November 30, 2021

Sidewalks: Something Useful to Argue About

Guest Opinion
By Gary Howe | Oct. 23, 2021

"The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations." — Jane Jacobs

There's always something to quarrel about when it comes to town planning. People seem inclined to disagree with their neighbors. We argue about who said what, this building or that building, and how much drinking is enough, ignoring that all this arguing likely leads to more drinking.

Sidewalk construction is not immune to the inevitability of bickering and discontent. We argue about placement, routes, cost, and what gets moved — or doesn't. I have my favorite arguments, like this common one against more sidewalks: "But people will walk in front of my house!"

Oh, the humanity.

There's a long list of pro-sidewalk arguments that boil down to this: Sidewalks transform streets and neighborhoods. They instantly create a comfortable route to favorite places — coffee shops, grocery stores, parks, and schools. With a new sidewalk in place, we create a space for play, gossip, and walking the dog.

By design, sidewalks invite people to move and stay active — right out the front door. This activity leads to improved health and a safer, more welcoming community. On Halloween, the neighborhoods with the widest sidewalks and most oversized treats attract all sorts of bipedal creatures. The neighborhoods without sidewalks … ? Not so much.

Recently, the City of Traverse City celebrated six years of concerted effort in sidewalk building. Since 2016, the city has constructed over 20 miles of new sidewalks at a cost of over $7 million. That's roughly $380,000 per mile. A wise investment considering a concrete sidewalk will realistically last 50–80 years.

The city's work combined sidewalk preservation with gap infill, going into parts of town that have been underserved for decades. As a result, places like the Traverse Heights neighborhood now have nearly an entirely complete grid of sidewalks. Spanning outward from the elementary school, sidewalks directly connect to points in all directions.

The library on Woodmere, the grocery store on 8th Street, and numerous businesses on Garfield Avenue are now linked together by sidewalks for people on foot or rolling in a wheelchair. In addition, sidewalks connect the neighborhood to Boardman Lake, where the Boardman Lake Loop will be completed next spring. That's a lot of new opportunities to get out for a break, see the community, and get stuff done without having to walk in the middle of a street. 

The staff and elected officials of Traverse City deserve a lot of credit for budgeting in our community's values. For many years, the city only constructed sidewalks when property owners were willing to pay all or most of the cost. It's easy to see why this plan didn't get us anywhere near a complete sidewalk grid. It would have taken generations to put in over 20 miles of sidewalks at the pace we were going.

But there was a shift in thinking. It happened because citizens spoke up, participated in the master planning process, walked along on walking audits, voted for representatives who prioritized walking and rolling, and held those representatives accountable. The nonprofit I work for, Norte, partnered with the city on a $2 million Safe Routes to School grant that paid for 3.2 miles of sidewalk, crosswalk enhancements, paths, and bike lanes. Positive community improvement takes all of us chipping in and doing our part.

Twenty miles of new sidewalks is a big deal, but we have miles and miles to go. The old slow-motion plan is still the norm for most government bodies, despite increasing density and demand. Garfield Township, for instance, requires sidewalks with most new construction but doesn't build sidewalks to complete the resulting disjointed and incomplete sections.

As a result, people limp along in inhospitable environments like South Airport Road, Garfield Avenue, and North Long Lake Road. The well-worn footpaths adjacent to streets show the results. Our streets connect residential neighborhoods to countless businesses and services, but you're only invited in if you're coming by car. If you're on foot or in a wheelchair, it's up to you to figure it out.

We can do better, and people can demand better from their local government. Investments in sidewalks are certainly not immune from controversy in a community like ours, where everything is hotly contested. But it's a debate worth having. Sidewalks are critical infrastructure that create safe, comfortable, and adaptive spaces in the community where interesting connections can happen for people of all ages. So, let's have this good argument in more places than just Traverse City. What is your local government doing to build sidewalks? 

Gary L. Howe is the advocacy director at Norte, working to help communities walk and roll by design. He also was a city commissioner for Traverse City from 2013 to 2017.

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