurants create outdoor cafés.

Sidewalks are a place for socialising, as people move along, stand or sit on formal seating or perched on low walls, ledges or steps or on the sidewalk itself. They may also be consuming: buying, eating, drinking or smoking. Children and adults engage in various forms of play, as participants and onlookers. People communicate information through official and unofficial signs placed on walls, fences and lampposts or written on the surface of the sidewalk itself. Political communication takes place through leafleting, picketing, public speaking and demonstrating. Citizens may memorialize a sudden death by placing flowers, candles and other commemorative items on a sidewalk at the location of the death or adjacent to the victim’s home.

Many sidewalk activities feed upon each other. Because the sidewalk can be lively, it is a good place to watch the passing scene. Because it is public, often occupied by people for other reasons, the sidewalk is a good place to reach citizens for conveying political messages or selling goods. For much the same reason, the sidewalk hosts socially less acceptable activities including drug dealing, prostitution and begging. Pedestrians are a ‘captive audience.’

As the sidewalk is outdoors and has permeable boundaries, activities seep over from the two sides: the roadway and adjacent buildings. The very first department stores took advantage of this condition when they invented elaborate street level display windows. People in doorways or windows engage with those on the sidewalk, or at least observe them. Washing or repairing the car takes place right at the kerb. People parked in cars or sitting on motorcycles chat with others on the sidewalk. Day labourers waiting for jobs may stand on certain corners to be picked up by those offering employment. Shops have outdoor displays of fruits, vegetables and flowers. Restaurants extend their domain onto the sidewalk with tables and chairs. Research by Vikas Mehta (2007) on several Boston sidewalks suggests that permeability of building fronts and availability of seating provided by adjacent business increase the liveliness of sidewalks.

Passing and Pausing

Two kinds of sidewalk activities, those of passage and pausing, are often seen in opposition to each other. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries efforts were undertaken in the U.S. to make cities cleaner and more orderly places reflecting middle class values. Municipal regulations were adopted based on the premise that the overriding purpose of the sidewalk is efficient pedestrian passage, and other uses that physically obstruct efficient passage have to be restricted or eliminated. This became a key argument for the removal of street vendors and peddlers and a rationale for restricting public speaking and meetings, which were often political in nature (Mitchell 2003).

Subsequently, the distinction between passing and pausing became more extreme and physically embodied. Starting in the late 1960s, skywalks were built above street level to connect downtown commercial buildings, solely for passage and providing no reason to pause. Here the objectives were not only convenience and efficiency of passage but physical comfort (for different climates) and safety from street crime. Indoor shopping malls achieved a different kind of separation of passing from pausing. Although both kinds of activities do, and are supposed to occur, in the mall, the reasons for pausing will only be those created by the mall owners and managers. Space in malls, unlike the sidewalk, cannot be appropriated by citizens. Therefore we do not encounter any of the diversity or unpredictability of the sidewalk, which is, indeed, one of the purposes of the mall: one can consume without interruptions or distractions. As a result of indoor malls and almost complete reliance on the car, sidewalk use in American suburbs is minimal, if sidewalks are provided at all. In fact, in order to distinguish themselves from the city, many suburbs omitted sidewalks altogether - passing was only to occur in cars.

More recently, changes in municipal regulations and citizen practices have substantially revitalized sidewalk life in the U.S., introducing more reasons to pause, even at the risk of ‘obstructing’ efficient passage. Municipalities allow and license sidewalk cafés, vendors of fresh and prepared foods and street performers. Other changes have occurred without official sanction, such as the creation of informal sidewalk memorials by citizens. Efficiency of pedestrian passage continues to be used as a reason to remove ‘obstructions’, for example, lunch vendors in midtown Manhattan. Other stationary obstructions however, such as enormous bollards and planters in front of commercial and governmental buildings, are justified as security measures.

