·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary

Civil Rights

Sidewalks Vital as Neighborhood Commons

— October 8, 2018

If dividing and conquering us is the goal of the powers that be, the remedy might be as close as our neighborhood sidewalks.

Last week I talked about roads, so this week it’s all about our sidewalks. Sidewalks aren’t just about getting from Point A to Point B, though. They have a life of their own! While our auto-centric culture drives us apart and shortens our lives, sidewalks bring communities together. From serving as a venue for protests or an incubator for commerce to being the only place the homeless can go, these ribbons of concrete are there to lift us all up.

The old model of suburbia is changing. Boomers and Gen X may want to spend the rest of their lives in congested commuter corridors, but younger people more often prefer to live in walkable cities and “complete neighborhoods” instead. Complete neighborhoods offer amenities and fill residents’ needs within walking distance, with convenient restaurants, walk-in clinics, grocery stores, and parks. Rather than the expense of car ownership or requiring a governmental commitment to funding public transportation, these trendy yet forward-thinking communities foster the kind of local economies that promote resilience for our uncertain and low-energy future.

Everybody should be able to access sidewalks safely. Towards this end, cities are starting to pay more attention to their walkways. In September, a federal judge finalized a $113 million negotiated settlement that commits Portland, Oregon, to making its sidewalks more accessible to people who use wheelchairs, canes, walkers, and scooters, in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In Missouri, the AARP awarded Kansas City a grant to make a dangerous street safer. KC will take a downtown traffic lane and turn it into a “mobility lane,” creating space for bikes, scooters, segways, and skateboards that is separate from both pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

One of the many anonymous people who sleep on our sidewalks. A person laying on flattened cardboard, head cushioned and privacy provided by a postal service box turned on its side, with businesses in the background.
If people sleeping on sidewalks seem like a threat, I have bad news about the economic system that creates and perpetuates homelessness to begin with. Adapted from a photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

Cities across the country have been cracking down on homeless populations, but really, if people can’t afford or access shelter, will criminalizing their existence help anything? In Indianapolis, “residents feeling unsafe” is the excuse used to justify banning sitting or laying down on sidewalks, but if sleeping people feel like a threat to you, I have bad news about the economic system that perpetuates homelessness to begin with. In Hawaii, the Honolulu city council recently approved two bills, one that penalizes obstructing sidewalks between certain hours, and another that makes it a misdemeanor to “lodge” (rest or sleep) on sidewalks. To be fair, the police officer issuing a citation for the latter “must first verify there is shelter space available within a reasonable distance and then offer to take the person being cited to the shelter,” but shelters aren’t necessarily the best options either.

Meanwhile, in Seattle, the Homeless Remembrance Project installs bronze leaves, engraved with the names of homeless people, on sidewalks near where their namesakes lived – and died. So far, they’ve placed 281 of these ersatz headstones around the city, remembering individuals as more than just “deceased transients.”

Lastly, a victory. California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill decriminalizing street vending that will go into effect on January 1, 2019. This is great news for entrepreneurs who want to start small businesses or try out ideas before investing a lot of money. Diverse, independent vendors can make sidewalks an interesting place to be in their own right, and vibrant local economies generate the kind of opportunities that can help prevent homelessness while promoting safe, walkable neighborhoods for everyone.

In a country being torn asunder by nationalism, inequality, political polarization, and a long, slow collapse, caring about one’s neighbors is becoming a radical act. If dividing and conquering us is the goal of the powers that be, the remedy might be as close as our neighborhood sidewalks.

Related: Where We’re Going, We Can’t Afford Roads


America’s Car Culture is Literally Shortening Your Life: Study
The Role of Highways in American Poverty
Walkable cities are where people want to live — and spend
We Need Complete Neighborhoods
Judge grants final approval to Portland’s plan to make sidewalks accessible to wheelchair users
KC adds temporary scooter, bike lane downtown
Michael McQuillen: City should ban sitting, lying on sidewalks
Bills banning obstructing, lodging on sidewalks passed by Council
Miami Beach Police Chief Helps Kill Proposal for Outdoor Space Where Homeless Could Sleep
Bronze leaves on Seattle sidewalks serve as headstones for deceased homeless people
New legislation may allow street vendors to operate without fear of repercussions
Sidewalk vending is decriminalized across California

Join the conversation!