Life on the Sidewalk

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Many cities are blessed with neighborhoods that offer cafes, restaurants and small parks with tables and chairs or benches out on the sidewalk. In Washington, D.C. the neighborhood around the historic Eastern Market is a vortex for public life, especially on a weekend when merchants and shoppers sip coffee amidst strollers, kids in sports uniforms, musicians and groups of slightly overwhelmed tourists. 

One does not have to visit Paris or Vienna to enjoy the sights and sounds of life on a sidewalk. The café and the park bench are universal concepts familiar both to Jacques Brel and to Forrest Gump. In China and most of Asia outdoor life takes on a whole new dimension as entire blocks are occupied by food vendors whose tables spill out into the street. It’s a festival of food and acquaintances at every meal. 

City governments are investing considerable resources on green or open space as the momentum for sustainability takes hold. All this is laudable because trees and grass and benches beside a pedestrian path are not only good for the environment but also good for the soul. The concrete, brick and glass of many cities can drown out the beauty and serenity of nature. In some cities the white noise is so intense that you can’t hear the birds chirp. 

A park or garden in a city is a refuge, a haven, an escape from the speed and tumult of living is close proximity to others. Such places offer a measure of isolation and solitude to restore and renew. The sidewalk on the other hand, with its interwoven mix of cafés, shops and offices, is a place of energy, activity and interaction. It is the antithesis to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone

Perhaps this is why cities like San Francisco and New York are extending sidewalks into space formerly used for parking. These “parklets” are tiny plazas sometimes not larger than two or three parking spaces. In the case of San Francisco, the new configuration is funded by neighborhood businesses and other private sector partners. The idea is meant to enliven the street, to lure pedestrian traffic, to support local businesses, and generally to increase the fun quotient of an otherwise unappealing stretch of sidewalk and roadway. 

There is a need for the communal experience. In Ancient Rome it was the baths. In modern America most people get this experience at the Town Center or the mall. Whether it’s the parklet or the café or the mall, the experience is generally the same – a coming together with your fellow city dwellers. Urbanist Jane Jacobs captured the value of these interactions best. “Sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”