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Taking Sidewalks Seriously

They’re an important part of community social life, but too many cities and suburbs neglect them.

Sidewalk construction in Muskegon, Mich.
Construction workers smooth out fresh concrete for a new sidewalk along Lakeshore Drive in Muskegon, Mich. The worst cases of sidewalk neglect don’t occur in big cities, but in the less- affluent suburbs that have grown up around them.
(Ben Solis/
It’s been 50 years since the sociologist Mark Granovetter published his landmark study celebrating “weak ties” — the casual everyday relationships that add to the stronger connections with family and close friends and make a critical contribution to human well-being in any town or city.

Weak ties are the informal contacts we make at the grocery store, at the pharmacy, at the bank, in church and in a whole array of other places we frequent. They bring order and opportunity to our lives. But the most important locus of these contacts may be one we tend to forget about: the plain old sidewalk.

When I was a kid on the South Side of Chicago, we didn’t have front porches. We and our neighbors would congregate during summer evenings on the placid sidewalks of Everett Avenue, trading gossip and opinion while standing around in little knots of weak-tie fellowship. “There’s a meetin’ tonight,” one of the neighbors would sometimes announce as he came home from work in the late afternoon. And the socializing on the sidewalk would last until darkness called a halt to it.

Sidewalks are such an important part of urban social life that it seems a shame cities don’t do a better job of creating and maintaining them. A recent study by the urban planner Todd Litman concluded that the average city spent about 1 percent of its infrastructure budget on sidewalks, even though walking accounted for 11 percent of residents’ trips every day and pedestrian fatalities constituted 17 percent of all traffic deaths.

In fact, though, the worst cases of sidewalk neglect don’t occur in big cities, but in the less- affluent suburbs that have grown up around them. A few years ago, I spent a little time exploring Buford Highway, the multi-lane road that serves as a commercial center in Gwinnett County, the densely populated enclave just east of Atlanta. Most of Buford Highway is a six-lane concrete speedway. Nobody socializes on it; just walking along it is an unnerving experience. There are very few sidewalks, and crosswalks can be a mile apart. It is a pedestrian corridor that shoppers and other customers are forced to navigate at their own risk.

Buford Highway offers an enticing array of Mexican, Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants in the strip malls that line the corridor. But “food shopping by foot is a gamble,” Axios reported recently. There have been 30 crashes involving pedestrians on just one stretch of the highway in the past five years.

There is some good news: Earlier this year, Georgia’s U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff procured $1.5 million in federal funds to try and humanize the highway. The money will be used to add new crosswalks and install push-button crossing signals and curb ramps to make dealing with it on foot a little more tolerable. Still, one has to concede that no matter how much money is spent, Buford Highway will never be a place where locals can easily form the casual relationships Mark Granovetter was talking about. It was built for cars. Sidewalks will never be more than a band-aid.

ARLINGTON, VA., WHERE I LIVE, stands somewhere between Everett Avenue and Buford Highway. Most of its residential streets have sidewalks, and many of them invite comfortable strolls on pleasant days. But some of the most affluent neighborhoods still don’t have sidewalks, and that is in part because they have resisted them.

The county will put in a new sidewalk if 60 percent of the affected property owners sign a petition requesting the improvement, but this can be a hard threshold to meet. Some homeowners fear that they will end up paying for the installation (although the county insists this is not the case), while others say a new sidewalk would eliminate parking spaces and perhaps endanger some venerable street trees. Some simply believe sidewalks are an emblem of urban life, and they would just as soon not become more urban.

Back in 2008, a countywide study estimated that the Arlington sidewalk network was unlikely to be completed for 25 to 30 years. A lot remains to be done. Even a largely sidewalked community like Arlington is missing out on some of the weak-tie social benefits that Granovetter described half a century ago.

THE BOTTOM LINE, as you have surely guessed by now, is that very few American communities are taking sidewalk construction and maintenance as seriously as they should. Rather surprisingly, one city that does seem to be doing it is Missoula, Mont., a town firmly planted in a corner of the West better known for its wide streets and car dependence than for any form of pedestrian friendliness. Not only does Missoula, the home of the University of Montana, possess a walkable downtown, but it has paid continuing attention to getting sidewalks into more of its neighborhoods.

In 2018, Missoula calculated that some 43 percent of its streets with the potential for sidewalks still didn’t have them. More controversially, it concluded that the absence of sidewalks in low-income districts was a contributor to asthma, obesity and crises in mental health. So it invested $820,000 in the installation of a mile of sidewalks in two of its poorest neighborhoods.

The program was wound down a couple of years later, but the city felt sufficiently good about its results that it created a new post of coordinator of health equity, with responsibility for further monitoring of the relationship between infrastructure and community well-being. “We’ve never thought about sidewalks in terms of health equity before,” one local official admitted. Missoula is still spending money on this: The mayor’s 2024 budget included an allocation of $5.7 million for sidewalks and greenways.

THE MOST DILIGENT STUDENT of sidewalks and urban vitality is Litman, who is based in Victoria, British Columbia. In his recent paper, Litman posited a connection not only between sidewalks and accessibility for pedestrians, but also with higher property values, better transit access and, in the Granovetter tradition, enhanced community cohesion. He found that North American cities were failing in an important civic responsibility.

“Most communities,” Litman wrote on the Planetizen website, “have incomplete sidewalks: many streets lack sidewalks, and many sidewalks that do exist are inadequate and fail to meet universal design standards. … Sidewalk networks are developed ad hoc, built as part of new developments, with no mechanism for filling in gaps or correcting mistakes.” He found that most North American communities spend $30 to $60 per capita each year on sidewalks, with much of the cost borne by homeowners. Litman argued that most of the cities would need to spend two or three times that much to complete their sidewalk networks. A full network, Litman says, could reduce vehicle costs and vehicle miles traveled by as much as 3 percent.

Fortunately, as Litman reported, several large American cities have started to pay more attention to their sidewalks. Denver, which found that some 40 percent of its streets have no sidewalks or substandard ones, has passed an ordinance mandating special property taxes to finish its network. Sacramento is planning to use 20 percent of its transportation budget to make public sidewalks more accessible. Ithaca, N.Y., charges $70 annually per household and $185 per business to build and maintain city sidewalks.

One might argue that focusing on sidewalks to restore Granovetter’s casual-contact sociability is seizing on a trivial part of the problem. We have lost so many weak-tie relationships in the last half-century that sidewalks begin to look like a drop in the bucket. The grocery stores, locally owned banks and bowling leagues of the 1950s are mostly gone.

But it might make more sense to argue that as these in-person institutions atrophy, and weak-tie contacts are increasingly relegated to digital communication, the need to preserve or maintain some of the old ones is more relevant than ever. Sidewalks can’t create a community, but they can still enhance a community, one small piece of pavement at a time.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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