Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation over Public Space

Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation over Public Space - © Kelly Nelson

Two urban planning professors have written an entire book about sidewalks, 330 pages on this part of the transportation infrastructure built for non-motorists. (Cultural note: Since both authors live and work in the United States, they use the term sidewalk not pavement, footpath or platform.) The book considers sidewalks as public spaces that serve social, cultural, political and commercial purposes along with being transportation corridors.

Part 1 overviews the history of sidewalks starting with the first ones built in modern-day Turkey 4,000 years ago. Part 2 discusses sidewalks as “urban theaters” where individuals promenade, gaze at others and participate in parades as audience members. Part 3 focuses on sidewalks as locations for dissent such as picket lines and political protests. Part 4 examines two non-transportation uses of sidewalks: as work places for street vendors and as home bases for some homeless people who sleep, eat, hang out and panhandle there. Part 5 presents sidewalks as potentially dangerous spaces that prompt regulations against such behaviors as prostitution, drug dealing, pick pocketing and public drunkenness.

For people who are rethinking and redesigning streets, neighborhoods and cities, this book can provide a multi-faceted view of sidewalks beyond their basic transportation function. For instance, Chapter 9 explores the darker side of urban tree programs. While making urban environments more pedestrian-friendly through landscaping can seem like a winning decision, this chapter presents potential problems to consider: roots damaging sidewalks, fallen leaves covering walkways, tree limbs breaking off and damaging property, cities having to pay to maintain the trees, trees blocking police officers’ view of the streets, trees blocking storefronts and signs, residents liking some tree species better than others and the potential of heightening socio-economic divides by planting more trees in wealthy areas and fewer in low-income neighborhoods.

The book is ably written and, as the subtitle suggests, it emphasizes conflict between different users and uses of sidewalks. While five American cities are featured (New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston and Seattle), Los Angeles is emphasized in the examples and the 32 photographs, likely because one of the authors lives there. The book’s main contribution is in raising awareness of sidewalks as complex spaces where walking is just one of the many activities going on there.

Kelly Nelson

Tempe, Arizona USA

Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation over Public Space

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Renia Ehrenfeucht

MIT Press, 2009

One Comment

  1. Wit
    Posted 30 December, 2009 at 05:50 | Permalink

    This seems like an interesting sociological book but it does not sound like like it’s against cars. The street is my sidewalk - until I get run over of course.

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