The planners out there might get upset to know that an engineer has crashed their party, then again, who knows, maybe they’ll be happy to have me along. Fifty years ago, Jane Jacobs, an activist, critic, author and urbanist, wrote the seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This is the first book to be read by the recently formed City Builder Book Club. This week, the focus is on Chapters 8 and 9. I’m sort of reading along with the group, and reading the various blog posts that are popping up across the blogosphere, and like most people who have read some of Jane Jacobs work, I am left wondering where we went wrong as a group of professionals when we let our cities deteriorate. While the book offers disclaimers as to the applicability of her thoughts, it is easy to see the concepts of public spaces, mixed uses, short blocks, and sidewalks working functionally at all scales of cities.
My favourite chapters are those on sidewalks and public spaces. As a walker, (most of us are), I’m passionate about safe walking routes. Some of us walk further than others, on my daily walks I see the regulars, kids going to school, seniors walking their dogs, and other pedestrian commuters. Now, a little off topic, for while I’m still talking about sidewalks, it is less about the social function that Jane Jacobs discusses, and more about it’s functionality. One of the biggest complaints I have in any suburban area is where sidewalks are incomplete, or difficult to navigate. Streetlight poles, power poles, sign poles, traffic light poles, parked cars and hedges narrowing the width of the sidewalk. Driveways, curb letdowns, cracks, heaving concrete, steep edges, making the terrain of the sidewalk less passable.
In the past, we’ve given more and more space to the automobile, with the net effect often being little more than increasing the speed of vehicles on streets. While that’s happened, the pedestrian has been pushed to the very extremities of the right of way, along with the various and sundry poles and signs that litter the urban and suburban realm. For every fixed object or obstruction such as a drop-off (or curb and gutter), the effective width of the sidewalk should be decreased by about 2 feet (0.6m). In designing new road cross sections, every effort should be made to ensure that a function 1.5m wide sidewalk exists – this allows two pedestrians to pass, or one with an umbrella to navigate the obstacles without fear of bumping.
In many cases, reclaiming the sidewalk should take priority over parking or potentially even additional traffic lanes – what good is a street that has a level of service A for vehicles, but F for pedestrians? Making our environments more pedestrian friendly will bring more people onto the streets and hopefully out of their cars.
- Sidewalk Design Guidelines and Existing Practices
- Strong Towns – Shared Space
- Walk Denver – NY Times
- Walk Friendly Communities