Sidewalks? Too pedestrian for some

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 18, 2007 - 9:51 PM

In suburbs, sidewalks can divide. Some say they encroach on privacy. For others, they bring safety and a sense of connection.

Sidewalks are a fine thing in a city, Charles Upham says. But Upham and many of his neighbors don't want one on their quiet Golden Valley street.

"Sidewalk is a four-letter word," he said. "U-G-L-Y."

Retrofitting suburbs with sidewalks is generating debate in some cities around the metro. Aiming to create a safe place to walk and link neighborhoods with parks and shopping areas, some suburban officials are instead encountering resistant homeowners who view sidewalks as an encroachment on privacy and pristine lawns.

The result? The installation of sidewalks has become one of the hardest things on some city officials' to-do lists.

"Some people hate sidewalks, and some people love sidewalks," said Kevin Frazell, a former city administrator who now works for the League of Minnesota Cities.

While sidewalks have come back into fashion in some "new urbanist" developments, he said, "When you take yard space away from people, they're unpopular." And they grow more unpopular, he said, when strangers begin walking by on what was previously "private space."

Fans of sidewalks say they're symbolic of community, leading to encounters with neighbors, promoting safety and motivating people to get out of their cars and walk.

That's all fine for them, said Rachel Erickson, one of Charles Upham's neighbors on Golden Valley's Culver Road. "I believe that there is a place for sidewalks," she said, "but it is not in this neighborhood."

Home is who we are

Cities grappling with the sidewalk issue include Edina, Excelsior and Golden Valley -- older suburbs where many developers left them out on purpose.

Sidewalks have a long history: The ruins of Pompeii show the city's streets were lined with raised stone walkways in 79 A.D. When Minneapolis was in its infancy in the 1800s, citizens strolled on wooden walkways to keep their feet out of mud and manure.

But sidewalks were the antithesis of post-World War II suburbs, which aimed at green expanses, big views and front lawns that were visible yet private.

University of Minnesota cultural studies Prof. John Archer is an expert on suburbs. Traditionally, U.S. suburbs aimed to look as much as possible like a rural landscapes, he said, with pristine lawns, winding roads, a leisurely feel -- and no sidewalks.

While sidewalks can build community and connections, not everyone wants to live in that kind of neighborhood, Archer said.

"Place matters," he said. "In many respects, the house is very much about who you are. You see that in the way people feel so deeply and precisely the changes to their lifestyle and their self-image and their place in life.

"For us, your home is your identity. And when you change your home and how you use your home, it's about who you are."

They're a tough sell

In Excelsior, about half of the streets have sidewalks, but that doesn't mean they're wanted. People sometimes request that their sidewalk be removed, Mayor Nick Ruehl said. City officials are embroiled in a debate about how to pay for sidewalk replacement. But Ruehl would like to see more sidewalks in his city.

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