Streets and sidewalks are the most ubiquitous and universal public spaces in a community. While we don’t necessarily think of these areas as “Public Space,” they are publicly-owned and maintained through tax dollars. The most frequently “touched” Public Spaces, streets and sidewalks are incredibly connected to our perception of a place. Many studies also indicate that the quality of streets and sidewalks have wide-ranging implications across the health spectrum.
The evolution of streets and sidewalks are interestingly connected with other aspects of community development.
Pre-automobile, streets and sidewalks were an important place of interaction for people of all backgrounds. As the car became more and more central to middle-class American culture - alongside the spread of suburbanization - streets began to evolve into quick-moving streams to move people around as quickly as possible. This focus on efficiency and quickness caused governments to raise speed limits, widen roads, and turn roads into one-way streets. All of this quick-paced traffic had a dramatic impact on the pedestrian accessibility of sidewalks. While newly-developed suburbs were mostly slower roads that were “fed into” by larger highways and wider city roads, already existing neighborhoods - like the North End - saw their main streets become “pass-throughs” for people traveling into and out of downtown.
None of this was an accident. The Project for Public Spaces puts its best: “Traffic and road capacity are not the inevitable result of growth. They are the product of very deliberate choices that have been made to shape our communities around the private automobile.” These intentional decisions, made by a select few traffic planners and city officials, directly impact the lives of neighbors, and the health of communities.
Research in countries across the world show links between increases in traffic and a decline in physical health among residents, as well as a reduction in social cohesion. A study in Bristol UK, which mirrored the 1971 studies of Donald Appleyard, showed that “motor vehicle traffic is responsible for a considerable deterioration of residential community, measured by the average number of social contacts, extent of perceived ‘home territory,’ and reported street-based social activity. Charles Montgomery, in his book Happy City, discusses one of many common sense reasons that this could be the case - noise. “…traffic’s social corrosion also stems from the noise it produces. We are less likely to talk to one another when it is noisy. We end conversations sooner. We are more likely to disagree, to become agitated, and to fight with the people we are talking to.”
While the physical and social impacts of streets are enormous, that is only just half of the equation. Sidewalks should be of equal importance as streets in an urban context, yet often they are an afterthought. In Lexington, with the exception of downtown proper, sidewalk care is on the homeowner or property owner to take care of. In many low-to-moderate income communities like the North End, many residents do not have excess income to make necessary sidewalk repairs, allowing sidewalks to fall into disrepair.
This causes an impact not just on the obvious physical utilitarianism - pedestrian accessibility - but also on a more emotional level. A study in The Journal of Civil Engineering and Urbanism, authored in 2015, suggests that there is a strong link between the design of urban sidewalks and a psychological sense of security in a place- implying that where sidewalks are quality and maintained, people are happier, healthier, and safer.
There is a national movement to reclaim the streets from automobiles and instead reconfigure streets and sidewalks to be designed for who they were made for - people. Brought into the national spotlight by Jeff Speck’s Walkable City, the concept of designing neighborhoods around walkability is not a new concept - it is taking places back to what they once were. Through relatively simple steps - slower traffic speeds, broader sidewalks, curb bump-outs, dedicated bike lanes - cities and neighborhoods are making real progress toward several goals of community betterment: lower obesity and diabetes rates, lower noise and air pollution levels, and increases in the size of residents’ social networks.
In the North End of Lexington, the sidewalks and streets are inadequate. The main artery of the neighborhood - North Limestone Street - is currently designed as an one-way street exiting Lexington from downtown. Once a small two way street that fit with the residential characteristics, it is now a multi-lane, one-way street heading out of town. This one-way street collides with itself at the intersection of Seventh Street, where it turns back into a two-way street. Resurfaced several times, North Limestone’s street level is at times even with the sidewalk, giving no sense of separation between sidewalk and road.
North Limestone - one of the first two streets in Lexington - gets even worse once it crosses Loudon Ave. North of Loudon, which was county territory before Lexington’s city-county merger in the 1970s, is in worse shape than the southern stretch due to the lack of maintenance done by the county for a significant period of time. There are numerous flooding and stormwater issues, and there are even several places where there is no sidewalk whatsoever.
Other places in the North End are not much better. West Loudon Ave. between North Broadway and North Limestone is completely missing sidewalks on the south side of the street, and is missing them in parts as well on the north side. This is one of the most high-traffic pedestrian strips in the neighborhood, frequently seeing large groups walking to the LexTran bus stop or the Hope Center further down Loudon Ave. North Broadway, a main auto thoroughfare through the city, only has two pedestrian crossings along the mile strip north of Loudon Ave., yet it is lined on both sides with single-family residential housing in many parts.
Residents, when asked about their opinions regarding sidewalks and streets in the North End, did not have many positive things to say. Aside from occasional positive comments regarding what you could see while traveling on the sidewalks, but generally, residents were more displeased with them than pleased - with most positive comments being simply that they existed.
Residents identified several key issues regarding sidewalk and street infrastructure in the North End. Specifically, there was a need for sidewalks to be present where they are currently absent. Of the sidewalks that do exist, residents say that they are frequently too narrow, and are in dramatic states of disrepair. This disrepair includes crumbling concrete, gaps in the concrete, lack of curb ramps at crosswalks, and vertically uneven concrete panels.
This state of disrepair in sidewalk infrastructure presents several issues for users. Besides the obvious tripping hazards for walking, it creates several extreme disadvantages for the physically impaired. There are several places in the North End where the sidewalks are in such disrepair that individuals can frequently be seen steering their wheelchairs down the roadway, choosing to travel in traffic over the challenges of navigating sidewalk obstacles. This condition also presents several obvious issues for those that are visually impaired.
Other infrastructure issues were also identified by residents as major problems in the North End. The speed of auto traffic and its proximity to the sidewalk was noted by several respondents, who complained not just about the dangers of the situation, but also the noise and smells that it brings into the neighborhood. They also mentioned the need for repairing curbs and creating new crosswalks to make crossing the street easier - particularly in areas that were near public amenities (parks, schools, etc.), as well as additional trash cans to cut down on the litter issues.