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Reclaiming the Sidewalk in City Design

21st Street in Pittsburgh's Strip District makes excellent use of its sidewalk.

Getting the little things right

The primary type of public space in the United States is the street. It has been the long-standing breadwinner for our economies in providing that rich exchange between customers and merchants, ideas and entrepreneurs, and people and another. Streets are not static or, like our cities themselves, ever complete. They begin as an idea about creating access and value to land and grow from there. They continue to evolve as the enabler of great urban life. At that exact point where the value creation happens--the building face--is the most energetic. Like creeks and rivers, these contact points with the "shore" create eddies of activity. As our streets became laden with faster and larger vehicles, we zoned that activity into a separate space: the sidewalk.

Sidewalks are our neighborhood's breadwinner, bringing vitality, safety, and economy.

The sidewalk is often overlooked. Before they were installed in cities, they were simply the areas not defined by ruts in the road. With needs changing, they gradually got elevated out of the muck (streets were once de-facto sewers) and congestion of the road. Eventually more and more stuff got layered on: the poles, benches, kiosks, bike racks, signs, sales racks, trees, lighting, planting strips, and so on. When the city became too much for people and the car and its supporting policies allowed the city to be drained, sidewalks went with them, changing forms to fit into a new, lower-density context. Still, they became the point of active interaction between walkers and people sitting on porches or passing by. They were critical for allowing kids to safely get to school, dad to get to work, and mom to get to friends and errands. 

But over time the sidewalk was value engineered out of our subdivisions. Counties and other exurbs simply did not see the value in providing auto-only development with sidewalks that, in the end, only created a distraction for traffic. So they went away. Much development in the sixties, seventies, and eighties in this country can be seen without a sidewalk or, at best, a broken patchwork of sidewalk segments. 

Beginning in the sixties, we started value engineering out our sidewalks. This had the unintended consequence of crippling our mobility and ability to choose how to get around.

As the true cost of those choices become clear, we are now reorganizing ourselves along more time-tested and solvent patterns of building. The street once again has become a prime topic of attention and detailing in the creation of new urban and suburban development. But the transition has not always been smooth. At no small expense to those building and maintaining them, complete streets have been developed, offering a place for everyone so long as everyone stayed in their designated place. The walkers had their path, the bikers theirs. Cars were free to move at any speed (typically 45 MPH) and their was ample room provided tree lawns, planting strips, swales, and other devices meant to provide urban canopy, deal with stormwater in situ, and literally green up the thoroughfare. The complete street phenomenon is but a stopping point on our way back to street sanity.

For it is at this point in time that we are starting to learn about that original concept of streets and what they must provide in a solvent, vibrant, and resilient place. We are seeing once again that a complete street is not a 200-foot "Cadillac" street section with every single device and street gear built in but a much simpler construct. It is not $3,000 a foot, it is $700 a foot to build. In the end, it is about creating value.

And it is here where the role of the sidewalk comes into focus and where the activity between public and private realms takes root. No longer can sidewalks be value engineered out of the equation, disconnected or relegated to a single use. Layering design functions is critical to achieving the value they provide. They can be broad or intimate; flush to the street or raised; and shaded by galleries, awnings, arcades, or street trees. Sidewalks can be eaten upon, have chairs set up in them, performances performed in them, be an extension of a sales floor, or simply a place to stroll and window shop. They can be the safe route to school or a means to patrol the neighborhood. They can be urban or they can be in less dense areas. They are our most straight-forward and economical health care plan.

Whatever the case, we must once again own the sidewalk.

The redevelopment of P Street in Washington, DC, focused on the beautiful economy of a simple, but well detailed, sidewalk.