Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing.
Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: SIDEWALK
UNCONSCIOUSLY, we walk them. Unthinking. Unaware. Oblivious. They are a given, something always there. They have always been there. They will probably always be so.
Americans call them sidewalks. We call them footpaths. Whatever you call them they are the ignored rights of way that traverse our streets, our suburbs, our cities. Add up the length of all those sidewalks and you have a rather large area of largely-ignored public land. Ignored, yes. But important.
Places of connection
Footpaths connect. They crisscross our towns, our cities. They take us place to place on journeys solo and social.
Starting at one edge we could probably cross a city by following its footpaths. It would’t be a straight-line journey, more one of constant direction change but also one that followed some larger, overall direction.
Footpaths — sidewalks — are the routes of our personal urban geographies. By that I mean they are the passages, the routes habitually followed. They take us from home to train or bus stop and back, to the local shops and back, to the beach and back with skin left sticky by saltwater, they take us back and forth to so many places.
These narrow passages through the city are also sportsfield and health spa to the runners who pass by we slower pedestrians, leaving behind them a waft of hot, sweaty air.
Places of boundary
Footpaths are boundary and link. They are strips of public land that form a boundary between the domain of the car, the street, and the domain of the private, the home. In doing this they link those domains as a type of neutral territory that we cross wihtout thinking about them.
Footpaths can be a social boundary too. Walk down some streets in some cities and you stand out if your ethnicity differs from the local average. There, the risk is one of assumption and stereotype.
In the city where I live, the footpath of the central business district is also home. Home to the homeless is what I mean. Home… a place where people rollout their bedding for the night, or sometimes for the day, a place where they beg for the loose change of the salaried class walking around them.
Places of contestation
Contestation has come to our urban sidewalks with the practice of planting them to useful vegetation. Some local governments now have policies allowing citizens to take responsibility and plant herbs and veges, flowers and fruit trees on the foorpath. Others do not, and it is with them that the contestation arises.
For the footpath planters it is about making best use of public land. They see the lawn strips that separate the paved footpath from the street as a waste of space that does nothing more than consume citizens’ time and energy in mowing and maintaining. Footpath lawns are un-biodiverse monocultures and we can do better, they say. If they are expected to maintain those so-called ‘nature strips’ then it is only fair that they have a say in how they are used. It’s about a new apporach to managing public land in our towns and cities.
Looked at through a big picture lens, this is a democratic movement that treats the footpath as what it actually is — a commons, an area of land held in trust for the benefit and use of all.
Places of conviviality
Contested space, boundary, link, connection — our urban footpaths are all of these things at the same time they are something else.
That something else those sidwalks, those footpaths are, is convivial space. They become this when footpaths cease being mere passages between destinations and become destination themselves.
Turning footpath from route to destination is a principle in the practice of placemaking, the techniques and art of making our cities pleasant, participatory and convivial places. Placemaking changes the footpath-as-space into footpath-as-place.
We see this happening where cafes set up tables on the footpath, where children play along them, where councils provide footpath seating where people can sit, meet and talk. In this way, the footpath becomes less a passage to some destination and more a linger node — a place where people like to stay awhile, to hang out, to meet friends, to enjoy being along in the company of others, to enjoy the sociability of coffee and croissant at a sidewalk cafe. Add some seats, add a bubbler, add a free public wifi node and you have the infrastructure of conviviality. All we need then are people, and they will come.
This makes for safer streets for there is no better public safety system than the inadvertant passive surviellance provided by people on the street. That’s why the local government I once worked with spoke with those footpath gardeners I mentioned before about allowing two aveues of passive surviellence so that the footpath and those traversing it could be seen from adjacent houses and businesses as well as by other people on the footpath. This provides an unobtrusive approach to public safety.
Places of exchange
The prime purpose of the city is exchange. Exchange of goods and services, exchange of ideas, exchange of opportunity.
Recognising this, government can take those initiatives that increase the opportunity for exchange whether that is allowing cafes to place tables on the footpath, allowing people to cooperate in changing their footpath from unproductive pavement or lawn into biodiverse garden, or simply installing seats.
But revolutions never start at the top. They start at the bottom. Recognising this, local government can take the placemaking approach of enabling citizens to initiate those ideas that facilitate exchange on our footpaths and in doing so feed that revolution that has so much potential to change our cities’ sidewalks into engagiung, convivial places.
Farmers of the Urban Footpath