Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sidewalks

We returned home to find the infrastructure work on Fifth Street nearly completed, and a new sidewalk in front of our house to replace the cracked and buckling sidewalk that was there before. I like sidewalks, and I'm happy to have a new four-foot wide sidewalk in front of my house, even though it brings with it the obligation to keep it clear of ice and snow in the winter. For me, sidewalks are an indispensable part of living in a community. In her classic study of city life and urban design, The Life and Death of Great American Cities (1961), Jane Jacobs talks at length about the important functions of sidewalks in the life of a community. They provide safety, contact, and assimilation of children. Even more so than playgrounds and parks, they are places where the children of a community meet and play together and move under the eyes of large numbers of adults.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as fond as I am of sidewalks. On the east end of Fifth Street, where there were no sidewalks before the infrastructure work began, some residents were opposed to having sidewalks installed. This opposition is common, especially in suburban neighborhoods, as a report in today's Star Tribune suggests. Sidewalks are regarded as an invasion of privacy, as a blight on the cherished American suburban landscape of broad green lawns and houses tucked secretively behind their multi-car garages.

It's a shame that American communities tend to be designed more for automobiles than for children, more for privacy than for interaction. The secrecy of the sidewalk-less suburban cul-de-sac is preferred to the openness of the sidewalk-lined urban grid. Northfielders have recently expressed concern and alarm over heroin use in the high school. Many of our newer neighborhoods almost seem purpose-built for such furtive and antisocial behavior. It takes a village to raise a child—a village with sidewalks, where children circulate under the eyes of a large number of adults who come to take an interest in their behavior and their well-being. As Jacobs argues, sidewalks not only provide opportunities for "surveillance" of children's behavior, they teach children to feel a sense of responsibility for their wider community.

When we arrived in Northfield after more than a year's absence on Wednesday night, we were met by the words WELCOME HOME in colorful chalk on the new sidewalk in front of our house. Neighbors came out onto the sidewalk to greet us. Before we even stepped into their privacy of our house, we had stepped back into our community.

5 comments:

Christopher Tassava said...

Rob -

Thanks for a great post. I've worked with Clara a little bit at Carleton, but I discovered your blog(s) through your posts on Northfield.org and/or Locally Grown. Welcome back, indeed, and I hope we can meet sometime soon.

That Strib article you mention was mind-boggling to my wife and me. Until I read it, I could simply not imagine anyone anywhere who would be opposed to sidewalks: it's like hating ice cream! It only gets weirder when I find out that some Northfielders apparently prefer to walk right in the street. Verily, I know my town better now than I did before reading your post.

Jim H. said...

Rob:

Welcome back! I've always enjoyed your writing and it's nice to rediscover with Jane Jacobs. Thanks.

I, too, was a bit suprised to find such opposition to sidewalks. I grew up with sidewalks. Sidewalks were the gathering place for the neighborhood kids.

Besides, where else are we supposed to ride our Segue scooters?

Jim Haas

John Mutford said...

I grew up in a small town without sidewalks, and am now living in a town that only has one in its downtown core. I think, from a small town perspective (which Jane Jacobs never seemed to deem relevant), sidewalks are overrated. I'm not opposed to them, it's just a sidewalk afterall, but I think the small towns can get along just as well without them.

Rob Hardy said...

John, You're right that Jacobs is talking primarily about large cities, although I think sidewalks are essential for smaller cities (Northfield has a population of about 20,000) where pedestrians (especially children) and automobiles have to coexist safely.

Jerry said...

well said Rob.

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