(Side)Walk This Way

The sidewalk is the backbone of the public realm. It is solely devoted to people* whether they are in pedestrian mode, having a rest, or engaging in some other activity. At its most basic, the sidewalk provides a safe environment for people to move from one place to another. It is also a shared social space. As people encounter one another they have the opportunity to interact with those they know and to meet others they don’t. It is the essence of democratic space, as all people are equal as pedestrians in these places. The sidewalk is a place to sit and rest, to eat and drink, to see and be seen, to meet friends old and new, to experience and create art. The most important characteristic of the sidewalk is its public nature.

One of the key factors in our urban renaissance is a generous and well-designed public realm. The broadest element in that realm is the sidewalk. Tremendous amounts of thought and effort were put into the design of the sidewalk. It would have been simple to slop down some fresh concrete, hang a few lights on some power poles and call it a sidewalk. Thankfully, decision makers at the time realized the importance of this piece of infrastructure. Toward the ultimate comfort of people in pedestrian mode, a broad range of elements were conscientiously selected and integrated with one another.

Varying the surface of a sidewalk makes for a more comfortable pedestrian experience. Standards were established to use brick pavers of various colors and textures in the sidewalks. The bands of colored brick were designed to coordinate with pedestrian lights, street trees, and curb cuts. These subtle hints help orient people and the consistent order subconsciously makes the person feel more comfortable and safe. Crosswalks at streets were also banded with paving blocks to cue motorists that this was a pedestrian realm. All of these design maneuvers act to break the monotony of what can be very large facilities into smaller, more human scaled elements.

I think that I shall never see...

As witnessed this summer, Chattanooga gets warm (but not as warm as the hottest place in the South- C Zone parking at Auburn). Heat is a deterrent to pedestrianism in the South. The easiest and most practical way to mitigate heat is shade. The best way to provide shade is a tree. Not only do trees provide shade, they're beautiful to look at, help with stormwater issues, clean the air, and decrease the ambient temperature. The sidewalk is the largest and best opportunity for local governments to plant trees in an urban environment. That was recognized early on, and all of our sidewalks were designed with street trees (and in some cases double rows of trees).

When designing a safe pedestrian environment, the first thing that people think of is lighting. Once upon a time, then Councilman Littlefield requested that the Design Studio draft a lighting ordinance for the city. The effort did not result in adoption, but it did afford me the opportunity to study the issues and see what other communities around the country are doing. The most surprising thing I found was that there is not a single scientific study that proves the correlation between lighting and safety (the only relation is between lighting and the fear of crime). Another counterintuitive gem has to do with lighting technique. It is a myth that brighter light equal better visibility. Security lighting is typically design to err on the side of sun-like brightness. This does two things: 1) it creates harsh glare, making vision difficult and painful, and 2) it casts harsh shadows that are perfect hiding places for bad guys. The human eye is good at adjusting to a wide range of light levels (how we can see at night to walk through a dark room) and very poor in high-contrast situations (if someone shines a flashlight in your eyes in the dark). Ideal lighting can be achieved at relatively low levels, as long as is done evenly and uniformly. With pedestrian comfort and safety as primary goals, our lighting was carefully designed and spaced to provide even illumination, reduce light pollution, and further articulate the pedestrian realm.

This bench is an example of a questionable intervention. It is
in the middle of the sidewalk, displacing pedestrian flow. It is
set in raw concrete with disregard for the surrounding surfaces.
Placing it directly behind the tree provides no shade due to
the angle of the sun.

What we have found in the past few years is that the institutional memory of why and how we designed and built the public realm has been lost. The sidewalk is the place where this lost knowledge is most readily apparent. A once clear and legible pattern of paving has now been applied haphazardly and without order. The quality of materials has declined. While tree planting in general seems to be taking off, the planting of more street trees in particular seems lacking. In response to serious concerns over safety, the wattage on our pedestrian lighting has been cranked up (having the dual benefit of exacerbating that particular problem, and making the city look unattractive at night). Details of material, shade and lighting are very important factors in the quality of the sidewalk. However, the most important is size and scale. A sidewalk needs to be wide enough for friends to comfortably walk abreast and pass oncoming pedestrians without conflict. Unfortunately, a number of factors conspire to ever narrow the sidewalk: the developer’s desire for more buildable space, the traffic engineers lust for wider travel lanes, and the administrator’s need to “value engineer” cost savings.

Are these places worse for lack of cheap metal fencing?

The most serious threat our public realm now faces is the loss of the sidewalk. This loss has come in the form of “temporary” use permits for fencing off (privatizing) portions of the public realm. This typically comes from restaurants that make the case that sidewalk seating is necessary for them to be viable. I love outdoor dining, and I love the idea of sidewalks that are for more than walking. Examine cities with a sidewalk culture and you find that seating is arranged in areas during appropriate hours and is mobile. In that way, the sidewalk remains flexible in accommodating uses and remains public. When these silly fences are put up, the public realm is no longer public- that portion of the sidewalk is now, in effect, private. There are several areas where the public portion of the sidewalk has been whittled down to be as narrow as code will allow in order to provide seating (note that the seating serves a purpose for 2-3 hours a day 3-4 days of the week for half of the year, but the sidewalk has been compromised 24/7/365). This practice erodes the function of the sidewalk and destroys any sense of pedestrian comfort. What’s more, this makes the statement that downtown is not a democratic place and is not for all citizens.

But a few examples of the privatization of our public space.
It is possible to provide seating without fences. These
examples are found within the same block.

Carving up the public realm and redistributing it for private gain is a questionable way to program a city. The great news is that the cheap fences will be easy to remove if sanity returns.

*Peeve: Bicycles do no belong on the sidewalk- they belong on the road. This may be law. I know that “‘round here” safety for cyclists in the streets is a concern, but that doesn’t change the fact that bicycles do not belong on the sidewalk.

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