What is a sidewalk for?

By Rob Wipond, February 2011

Municipal engineers have a lot more power over city life and politics than most of us realize.

It’s an academic lecture about sidewalks. Could I have even dreamed up an event that sounded more inconsequentially mind-numbing? 

But on this cold, rainy, January night, the little Legacy Art Gallery and Café, as part of the University of Victoria’s “City Talks” lectures, has drawn nearly a hundred provincial and municipal bureaucrats, business owners, artists, developers, lawyers, students, urban gardeners, civil rights activists, anarchists... Why on Earth would all these people be so interested in sidewalks?

Within the hour the answer becomes clear, as Simon Fraser University’s Nicholas Blomley delivers a surprisingly riveting overview of the role of sidewalks in social control.

Blomley is a “legal geographer” who specializes in “property and its relationship to the politics of urban space.” His new book sounds similarly recondite: Rights of Passage—Sidewalks and the Regulation of Public Flow. However, much like his earlier work on homelessness, First Nations dispossession, and community gardens, Blomley adeptly straddles abstract academia and on-the-ground activism.

“What is a sidewalk for?” he begins, and it’s soon apparent this seemingly benign question holds the seeds of intense urban conflict.

According to Blomley, municipal engineers who build them usually believe a sidewalk’s function is to help people move efficiently.

Many political theorists and urban designers (and, we’d probably add, most ordinary sidewalk users), though, have argued that sidewalks’ purposes are multi-various. Yes, sidewalks allow movement, but they’re also a public space where people stop, look and contemplate. They’ll extend stores or cafés. They enhance public safety and provide playing areas for children. Sidewalks host people-watching and group hang-outs, and often serve critical functions for picketing and protests. With famous truism, they also enrich society by allowing spontaneous encounters, conversations, and mingling between folks “from different walks of life.”

Obviously, some of these different purposes might be enhanced through different types of sidewalk construction—adding greater widths, more courtyards, or installed amenities. Yet when reminded of all these other roles for sidewalks, Blomley says one municipal engineer replied to him matter-of-factly, “It’s definitely not seen that way in my mind.” And in his subsequent research and interviews, Blomley says he repeatedly found municipal engineers strictly emphasizing only sidewalks’ “traffic flow” function.

He provides many compelling examples—some so extreme they seem to border on the satirical. 

In manuals like Geometric Design Guides for Canadian Roads from the Transportation Association of Canada, humans are generically demarcated as simply “the ped”—a simulated pedestrian with a hypothesized ideal 0.15m “no touch zone,” and other specific, sidewalk-design demands with respect to distances, sight-lines, movement and storage capacity. What “the ped” thinks, feels or values, clarifies Blomley, usually isn’t important; in engineering code, we’re routinely reduced to being just “an object in motion.”

“In many cases, this is a very good thing,” comments Blomley diplomatically, pointing to walkers in a hurry, or people using wheelchairs. “But what’s interesting to me is the way it’s the only option that seems to be at play.” 

According to Blomley, for most engineers, flow “trumps” everything; all other activities on sidewalks are potential “obstructions” to good flow and must therefore be banned or tightly regulated through permits. 

And the engineers’ perspective holds immense sway in urban politics. Blomley cites Vancouver bylaws, which broadly declare it an offence for any person to either “stand” or put down any “object,” “substance” or “thing” in ways that might “interfere” with pedestrian flow. (Victoria’s Streets and Traffic Bylaw makes similar declarations.) Consequently, notes Blomley, we no longer have a world where “everything is free to do, unless the state will say you can’t.” Instead, the reverse logic has seized control of our sidewalks: “Everything is illegal, unless the state will say you can do something.”

Blomley recounts a verbatim interview to show how tunnel-visioned such engineering-think can become. He urges a particular municipal engineer to open his mind up to other, equally reasonable uses for sidewalks, yet their discussion rapidly degenerates into something closer to a Monty Python-esque debate about whether a parrot is technically “dead” or “deliberately obstructing traffic flow.” When Blomley paints images of people engaging together in street life in different ways, the engineer responds with various versions of, “That requires a permit,” and, “We have regulation on parades.” When Blomley conjures images of random meet-ups and spontaneous group chats, the engineer responds, “You mean like loitering?”  

It was no joke, however, when these differences came to a head in the 2002 court challenge to Vancouver’s “obstructive solicitation” or anti-panhandling bylaw.

People challenging the bylaw, on the side of which Blomley himself provided an expert submission, defended people’s basic rights to equality and expression in public spaces.

The City’s counter-argument was simple: Panhandlers were no different than street vendors, parking meters, trees or garbage bins, all of which had to be regulated in defence of “smooth and unobstructed pedestrian traffic flow.” And the BC Supreme Court agreed. 

“Flow needs no justification,” remarks Blomley. He adds that one city representative provided a “compelling distillation” of the city’s position to him privately: “It’s not a matter of civil rights; it’s a matter of civil engineering.”

Many battles over newspaper boxes, busking, sidewalk cafés, and protest rights have ended similarly. 

Considering how “pervasive” and “powerful” the engineering viewpoint on sidewalks has become, Blomley suggests it’s surprising political critics have spent so much more time on examining the influence of police, planners, or elected representatives on urban politics than on examining the influence of engineers. “I suggest that might be a mistake.” 

Notably, this suspicion arose during Victoria’s recent Johnson Street Bridge fiasco: Many believed the City of Victoria’s engineering department wanted a new bridge, and that they were the ones pushing the poor upkeep and misleading technical reports.

In any case, when everyone not moving is an “illegal obstruction,” our downtown evidently helps usher along policing more than it helps provide neutral spaces for expressions of a democratic diversity of human values. 

Of course, whether or not something truly “obstructs” the purpose of a sidewalk depends on how we define that purpose. The best way to protest, then, is to vigorously re-open public dialogue about what our sidewalks are really for. 

I walk home ignited by these new ideas, singing aloud, half-expecting Victoria’s early evening sidewalks to come alive in the fire of my eyes like the inner city streets of some Bruce Springsteen song. But they’re just long, desolate corridors, punctuated by the occasional snoring mummy bag in an alcove. 

I approach six young people standing, chatting outside a restaurant. Even this, I see, is too many. As I shuffle around between the tree, parking meter and car, we all glance awkwardly and apologetically at each other. 

Rob Wipond can frequently be spotted walking around Victoria, or can be reached at rob (at) robwipond.com.