Concern for the efficiency of passage is increasingly being replaced by wide-spread recognition, on the part of city officials and urban designers, of the importance of the pleasure of passage. This is demonstrated by many streetscape improvement programs across the U.S. where textured sidewalk paving, lighting, planting and benches are introduced to help bring shoppers back to languishing downtowns, and where traffic calming devices are installed to make pedestrians safer and more comfortable. A different pedestrian-oriented initiative is evident in recent funding from New York’s Lower Manhattan Development Authority for art installations on and adjacent to sidewalks. The goal is to offset some of the discomfort of passing by the area’s numerous construction sites. One project is a playful plywood walkway installed on a sidewalk below construction scaffolding. As more attention is being paid to problems of obesity and other illnesses attributed to sedentary lifestyles, research and local planning initiatives consider how to make communities more ‘walkable’ and more pedestrian friendly. For many of these reasons, suburban communities originally built without sidewalks are now under pressure to install them.

What kind of Sidewalk and Neighbourhood?

If the sidewalk is no longer just for efficient but also pleasurable passage and occupying, what kinds of sidewalks do we want? How sidewalks look and how they are used creates a certain kind of place and projects a certain kind of neighbourhood image. The design of sidewalks, adjacent land uses and local regulations all become tools for creating and maintaining uses and, just as importantly, an image.

In New York City, regulations and their enforcement figure prominently in determining sidewalk use and neighbourhood image. The many Italian restaurants and cafés extending themselves onto the already narrow sidewalks create the ambience of Little Italy, just as the peddlers of fresh fruit and vegetables create the atmosphere of nearby Chinatown on its equally-crowded sidewalks. Sidewalks in residential neighbourhoods on Manhattan’s Upper East Side have no such vendors. 42nd Street and the Times Square area turn out to be good places for rappers to sell their CDs, sometimes resulting in contracts for international live tours. Wide sidewalks in Midtown still sport a great variety of food vendors at lunchtime sought out by office workers. On 53rd Street, near the Museum of Modern Art, vendors have long displayed African masks for sale on the sidewalk. Vendors are forbidden on sidewalks immediately adjacent to the World Trade Center site. According to official signs, this is to maintain its status as ‘a very special place’. Attempts by large scale commercial enterprises, such as Microsoft, to appropriate sidewalk surfaces in the centre of Manhattan for advertising purposes are immediately stopped; but despite regulations, residential neighbourhood sidewalks and street lamps in Park Slope, Brooklyn are intensively used for much smaller scale, informal, local advertising. On weekends sidewalk sales by residents abound.

In hot weather throughout poorer New York neighbourhoods, the sidewalk becomes a place to sit, barbecue, and run through the spray from a fire hydrant - all activities absent and shunned by the middle class who can retreat to air-conditioned apartments or summer homes. It is precisely this class-based difference about the sidewalk that has been seized by landscape designer Steve Rasmussen-Cancian as a tool to fight gentrification in neighbourhoods in Los Angeles and West Oakland, California. With the sponsorship and participation of the neighbourhood organizations, he designs, builds and installs movable plywood chairs and tables to create outdoor living rooms at locations where residents already tend to gather or where gathering would improve the pedestrian environment. Enjoyed by the Latino and African-American residents, the furniture is also intended to repel developers and other ‘would-be’ (mostly white) gentrifiers who, Rasmussen suggests, prefer a largely empty sidewalk. Originally, city regulations in West Oakland prohibited such furniture since they were encroachments without permits; permits which only adjacent property owners could obtain. But these regulations have now been revised, allowing for the legal creation of lively sidewalk life and a neighbourhood image that may indeed deter those gentrifiers who seek a different kind of place.

The willingness of Oakland city government to amend their regulations and to increase informal social uses of the sidewalk runs counter to efforts in other cities to create more orderly, homogeneous and apparently sanitary sidewalks. Design, urban redevelopment and regulations are used to restrict or eliminate sidewalk uses that traditionally helped to create a sense of community and provided a livelihood for vendors. If efforts to cleanse these spaces in-between are successful, sidewalks, and hence neighbourhoods will all become the same from one country to another. When sidewalk uses are lost, so are liveliness, community and character.

Professor Karen A. Franck, New Jersey School of Architecture & Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, New Jersey Institute of Technology

Mehta, V. (2007) Lively streets. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research 27, pp165-87.
Mitchell, D. (2003) Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York, Guilford Press.