Infrastructure: Build sidewalks to build community

sidewalks build community
Flow chart showing benefits of sidewalks and walking

Sidewalks are infrastructure and infrastructure is a reflection of our social nature. Sidewalks are, or can be, important public spaces. They might, or could, be the public space with which we’re most familiar. Sidewalks build community and promote the healthy lifestyle and walkable neighborhoods that many people say they want.

Consider what happens on sidewalks: chalk drawings, tricycle rides, dog walks, hopscotch, jump rope, lemonade stands, neighborhood conversations, holding hands.

And yet streets and cars remain dominant in developed and developing cities around the world. With urban dwellers now the worldwide majority and still increasing, sidewalks are crucial to health, air quality, urban congestion, and social cohesion. Walking and sidewalks promote 50 different individual and social benefits, according to this free report from the engineering firm ARUP. (This report is also worth examining just for its beautiful page layout and visual design, such as the graphic at the top of this post.)

As described in this Treehugger article, in the US, sidewalks are purchased and maintained by individual landowners who are levied for installation and maintenance. Individuals are also expected to perform upkeep such as raking leaves and shoveling snow. They are even potentially liable for injuries caused by falling on slippery or uneven sidewalks.

This makes sidewalks a communal asset for which individuals are responsible. Such a structure misaligns costs and incentives for creating and maintaining the commons.

In my neighborhood, our arterial mostly has sidewalks, but none of the side streets do. That discourages me from walking through my neighborhood for exercise and stress relief, during which I might meet and get to know my neighbors. It discourages all of us from walking out our front doors to reach the bus routes along the arterial.

Marketing Sidewalks

There’s got to be a better way. What would marketers do?

  • Gather market research the state of sidewalks in their communities
  • Employ design principles to develop communities intentionally created to support walking
  • Change how communities price sidewalk installation and upkeep
  • Promote sidewalks as necessary to community goals about health, pollution, transportation, and public safety

TheĀ report referenced earlier lists 40 action and policies the you can pursue in your community to make sidewalks and walking part of your community. Download the report, pick one or two items, and start.

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