The Social Life of Sidewalks

Paradigm-shattering change will happen when streets, sidewalks and intersections are transformed into community gathering spots through the simple act of giving human beings priority over motor vehicles.

The Social Life of Sidewalks

The first principle of lively streetlife is putting people first.

For decades, traffic engineers honed their technical skills defined by a narrow discipline, to systematically rip through cities, widening streets and "improving" intersections to facilitate traffic flow.  Sidewalks, once so full of life and vitality, became "narrow" too, often with barely enough space to walk.

Looking at the historic images, one can't help but notice that there is significant casual/social activity on the streets. The streets are also very "shared" with people roamimg througout the areas.  There also does not seem to be people in platoons walking along the sidewalks.  

The resulting decline of streetlife on the sidewalks was, and continues to be, an enormous loss for the social—and economic—life of our communities.  The good news is that paradigm-shattering change happens when streets, their sidewalks and intersections become community gathering spots where human beings have priority on streets over motor vehicles.

It continues to bewilder us why so little attention is given to people on foot— which, really, is all of us. Disregard for walkers is apparent even in our language.  Indeed, the word "pedestrian" also means "lacking inspiration or excitement: dull," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. We disagree! The dullest, most uninspiring streets in the world are those where walkers do not feel safe or comfortable.

The mission of the Social Life Project is to build our communities around people and places.  

To get there we need to turn the planning process "upside down," by focusing first on sidewalks as the best path to vitality, sustainability and equity.  This often means widening or improving the sidewalks so they can adequately accommodate walkers as well as many other activities that contribute to the flourishing social life of a community: sidewalk tables, cafes, outdoor shop displays, buskers, benches and enough space for people to stop for a chat.

The next second step is to soften the overall feel of the street so that traffic speeds and volume do not squelch, but enhance social life.  Traffic calming improvements, shared streets, streets closed to traffic, and/or intersections made more safe for all users are important tools to make sidewalks and our communities better public spaces.  They are not ends in themselves.

What Makes So Many Streets Inhospitable and Unsafe

As we’ve traveled around scouting for great places (which almost always have great streets), we began documenting the problems that clearly demonstrate the issues that people face when simply trying to walk down a street.

Here’s what we found:

Danger in crossing streets: The lack of reasonably placed crosswalks is a problem around the globe. Look at these eight ladies trying to cross a block in Sydney, Australia that is 800-feet in length. Luckily they were finally able to stay safe by  holding on to each other. This photo was taken nearly 30 years ago, on George Street in Sydney, Australia, but only now is George Street being made more pedestrian-friendly.

Lack of good seating:  Comfortable spots to sit are rare on most city streets, despite their importance to older people and anyone who wants to relax a bit. Clockwise from top: 1) This couple is "social distancing" before the concept was invented; 2) This woman had nowhere to  sit except on top of  her child;  3) This woman and her dog, as well as the man with a child across the street have no place to wait;  4) this man just gave up on finding a comfortable spot to rest; 5) the dismally uncomfortable seating on New York's High Line.

Segregation of streets exclusively for autos: In the Australian city of Brisbane, bikes and motorized scooters are required to use sidewalks so as to not slow car traffic . The upshot of this regulation is that "pedestrians" feel less safe,  bike- and scooter-riders are not well-served and, ultimately, the social life of the city is diminished.

Street space divided up into separate zones:  In many cities, when you leave the historic center, little space is devoted to sidewalks so walking becomes unpleasant.  And today bicycle riders are gaining increasing portions of the public right-of-way, so pedestrians are stuck with whatever scraps are leftover.  This limits other popular uses of sidewalk, such as outdoor cafes or street markets.  

Putting People First

The power of streetlife can connect us all together—all ages, all cultures, all incomes, all faiths.  Cities that make Social Life (and consequently local economic life) a top priority have created some of the best people-friendly streets we know. They have transformed streets into plazas, squares, and markets in ways people never dreamed possible.  Often these uses are only temporary and begin as experimental, pop-up prototypes. Great sidewalks are not set in stone but evolve and change over time, becoming dynamic places you want to come back to often.

And it's not just sidewalks! The late Hans Monderman, a seasoned, data-driven, traffic engineer from the Netherlands, developed what seemed like a radical strategy at the time.  Based on years of  experience and studies, he arrived at the simple idea that removing all signals and stop signs from an intersection and modifying the roadway to alert people in cars, on bikes and on foot to pay attention to their surroundings, intersections would greatly improve safety for pedestrians as well as motorists. His goal was creating a setting where eye contact between pedestrians and vehicles necessary, so they would negotiate who would proceed.

He understood the importance of street life as a vital part of this approach he called "Shared Space." As he once put it, "If you want people to behave like they are in a a village."  And it works!

Streets Where Social Life Thrives

The Invigorating Social Life of Sidewalks

Even the iconic Paris bollard supports lively street life at intersections


"If we can develop and design streets so that they are wonderful, fulfilling places to be—community-building places, attractive for all people—then we will have successfully designed about one-third of the city directly and will have had an immense impact on the rest." —Allan Jacobs, Placemaking Pioneer
  • Streetlife connects us all.
  • Start with the sidewalk to create streets filled with people and great places.
  • Blur the distinction between sidewalks and street when you can, which sends the message the entire roadway is a shared space.
  • Keep in mind that "Social Life" on the streets is a key local economic development strategy.  
  • Experiment with flexible ways of sharing the streets among all kinds of users—people on foot, bike, transit and inside cars.  Follow the lead of David Engwicht (find out more here) and Hans Monderman (1945-2008, find out more here). They  are polar opposites in terms of personality and approach, but both seek the same outcomes. We will write more about them along with other visionaries who have, collectively, helped bring Social Life back to our cities and communities.

The mission of The Social Life Project is to incite a renaissance of community connection around the globe. It is an initiative of the Placemaking Fund, along with PlacemakingX — a global network of activists and community champions propelling the movement forward.

Like all of our work, these articles are constantly evolving. We encourage you to be part of this effort.