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10 questions for sidewalk scholar Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

cover.bookAnastasiaLS300smAnastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a professor of urban planning and a scholar of urban design and urban history, has researched the uses of all kinds of public spaces, from parks to plazas. Now she and her former Ph.D. student, Renia Ehrenfeucht, have tackled a most pedestrian subject, the lowly urban sidewalk. In their new book, "Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotation over Public Space" (MIT Press, 2009) Loukaitou-Sideris and Ehrenfeucht, now an assistant professor at the University of New Orleans, track the furious battles that have been fought on sidewalks over free speech, public access and conflicting uses. They have looked into policies governing sidewalks in five cities — Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Miami and Seattle — and found reasons why some cities have a vibrant sidewalk culture and in other cities, sidewalks are devoid of life.

Why did you decide to devote an entire book to the sidewalk?
Most authors and social scientists do not tend to see the sidewalk as a unique piece of the urban environment. But as public space, sidewalks are everywhere and link everything, and no one seems to notice them. My co-author and I began noticing newspaper articles about contemporary conflicts over sidewalks, from street vending and street prostitution to demonstrations. These conflicts have grown serious enough to reach the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of First Amendment rights.
 
Do you mean public speaking was banned from sidewalks?
Back in the early 20th century, some US cities began banning public speaking on sidewalks in downtown areas. There were parts of downtown San Diego and Los Angeles where people could not give a public speech. That was a time when the Socialist Party was emerging, and unions like the Industrial Workers of the World were becoming more vocal. Many merchants wanted to shut them down. A lot of local municipal councils began banning public speaking on sidewalks.

More recently, in 1999, when demonstrations broke out in Seattle at a meeting of the World Trade Organization, cities became very much afraid of such disruptions and the way these images were sent all over the world via satellite TV. So cities became extremely careful about where public speaking was allowed. Not only were permits required, but cities and police created "protest pens," where you were allowed to exercise your First Amendment rights. In Los Angeles in 2000 at the Democratic National Convention at the Staples Center, you could only demonstrate in an area where conventioneers could not see you.
 
What first intrigued you about sidewalks?
Coming from Athens, Greece, where there is a very intensive use of sidewalks, I experienced a cultural shock when I first came to this country in 1983 as a graduate student and saw that sidewalks were empty in most places. This was so much in contrast to my own life experiences. I always had this question: Why are American sidewalks empty? What happened to the pedestrians? The book really responds to these questions.
 
How has the use of sidewalks been discouraged in American cities?
Part of it is the way our cities have been designed. We have built cities that are not very interesting to walk in. In many cities, you walk next to blank walls; there's nothing to look at. Cities with long blocks or very wide streets are not very convenient for walking. There are a lot of streets in the inner city that have sidewalks, but absolutely no street trees so there's no shade. All these physical elements discourage walking. There are few areas in L.A. where you would gladly walk. And then there are some cities that are much more fortunate, like San Francisco or New York, where you have more mixed uses.
 
What American cities do the best job of promoting sidewalk-walking?
East coast cities have a longer history of mixed use. Having mixed uses – where, for example, supermarkets occupy the ground floor of a building and apartments are on the upper floors — brings more people onto the streets. Boston and New York have more interesting sidewalks because they have many more mixed-use buildings and shorter blocks. But in western cities, you'll see endless subdivisions, established by zoning. It's helped create what we call the "dormitory" suburb. This has taken the life out of sidewalks. There are even some suburbs that have been built without sidewalks because homeowners want their privacy.
 
Are there other concerns that have worked against sidewalks?
Some people are afraid to walk along the streets because of a public safety concern. The irony here is that you tend to be safer when you have what urbanist Jane Jacobs called "eyes on the street" with vibrant sidewalks filled with people. Growing up in Athens, I felt very safe as a young woman walking on the streets late at night because there were so many people on the street. But I would never walk at night in most areas of Los Angeles.
 
That's sad that so few people in American cities walk on sidewalks. Is this likely to change?
Interestingly enough, in the last 5-10 years, we have heard more voices speaking up for sidewalks, mostly in public health and active living literature. Many Americans suffer today from obesity. Our children are obese partly because they are driven everywhere. We are all so preoccupied with issues of safety and danger. So we don't let our children walk.
 
What are we missing by not walking our sidewalks?
You perceive a city so much better when you walk than when you're inside the cocoon of a car. Oftentimes, our highways and freeways are built to bypass the city. But when you walk, you tend to see, hear, smell the neighborhood. So walking is very important to our understanding of city life.
 
In your book, you talk about sidewalk culture. What do you mean by that?
It's the ability of people to territorialize this public space for positive uses because they feel that it is their own. As a citizen of a city, you feel you can jog, walk your dog or use this public space for public discourse, to display wares or communicate with your neighbors. But there are many instances where our laws have discouraged this sidewalk culture from developing. Cities now require permits for many uses of this public space. And these have intensified over the last decade.

Take street vending. It's banned in Los Angeles, even though you can still find some street vendors in many communities, especially in East L.A. But we have banned not only street vending from sidewalks, but public demonstrations and celebrations. In the book, we document how over the years this emptying of sidewalks took place through regulations and ordinances.
 
Is the outdoor pedestrian mall replacing the urban sidewalk?
It's true that the success of such commercial areas like Old Town Pasadena and the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica do promote walking. Nevertheless, they are very contained. Old Pasadena is only two blocks long. My ideal city is one where you will have continuous sidewalks connecting different street uses and linking different areas of the city that would be attractive to pedestrians. There is a movement in planning called the new urbanism that talks a lot about bringing more pedestrians to the streets. I don't want to sound naïve and say it will happen overnight. But we do see some movement towards a more active sidewalk life.