Updated June 18th 2022
How One City is Getting Sidewalks Right
Sidewalks are the foundation to making the social life of communities thrive. They lend themselves to many metaphors: often seen as the backbone or even the arteries of every place in which people come together. They hold up our shared social infrastructure, connect destinations, and provide routes for us to move through our communities. They foster a rich street life, as described by William H. Whyte: "Rich street life is no frill. It is an expression of the most ancient function of a city—a place for people to come together, all kinds of people, face-to-face."
If sidewalks seem simple to you, you'd be right in some ways: The best sidewalks share certain traits that make them welcoming, accessible, and socially active places. But the sheer variety of sidewalks means that there is always something to learn from them. And perhaps the fact that the sidewalks in so many communities are lacking means that getting them right is not as obvious as it might appear.
In this article, we will explore an example of a city that is thriving because its Main Street and most neighborhoods have a set of ingredients that spark social life, many of which are defined by their sidewalks.
Main Street - Saratoga Springs, New York
We recently returned to Saratoga Springs for the first time in many years. We were incredibly impressed with the vibrant Main Street, which also happens to serve as a state road and has a lot of traffic. Wide sidewalks make this juxtaposition possible.
Because of their width, people can stick to walking closer by to the buildings that line the street, meaning that one's walking path is well-removed from the road. This is also helped by the fact that pedestrians are also separated from the street by grass, a planter, a large shade tree, or (in some cases) an actual plaza in front of each property. In many parts of town, café seating is both directly next to the buildings and in the areas between the sidewalk and the streets, creating a double- loaded sidewalk setting.
Corners in Saratoga Springs are active, too. Meanwhile, extended block faces with small storefronts create an inviting experience for pedestrians passing through.
As mentioned, this all adds up to the perfect example of a double-loaded sidewalk. The car activity on the street is kept out of the way of pedestrians, who can focus on other things rather than the rush and noise of traffic. It is safe for people of all ages, and children can roam freely.
In Saratoga Springs, another place worth noting is the sidewalk plaza/porch in front of the historic Adelphi Hotel. Its liveliness is no small part of why the hotel is a local landmark.
Still, with all this happening on the sidewalks, the street is still too wide. The sidewalk would benefit from some strategic widening at intersections. This would create corners that connect blocks to one another and ease the distance between the sides of the street.
Saratoga Springs Porches where social life thrives
In all sectors of Saratoga Springs are neighborhoods where porches are prevelant and used. It is in stark contrast to what we see in most suburbs where garages dominate many of the streets.
Looking forward to further discussion
A previous post about "The Streets we Want" shows some of the best examples of streets around the world. There are many other Main Street sidewalks with terrific qualities. None rise to the level of Saratoga Springs, but many have the beginnings of the necessary ingredients. For example, New Haven has made tremendous progress, and Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach are a strong pair. Little Italy in San Diego is another contender. Closer to home, we think that our neighborhood, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, in Brooklyn certainly have joined this group of examples.
This journey is one that will require us to think in new ways — seeing possibilities for our sidewalks and streets to become what they are meant to be. Even the former CEO of Volkswagen agrees with the idea that we need to create our future very differently than we have shaped our past:
Sidewalks are the last considered and least understood of public spaces in cities. People often accept them as they are, which means that changing them has no constituency. But while intersections belong to the traffic engineers, the sidewalks do not. There is no profession responsible for the social, strolling, window shopping, or cafe/restaurant life of a city. But the following principles for better sidewalks could be a major agenda for reformed transportation agencies around the world.
Principles for Better Sidewalks
A sidewalk should not be about pedestrian capacity but about community life. The below principles can ensure that they fill this role:
- Sidewalks are central to the social life of our communities.
- The overwhelming majority of our streets are not child-friendly.
- Feeling safe is an important feature of a sidewalk — it isn't easy to relax if you're strolling too close to traffic! Providing a level of separation between sidewalks and streets (e.g. with gardens or café seating) can enhance the safety and beauty of an area.
- Sometimes, the easiest way to make sidewalks better is to make roads smaller. One of the most telling quotes by Jane Jacobs describes how car-centric streets have eroded our cities by "nibbling" away at spaces like sidewalks.
- Sidewalks must accommodate all of the ways in which people move through our communities: whether by foot or on wheels, laden with groceries or toting a stroller, our sidewalks need to make way.
- Make sidewalks accessible, and have backup plans/routes for when they may be blocked. When we recently needed to use a wheelchair, it reminded us how inadequate sidewalks are for effective travel.