Shaping the City

(Roger K. Lewis)
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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, August 8, 2009

The District plans to build sidewalks along city streets without them whenever these streets are scheduled for repaving. This is prudent public policy. But heated controversy has arisen along several sidewalkless D.C. neighborhood streets where residents have taken -- pardon the expression -- opposing sides.

Why fix something that isn't broken, opponents ask? Why change a decades-old street they consider attractive and functionally adequate?

Sidewalk proponents, along with virtually all planners, architects and transportation engineers, assert correctly that, in fact, lack of sidewalks seriously compromises public safety.

Sidewalk opponents like the status quo. They may view their street as a pastoral country road, even if it is lined on both sides by conventional subdivision homes, driveway aprons and garages. They believe adding a sidewalk will change their street's historic character, potentially turning a supposedly rural road into an urban thoroughfare.

Opponents also balk because adding a sidewalk can entail narrowing the cartway, the driving surface between curbs. Even if a retrofit meets state-of-the-art safety and engineering standards and represents greener, traffic-calming design, naysayers instinctively object to reducing vehicular street area.

Believe it or not, some think that having a sidewalk poses more dangers than not having a sidewalk. They foresee pedestrians colliding with bicyclists or skateboarders, or people using wheelchairs unable to negotiate steeper grades. Unspoken by those who seem enclave-minded is a fear that, if a sidewalk is built along their street, people who live elsewhere might decide to walk into and through their neighborhood domain.

In addition, many homeowners along sidewalk-free streets have landscaped unpaved portions of the public right-of-way, the area between the street edge and private property lines. Of course, this is public space the city is legally entitled to use. Yet many homeowners want to protect their landscaping.

While these concerns are understandable, some are specious, and all can be addressed through competent, creative design. Indeed, the functional and aesthetic reasons for walkways along streets are compelling. Thus the issue is not whether to have a pro-sidewalk policy, but rather how to wisely implement such a policy by properly planning and deploying new sidewalks.

First and foremost, sidewalks augment safety and accessibility for everyone.

The Americans with Disabilities Act and "Universal Design" principles call for sidewalks. Sidewalks enhance safety for all: parents with strollers or taking a walk with pets; kids walking to school; and anyone ambling along with a cane, walker, set of crutches or wheelchair.

Today, streets in newly planned residential subdivisions invariably include sidewalks on one or both sides. By law, new subdivision streets in Virginia must have narrower cartways with a sidewalk on at least one side. The law also mandates residential street connectivity between adjoining neighborhoods. This provision recognizes that urban and suburban neighborhoods should not be isolated enclaves.

Improving streets to include well-designed sidewalks is beneficial economically. Both the visual quality and safety of a street measurably enhance the value of real estate along that street, especially for families with young children.

The aesthetic dimensions of constructing sidewalks elicit the most debate, as homeowners worry that adding a sidewalk will destroy their street's bucolic nature. But in reality, it doesn't necessarily negatively transform a street.

Depending on the right-of-way, topography, drainage patterns and streetscape context, sidewalks can vary in width, material, texture, color and permeability to rainwater. Most important, their position and alignment relative to the street can vary substantially.

Sidewalks can directly abut curbs, appearing integral to the paved cartway. Or they can be separated from the curb by a planting strip, which also can vary in width and treatment. A walkway along a street can meander, curving around trees, shrubs, stones, drainage inlets, utility poles and other elements in the right-of-way. It can look more like a path in a park than an urban sidewalk.

The District's sidewalk intentions are sensible and justifiable. But to quell sidewalk controversy, the D.C. government must do things right. It needs a transparent street planning process involving local citizens in a timely manner. It must avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. And it must thoughtfully undertake street redesign, in detail, to ensure that adding sidewalks produces safe, attractive environments benefiting everyone.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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