In Praise of Sidewalks in my Neighborhood

My wife & I have lived in the same wonderful Tenney Park neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin,  for 29 years, and in the same house on a one block street for the past 23 years. Located just a couple of miles from the University of Wisconsin campus and downtown, many of my neighbors commute to their jobs by walking, biking or taking the bus.

As our son prepares to leave home for college, and my wife and I contemplate the next stage of our life, we often reflect on the special nature of our neighborhood. A couple of nights ago, on a beautiful evening, we decided to walk to a local restaurant about a mile away for dinner. The walk was lovely, but what made it extra special was that every few hundred yards, we stopped to engage in conversation with neighbors, who are also our friends, who were also out walking. This was not mere chance. Our neighborhood helps to form a cohesive and friendly community, in no small part, because of its sidewalks.

Sidewalks help build community because they create good places for interaction. A good resource for creating good places for interaction is the Community Tool Boxout of the University of Kansas. As they explain:

Good places for interaction are places where people – often from many parts of the community and/or diverse backgrounds – meet naturally and interact comfortably and often pleasurably because of the nature or attraction of the space and/or the activities associated with it.

While sidewalks are only one of many ways that good communities are built, they are invaluable as an easy and casual way for neighbors to interact and naturally get to know each other. The Community Tool Box goes on to list 11 great reasons to create good places for interaction. They can:

  • help to develop a sense of community pride and ownership.
  • help build a true sense of community among people of diverse origins, backgrounds, and points of view.
  • make the community a more pleasant place to live because more people have contact with one another.
  • increase the general enjoyment of life in the community.
  • increase safety and security.
  • improve the livability of neighborhoods.
  • promote individuals’ understanding of one another’s culture and humanity.
  • provide a forum for the exchange of ideas.
  • They can increase equity.
  • They can increase social capital, particularly bridging social capital.
  • They can expand children’s horizons through interactions with people who have different assumptions and expectations. Some time ago, I wrote about our neighbor’s Giving Tree across from our house which exemplifies the importance of this point. Here are some neighborhood children playing on that tree. IMG_1529

Of course, there are many other places for good social interaction, including parks and plazas, but sidewalks are critical as they allow for easy access for neighbors to meet and greet each other on a regular basis, thereby building friendships and community. In just one walk to dinner, my wife and I were able to check in with 7 neighbors (and some of their dogs), who have become our friends by being such good neighbors. Neighborhoods with sidewalks should relish and maintain them. Neighborhoods without sidewalks should strongly consider building them to build better and stronger communities.

_________________________________________________________________

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.