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Sidewalks: a Source of Urbanity in the Public Imagination – Jeremy Biden


From Beaudelaire’s flâneur* on the streets of Paris, to skateboarding the concrete entrance ways of modern-day office buildings, public space and particularly sidewalks have been a space of conflict and competition between different actors. Sidewalks form the liminal space between traffic and buildings and they serve as sites of protest, partnership and identity for neighborhoods.

In light of the plethora of activities on the sidewalk there exists significant competition between users, political entities and other actors with a stake in the functioning of the thoroughfare. In her work on Hanoi, Vietnam, Lisa Drummond quotes Don Mitchell on public space as: “represent[ing] the material location where the social interactions and political activities of all members of ‘the public’ occur.” Mitchell’s key point is that sidewalks are simultaneously physical, social and political places.

Sidewalks are rooted particularly in the European context, and their development was closely linked to the evolution of large vehicles like wagons, carts, automobiles and, eventually, the numerous cars and trucks that populate our roads today. The heyday of sidewalks began in metropolitan Europe. Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Renia Ehrenfeucht have this to say:

By the late nineteenth century, sidewalks were commonly constructed in London, Paris, and most other European cities (Olsen, 1986). The grand boulevards that were built in Paris, Vienna and Barcelona reserved generous sidewalks for the crowds of urban flâneurs — to stroll, look, and hang out. Immortalized by impressionist painters, these sidewalks epitomized nineteenth-century urbanity in the public imagination.

This period marked an important development in the public life of cities as pedestrians and the character of the urban center became inextricably tied.  It was during this period that Beaudelaire and others began to romanticize urban life and its pedestrians. It wasn’t until the advent of the automobile that the streets of large cities, and streets in general, primarily became a mode of mechanized transportation at the expense of pedestrian infrastructure. This has been described as a change from “locally oriented public space to an efficient transportation corridor.” It is especially obvious in North American cities.

It is essential that planners, urbanists and citizens take an interest in sidewalks, their history, and what they represent.

Sidewalks, by virtue of being public space, are subject to the same conflicts as any space where individuals interact with one another in the public sphere. The issues at play on the sidewalks of modern cities center around the public and private interactions, as well as the conflicts over legitimate and illegitimate uses of public space. The liminality of these spaces is due in part to the nature of flux which stems from the intermittent nature of the sidewalk in its location between the larger traffic of the street and the various frontages of modern city streetscapes. In light of this, it is essential that planners, urbanists and citizens take an interest in sidewalks, their history, and what they represent.

* The flâneur is a character initially conceived by Charles Beaudelaire in the 19th century. He represents a somewhat elitist portrait of a gentleman in Paris strolling the streets and taking in the sights of the city.
The flâneur is detached and somewhat disengaged from the scene, behaving more as an observer than an actual participant in street life.
The flâneur has been drawn into scholarly literature and now acts as something of a stand in for the modern urban character on the street who’s backstory and intent remains something of a mystery.


Jeremy Biden is a full time dad and an honours student at York University in Toronto, Canada. His field of study is Urban Environments within the Faculty of Environmental studies. His research interests include representative space, heteronormative & queer conflict in cities, environmental and social justice in planning, and radical theory approaches to urban design and planning. Jeremy grew up on the east coast and now lives in Toronto with his partner and their daughter.


Photo by Charlie Cowens, Flickr

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