Sidewalks: Something Useful to Argue About | Opinion
Posted by Gary Howe | October 23, 2021
“The ballet from the good sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place and is always full of new improvisations in every place.” – Jane Jacobs
There is always something to argue about in town planning. People seem inclined to disagree with their neighbors. We argue about who said what, this or that building and how much drinking is enough, ignoring the fact that all these discussions are likely to lead to more alcohol.
Sidewalk construction is not immune to the inevitability of bickering and dissatisfaction. We argue about placement, routes, costs and what is moved – or not. I have my favorite arguments against more sidewalks, like this one: “But people will be running in front of my house!”
There is a long list of sidewalk arguments that boil down to this: Sidewalks transform streets and neighborhoods. Instantly create a convenient route to favorite places – cafes, grocery stores, parks, and schools. With a new sidewalk, we’re creating a space for playing, clapping and walking the dog.
Sidewalks naturally invite you to move around and stay active – right on your doorstep. This activity leads to improved health and a safer, more welcoming community. On Halloween, the neighborhoods with the widest sidewalks and the most oversized goodies attract all sorts of two-legged creatures. The neighborhoods with no sidewalks …? Not as much.
Traverse City recently celebrated six years of concerted pavement building efforts. As of 2016, the city has built over 20 miles of new sidewalks for over $ 7 million. That’s about $ 380,000 a mile. A sensible investment considering a concrete walkway will realistically last 50–80 years.
The city’s work combined maintaining sidewalks with filling in gaps that penetrated into parts of the city that had been underserved for decades. As a result, places like Traverse Heights now have an almost complete road network. Starting from the elementary school, sidewalks connect directly with points in all directions.
The Woodmere Library, the grocery store on 8th Street, and numerous shops on Garfield Avenue are now connected by sidewalks for pedestrians or wheelchair users. In addition, walkways connect the neighborhood to Boardman Lake, where the Boardman Lake Loop will be completed next spring. These are lots of new ways to take a break, see the community, and get things done without walking in the middle of a street.
The Traverse City staff and elected officials deserve great credit for budgeting in the values of our community. For many years the city built sidewalks only when the landowners were willing to pay all or most of the cost. It’s easy to see why this plan didn’t get us anywhere near a full sidewalk. It would have taken generations to build over 20 miles of sidewalks at our pace.
But there was a rethink. It did so because citizens spoke up, participated in the overall planning process, went along in house audits, voted for representatives who gave priority to walking and rolling, and those representatives were held accountable. The nonprofit I work for, Norte, partnered with the city on a $ 2 million safe routes grant to school that paid for 5.2 miles of sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, pathways, and bike paths. Positive community improvement requires that we all join in and do our part.
Twenty miles of new sidewalks is a big deal, but we still have miles and miles to go. The old slow-motion schedule is still the norm for most government agencies despite increasing density and demand. Garfield Township, for example, requires sidewalks on most new builds, but does not build sidewalks to complete the resulting disjointed and incomplete sections.
As a result, people hobble in inhospitable environments such as South Airport Road, Garfield Avenue, and North Long Lake Road. The beaten sidewalks next to the streets show the results. Our streets connect residential areas with a myriad of shops and services, but you are only invited if you are coming by car. You have to find out for yourself whether you are going on foot or in a wheelchair.
We can do better, and people can ask more of their local government. Investing in sidewalks is certainly not immune to controversy in a highly competitive community like ours. But it’s a debate worth engaging in. Sidewalks are critical infrastructures that create safe, comfortable, and adaptable spaces in the community that can create interesting connections for people of all ages. So let’s make this good argument in more places than just Traverse City. What is your local government doing to build sidewalks?
Gary L. Howe is the advocacy director at Norte, working to help communities move to their hearts’ content. From 2013 to 2017 he was also city commissioner for Traverse City.