Sidewalks are Public Health

Sidewalk Poem Bicycle

Even the better sidewalks are still too narrow. | Bill Lindeke

Today’s homebound pandemic makes it obvious that our sidewalks are inadequate. They are too narrow and often incomplete, and are not giving people safe, comfortable spaces to walk. This matters because our streets and sidewalks are our most important public space. Sure, we have city parks, and they are the gold standards of our public space network. Parks offer scenery, recreation, and urban habitat. But if you’re driving to a park just to walk around every day, you’re doing it wrong. To say the least, crowds can be a problem.

But for every acre of public park land there are a hundred acres of public space on streets and sidewalks. It is these urban spaces, owned collectively by the people themselves, that must be the foundation of our everyday life. In more ways than one, our health relies on how we shape these spaces and what kinds of freedoms they afford us.

Honest questions: When you look around at the sidewalks in your neighborhood these days, what do you see? When you walk around, how do you feel? How are our streets and sidewalks designed, and are they serving us well?

If you’ve been walking around lately, I am really curious what you think. Many of my older, more vulnerable family members live close to me in Saint Paul. These days, I’ve been asking them about their daily walks, and the situation is not good. In some parts of the city, older folks are crossing the street to avoid people. Often that’s impossible, and they go out on walks only in the early morning when nobody else is around. In other parts of the city, there aren’t even sidewalks to use.

Franklin Sidewalk Pole

Franklin Avenue. | Bill Lindeke

The lack of quality sidewalks is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and I promise you that it does not have to be this way. For the past few generations, we’ve consistently narrowed and disinvested in sidewalks. We’ve designed our streets to minimize the comfort and mobility for people trying to walk, and only very recently have we begun to reverse this pattern in our cities.

Examples abound. In fact, it’s far easier to list the places that have sidewalks wide enough for two people to pass each other with adequate breathing room than the converse. Let’s see, streets with wide sidewalks in Minneapolis: Hennepin Avenue downtown (but not elsewhere), Nicollet Mall (but not elsewhere), much of downtown Minneapolis, Lowry Avenue North (but not Northeast), East Lake Street (but not West), and that’s about it. In Saint Paul, the list is shorter. Let’s just say that Snelling Avenue is much better than it used to be, and Wheelock Parkway is very nice now.

Almost everywhere else you turn, sidewalks are too narrow, often 6’ or less, if they exist at all…

Here are just a few of highlights from over the years I’ve been taking photos of Twin Cities sidewalks.

Stp Sidewalk Vehicular Traffic Sign

Narrow sidewalks in downtown Saint Paul (Wabasha Street). | Bill Lindeke

Stp Robert Street Sidewalk

Narrow dangerous sidewalks on the West Side (South Robert Street). | Bill Lindeke

Mpls Hennepin Ave Sidewalk

Narrow dangerous sidewalks on Hennepin Avenue. | Bill Lindeke

Rondo Lexington Sidewalk 1

Sidewalk width on chokepoints like bridges is even more important, like this one on Lexington Parkway. | Bill Lindeke

Stp West Side Sidewalk Ends

Sidewalks often just end, like this one on the West Side. | Bill Lindeke

The unhealthy and inhumane way we allocate public space on our streets has been thrown into the spotlight during this life-altering pandemic, and it’s a huge public health problem. We need more space in order to keep the virus from spreading. But on top of that, we need space for people to walk or bike around, in order to keep obesity, diabetes, and depression at bay.

So what do we do?

Stp Sidewalk Gaps Map 2018

Streets without sidewalks in Saint Paul. | City of Saint Paul

Reconstructing and rebuilding our dilapidated sidewalk network is expensive and time consuming. For example, Saint Paul is slowly trying to fill in the gaps in its network. But even there, there’s lots of pushback and, at our current pace, it will literally take my lifetime to complete.

The clear answer here is to do what they have done in Oakland, California, where at minimal cost, the city has created a “slow streets” network where through traffic is nearly eliminated and speeds are (hopefully) reduced.

We’ve tried and failed to create streets like this in Minnesota in the past. For example, read about the proposed, never-built Northside Greenway, or think about the scant, haphazard “bike boulevard” network that exists in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. In almost all cases, quality projects were stymied because of community pushback, mostly by people concerned about traffic and parking.

Well, things have changed. Traffic and parking are not meaningful problems in 2020. Now is the time to re-think our streets, focus on people, and make sure we prioritize public health, personal health, active living, and safety for everyone.

Screen Shot 2020 04 14 At 10.30.32 Am

With the measure “Oakland Slow Streets” the city is closing 74 miles of streets to create more space for people to get outside for safe social distancing. | Jeff Chiu/AP

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.