A Walking Project by Larsen Husby

On Sidewalks

Decemeber 3rd, 2017 

I chose to walk all the streets of Minneapolis for several reasons, but one of those was not because Minneapolis is a particularly good place for walking. The Seattle-based company Walk Scores has come up with a widely used index to rate the walkability of cities, and they give Minneapolis an overall score of 69: “Somewhat walkable.” Having now spent hundreds of hours walking through it, I agree with their assessment. Most of what determines walkability isn’t whether or not you can walk (that’s seen as a given in their calculations), it’s how likely you will choose to walk. You will choose to walk if it’s practical, or if walking is pleasant enough to outweigh the impracticality. One of the reasons New York is touted as “very walkable” is because it is so dense: in most parts of the city, you can get to the necessities – grocery stores, schools, train stations, etc – without having to go very far. Density also has the effect of creating visual interest: the more there is to see, the more you will have to occupy your mind, and the faster and more interesting a walk will feel. Compare walking down a street lined with little shops and stoops and flower beds, with walking beside a parking lot. Even if both walks are of equal distance, I guarantee the first will feel shorter.  

With all that in mind, Minneapolis is a pretty mediocre city for walking. Density is found only in certain pockets, like Downtown or Uptown; zoning has kept commercial and residential areas largely separate; and the city’s youthfulness means large swathes of it were built all at once and in the same style, making for some visually monotonous neighborhoods. But for the purposes of this project, walkability was a concern to me only in its most literal sense: that there be the physical infrastructure in place for me to walk along each of its streets. And that means sidewalks.

I can now say with confidence that Minneapolis has an admirably thorough system of sidewalks, one which lines virtually every block. It is possible to go from one end of the city to the other without having to share the pavement with cars. This might not sound like much of an achievement, as providing consistent sidewalks is about the least a city can do to encourage pedestrianism, and yet so many cities won’t even do that much. One of the easiest ways to tell if you’ve crossed the border from Minneapolis into one of the suburbs is that the suburban street will generally have no sidewalk. Take a stroll along Stinson Boulevard and look across at St. Anthony, and you’ll see what I mean. And it’s not just suburbs: other major American cities have a deplorable lack of sidewalks, even including places like Atlanta and Austin, which are progressive cities in many respects.

A dead-end sidewalk in Willard-Hay

I can understand why city planners might look at a given block and choose not to put a sidewalk there. They cost money to make and to maintain, and certain streets see so little pedestrian traffic that a sidewalk might seem totally unnecessary. And it’s not a simple case of “If you build it they will come,” for there are many, many blocks in Minneapolis whose sidewalks are almost perpetually empty. So why are they even there?

If you believe, as you probably do, that the government is responsible for providing streets to drive on, then it should follow that it is equally responsible for providing sidewalks to walk on. In every city there are people without cars, and to deny them sidewalks is essentially to deny them the mobility which car-owners see as a right. The decision not to provide sidewalks, then, is a discriminatory one, and it’s no coincidence that those who generally do not own cars — the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the very young — are among those often excluded from broader civic discourse. The very idea of walkability put forth by Walk Scores is grounded in a certain degree of privilege: for some, walking isn’t a choice, but a necessity. Therefore, sidewalks are a necessity for an equitable society.

There’s another, less quantifiable, argument for sidewalks. Rebecca Solnit, in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, writes that “through [walking] the citizen knows his or her city and the fellow citizens and truly inhabits the city rather than a small privatized part thereof.” This, she says, is the foundation of citizenship, for how can we claim we live somewhere we haven’t even seen? I have never had a clearer sense of Minneapolis as a singular place, as a place which I share with other people, than when I began walking through every corner of it, through neighborhoods both rich and poor, new and old, black and white and thoroughly mixed. The sidewalks are what make this feeling of connection possible, because they are essentially a web of public space, tying together the private spaces of homes and businesses into a unified community. Without that public space, the city would cease to be one “place” by any meaningful definition; rather, it would merely be a legal entity, a bunch of isolated pockets of private spaces. The city is only as large as the reach of its sidewalks.