Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

In a public health crisis, let's look at an unsung hero: the sidewalk

Public health and equal rights were built into the pavement beneath our feet, writes contributor Ainsley Hawthorn.

Public health and equal rights were built into the pavement beneath our feet

Residents shovel their sidewalk in St. John’s on Jan. 19, in the wake of a massive blizzard that obliterated walkways and roads. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Social distancing is alternately frustrating, frightening, tedious and exhausting. Still, walking my dog through near-empty streets, I'm able to appreciate one clear advantage of this unprecedented situation.

Even though the sidewalks are still partly buried in snow and ice, forcing me into the roadway, for once I don't feel like I'm taking my life in my hands by taking a stroll around my own neighbourhood.    

Only in St. John's would we need a literal plague to make the city safe(r) for pedestrians.

This winter, while many sidewalks have been impassable, a number of pedestrians were hit by vehicles in a spate of collisions in St. John's, leading to one fatality. It made me wonder why we have sidewalks to begin with. Where do they come from, and who are they meant to benefit?

The world's first sidewalks were installed 4,000 years ago in the ancient city of Kanesh, located in modern-day Turkey.

Kanesh was an important centre for international trade and was the home base for merchants from Assyria, about 1,000 kilometres away. The main streets of the city's business district boasted stone-paved roadways, sidewalks and drainage channels for wastewater.

Only in St. John's would we need a literal plague to make the city safe(r) for pedestrians.

Later, some Greek and Roman cities also incorporated roadside walkways into their urban planning, but the concept of sidewalks was lost in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Without them, medieval pedestrians competed for space in the muddy streets with horseback riders, ox-drawn carts and livestock being brought to market.

Sidewalks didn't reappear until the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed much of the City of London. When reconstruction began, measures were taken to prevent future conflagrations: new buildings were faced in brick or stone instead of wood, the municipal water supply was improved, and the city's narrow streets were widened, making room for sidewalks.

Evolution of the promenade

It was in Paris, though, that sidewalks came into their full glory.

Small trottoirs, unconnected limestone curbs that pedestrians could hop up on to get out of the way of oncoming carts – evolved into promenades – elevated roadside walkways that gradually spread throughout the city.

In 1822, there were 267 linear metres of sidewalks in Paris; by 1847, 25 years later, there were 259 kilometres of them.

This photo from the 1940s depicts a still-familiar view of Water Street in downtown St. John's. Pedestrian traffic has been key to merchants for centuries. (Twitter/@old_stjohns)

These pedestrian walkways had a different significance to Parisians than they did to Londoners.

In London, sidewalks were seen as an innovation in sanitation and public health. At the time, streets were not only muddy but flowing with filth, from horse manure to human urine. Raised sidewalks kept residents clean and, by extension, well. Writing in the early 1700s, a doctor named John Woodward called the rebuilt London "not only the finest, but the most healthy city in the world."

In Paris, sidewalks had additional meaning. As republican values took hold, sidewalks were seen as a way of democratizing the city, of making its streets equally accessible and enjoyable for Parisians of all social classes. The wealthy, riding in their carriages, had always been able to avoid walking in the muck – now, everyone could share that same privilege.

A Pompeii street with sidewalks and a raised crosswalk. (MCAD Library)

Paris's tree-lined boulevards with their ample pedestrian walkways became emblems of modern life in the City of Lights and were immortalized in the works of the impressionist painters.

By the end of the 19th century, major cities throughout Europe had cleared the way for their own wide boulevards with generous sidewalks.

Off-limits to carts and buggies, European sidewalks were hubs of public life. They were places to take the air, to see and be seen, to chat with friends, to window-shop, to buy or sell, even to stand on a soapbox and deliver a speech.

Transportation corridors

The role of sidewalks, though, changed when they reached the United States.

American municipalities gave priority to pedestrians using sidewalks to get from place to place and banned street vendors, artists and orators from stationing themselves on city roadsides.

This transformed sidewalks from thriving public spaces to transportation corridors, turning their egalitarian history on its head.

Where once they were places for people from all walks of life to meet and mingle, sidewalks are now seen, in North America at least, as the last resort of people who can't afford to drive. One consequence of this mindset is that sidewalks have been intentionally left out of some suburbs to discourage members of the lower classes from traipsing through.

Sidewalks still have as much of an equalizing role to play in our society as they did in long-ago Paris.

Unobstructed, well planned sidewalks level the socio-economic playing field, particularly benefiting demographics that are statistically more likely to experience low income, like women, seniors, people of colour, people who are LGBTQ, and people with disabilities.

They also still have a fundamental role to play in public health, not by lifting our feet out of the gutter but by providing us with a safe space to get exercise, sunlight and fresh air.

Most of all — if our sidewalks were well maintained — they could again become a place where all segments of the public mix, to everyone's benefit. Where neighbours can chat as joggers run past, where children on their way to school can pet dogs out for a walk.

When we eventually emerge from our isolation, I hope that we'll hang on to the co-operative impulse that's keeping us all home right now to reinvest in public spaces.

By then, we'll all be craving human interaction — let's get it outside, in the open air, on our local sidewalks.

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About the Author

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s. She is currently finishing her first book, The Other Five Senses.

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