What’s In a Brick?

Many progressive U.S. cities, Minneapolis included, spend a bit extra to spruce up intersections, medians or sidewalks through detailed brick treatments. I am talking about ADA crosswalks that are brick-laid as opposed to a pre-formed single plastic piece. Cycling intersections that have different concrete treatments to signal an intersection. Medians or shoulders with brick landscaping (assuming they are too narrow to grow anything meaningful). Where many communities resort to paint or nothing at all in such situations, Minneapolis and other communities dress things up.

However lavish these treatments might be, however, these places have nothing relative to the world’s most bicycle and pedestrian friendly communities. The best places use an endless array of brick treatments to signal even the most mundane of street elements. Different colored bricks delineate parking spaces. Slightly angled bricks signal intersections. Altered bricks mark rights-of-ways for modes. Using all three techniques define important crossing areas or thoroughfares.

Paint on asphalt has its advantages (e.g., it is cheap and can be easily erased). Brick streets (rather than asphalt or concrete) are harder on the wheeled fleet that uses it. They are more costly to build and maintain (Last year, I cycled every day on the brutal–but beautiful–stoned streets of Bologna which, owing to the economic crisis, were being “patched” using blacktop in a blasphemous kind of way). Don’t get the snowplow operators started talking about brick treatments.

But signaling bicycle and pedestrian treatments with brick adds both permanence and class. Notwithstanding its drawbacks, more creative use of brick plays an underestimated role in fostering a sense of place. I take to the streets of the Nijmegen, the Netherlands, to show the variety of uses of bricks and how a simple block of concrete (or clay bearing soil) vibrantly contributes to the city’s appeal.


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Kevin Krizek

About Kevin Krizek

Kevin J. Krizek is Transport Professor, Programs of Environmental Design and Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He was a 2013 fellow of the Leopold Leadership Program and received a 2013 U.S.-Italy Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Bologna (Italy). He is currently a visiting professor of "Cycling in Changing Urban Regions" in the School of Management Science at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Kevin blogs at Vehicle for a Small Planet and can be found @KevinJKrizek . Prior to moving to Colorado, he lived in Minneapolis and St. Paul and was an Associate Professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

18 thoughts on “What’s In a Brick?

  1. travelgal

    While I love the look of brick, they simply don’t hold up in Minnesota’s winters. (Have you forgotten?!) The brick treatments on Lexington fell apart, became HUGE dangerous potholes, and were replaced once with brick before being paved over. How about concrete that is etched and colored to look like brick? I know, it’s not as pretty, but it won’t become a hazard after a few seasons — and the cost savings might be enough to get cities to actually use it everywhere instead of just in a few key spots.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Travelgal, bricks can hold up well even here if installed properly. You need only see the very extensive use of brick throughout The Netherlands, Finland, and Sweden to see how well they can do in environments harsher than ours.

      When installed properly they hold up quite well, though in our cold environment do to some extent require more maintenance. I say to some extent because brick requires maintenance while such needed maintenance with asphalt can more easily be ignored. However, brick results in consistently better street surfaces than asphalt. Where our asphalt surfaces deteriorate and become extremely poor to drive on and in many cases nearly impossible to ride a bicycle on, well maintained brick provides a consistently relatively smooth surface every year for centuries. To provide such a smooth surface with asphalt would cost over 5 times as much as it does with brick.

      Also, brick does not require painting. The markings never wear off. Drivers can’t say that they didn’t see the line or sharks teeth because they were worn down. These delineation’s, even 10 years old, also seem easier to see in winter than painted lines only a year old.

      That said, a good asphalt bikeway is much better to ride on than a one of brick. Brick vs patched asphalt? Give me the brick.

      BTW, for the construction geeky folks do a search on tiger paver.

      1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

        As a meteorologist, I would disagree that the Netherlands (especially) and much of Scandinavia have a “harsher environment”. They just don’t see the wild temperature swings that the Upper Midwest sees.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

          Agree on Netherlands. Finland and much of Sweden can certainly compete with us on cold and snow build up but they they also may not get as hot and humid in the summer nor have the back and forth freeze/thaw swings we do which may help them considerably with brick.

        2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

          Brick breaths better than most asphalt and if installed properly moves easier without cracking and potholes. If the underlayment is done well this should allow moisture that causes cracking and potholes to percolate through (and be better for the environment instead of going down storm sewers and then being shunted off to the Mississippi instead of resupplying our aquifers). There’s a spot a friend showed me in The Netherlands where the brick buckles up in a mound every winter and then settles back to perfectly level by the end of January. Fascinating.

          Both of these should favor brick in our climate.

  2. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    Despite claims to the contrary, brick simply doesn’t stand up to Minnesota’s winter frost heaves. It’s a maintenance headache, a rough ride and slippery when wet. The money is better spent elsewhere.

    1. Alex

      My understanding is that Minnesota is too cold for freeze-thaw cycles to be particularly bad for paving materials. I hear that they are far worse in places like the Appalachian Mountains, which are also more wet than Minnesota. Yet cities like Asheville and Charlottesville are covered in brick. Can you support your claim with any academic citation? I suspect the lack of brick in the Twin Cities has more to do with the geology than the climate.

  3. Matty LangMatty Lang

    Personally, I thought Kevin was referring to the Progressive genre of rock music that was especially popular in the 1980s and characterized by the heavy use of keyboard instruments and lengthy compositions.

  4. Matty LangMatty Lang

    I just love the “can do” spirit that always gets displayed regarding Minnesota’s exceptional winter weather conditions. Our weather is certainly strong, good looking, and above average. I must be having a snarky day.

    1. Wayne

      Seems more ‘can’t do’ whenever it comes to something more difficult/expensive/nicer like bricks or tunneling under streets. Or did I miss the snark?

      1. Matty LangMatty Lang

        Yeah, it was a sarcastic can do. It’s definitely a can’t do attitude and I really don’t get it. Has Ronald Regan been gone for so long that we’ve lost our sense of exceptionalism and now our winter weather is the only thing that is exceptional? Let’s lift up our heads and accomplish engineering feats that laugh in the face of winter.

        1. Wayne

          Here here! For a region that’s doing so well economically, the cities are really lacking in boldness and vision for the future.

  5. Joe D

    Another draw back of brick is you can’t roller-skate on it.. I’m probably more in the minority than bikers on that comment.

  6. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

    How do other women feel about walking on brick? For me, especially in more feminine shoes, I inevitably end up slightly twisting an ankle on brick every time. Maybe I just want to walk too fast.

  7. Brick Tamland

    It’s progressive with a small p, like “dress conservatively” or “apply liberally”. Pedestrian improvements show that a city is making progress toward walkability, calmer traffic, etc.

  8. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    I was in Copenhagen recently and watched a crew placing a new sidewalk. All of their sidewalks in the downtown core are paved in these little 4″x4″x4″ granite pavers or something similar. You don’t really find formed in place concrete like we use extensively here. But, I watched this crew pour a bed of about 4″-6″ concrete, then add a layer of 2″ or so of sand, then place the pavers on top. Bottom line is that the pavers in this particular instance were entirely an aesthetic treatment. The poured (but invisible when finished) concrete base provided the structure.

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