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Sidewalk Democracy:

Municipalities and the Regulation of Public Space


Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Evelyn Blumenberg, Renia Ehrenfeucht

UCLA Department of Urban Planning


Jane Jacobs has called sidewalks "the main public place of a city" and "its most vital organs." Urban sidewalks have long been considered the city's public boardroom. Nevertheless how sidewalks can be used and by whom have been long debated in court by municipal governments, civil rights advocates and political activists. Municipalities have historically issued ordinances and regulations to define the appropriate uses of sidewalks and used design strategies to "tame" them and ensure a preconceived urban order. Today sidewalk democracy remains contested as design and regulatory strategies have serious constitutional implications for First Amendment speech and assembly rights.

In the nineteenth century, sidewalks as a specifically pedestrian-oriented public space became commonly provided and paid for by abutting property owners and businesses. At that time, streets and sidewalks were used for many activities. Adults promenaded, children played, men and women worked as street vendors. Food and household goods could be purchased at every corner and businesses displayed their wares outside. Since the nineteenth century, however, municipal governments have attempted to exercise significant control over the activities that could take place on public sidewalks.

The control that municipalities sought to exert over sidewalk use has extended through contemporary times. Cities govern public activity on sidewalks in numerous ways, such as through local ordinances, land use controls, design review, redevelopment practices, and police procedures. Four important strategies that municipalities use are:

1. de-emphasis of public sidewalks through the use of introverted spaces and walkways;

2. beautification efforts and restructuring of neighborhood space to emphasize only desirable uses;

3. privatization of formerly public sidewalks through the use of business improvement districts and fencing; and

4. land use controls aimed to contain certain sidewalk activities in specific areas.

De-emphasis of Sidewalks

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, public spaces in U.S. cities became increasingly privatized; that is, their production, management and control were turned over to the private sector. This occurred during the massive rebuilding of downtown areas, and as a result, central business districts acquired newly-developed spaces open for public use, such as plazas, shopping paseos and gallerias. Developers and municipal planners described these spaces as amenities, but critics condemned their exclusivity. By design, these spaces are inwardly oriented and separate from the public sidewalks. The connection to the public sidewalks is de-emphasized by the use of enclosing walls, blank facades and entrances through parking structures. The most common examples include sunken or elevated plazas that have become the norm in downtowns. Skywalks also allow for circulation between buildings without touching the street.

Gentrification and Beautification

In the last two decades, many municipalities have also attempted to revitalize, beautify and gentrify old commercial streets so as to draw crowds of upscale shoppers to their jurisdiction. Driven by both financial motives and a desire to "turn around" decaying and unsafe areas, cities try to re-invent Main Streets and create entertaining shopping experiences. Cities designate pedestrian-oriented districts within which they encourage desirable retail uses such as cafes and bakeries, upscale restaurants, flower shops, boutiques, bookstores, and art galleries. Architectural and landscape design elements, including public art, street furniture and decorative lighting, create an atmosphere for consumption. Buildings can also be renovated or converted, and design guidelines might instill a theme such as art deco or Mediterranean. These improvements have facilitated gentrification: high rents, exodus of small independent shops and the influx of chain stores.

Privatization of Sidewalks

In the 1990s, private control of public space has been extended to the public realm of the sidewalk through business improvement districts (BIDs). To establish a BID, property owners petition the municipal government in order to tax themselves. They then use the tax revenue to provide services of their choice. Common services include sidewalk beautification, cleaning and maintenance, and surveillance through private security guards. In the last decades, more than one thousand BIDs have been created in more than forty states. California alone has over 120 BIDs.

Fencing the area adjacent to a restaurant or café also privatizes a part of the sidewalk. This might be mandated by city ordinance or state law. California state law stipulates, for example, that alcohol can be served only in enclosed, supervisable areas. In downtown San Diego, more than one hundred businesses have fenced off the sidewalks.

Taming the Street

To tame sidewalk behavior, cities have enacted regulations to limit unwanted activities. Cities segregate some unwanted activities into separate districts and reduce others in the name of pedestrian circulation. Sexually-oriented businesses have been restricted to particular neighborhoods, creating red light districts, to reduce their presence in other parts of the city. Similarly, emergency relief services such as homeless shelters, food banks, and soup kitchens have been located in skid row districts. The idea of containment has been extended to other activities. Los Angeles, for example, has established a vending district ordinance that allows neighborhoods to establish vending districts. So far, only one such district has been established, and street vending is prohibited in all other areas. Cities have also tried to contain political protest, but protest has been subject to constitutional protection. Cities also prohibit stationary activities, such as sitting, lying or sleeping on the sidewalks or public ways, and public performances, which they claim interfere with safe pedestrian circulation.


We often take for granted the unadorned sidewalks on which we walk. Nonetheless, sidewalks are rich sites for both control and contestation. In the early 1960s, Jane Jacobs described the pedestrian rhythm on Greenwich Village sidewalks as "sidewalk ballets." Jacobs envisioned the sidewalks as public space par excellence, a context for social contact, assimilation and integration in the city. We suggest however that "sidewalk" ballets are turbulent&emdash;bringing clashes in public space over questions of citizenship rights, free speech and, ultimately, democracy.

What does the future hold for American sidewalks? The tendency has been to segregate, contain and enclose activities, homogenize urban form, and prohibit anything that falls outside a cadre of pre-accepted activities. As citizens and planners, we must resist these tendencies. We must integrate rather than segregate users and uses, incorporate the priorities of local neighborhoods, and build truly democratic public spaces.

Note: This summary is based upon Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Evelyn Blumenberg, and Renia Ehrenfeucht (2005) "Sidewalk Democracy: Municipalities and the Regulation of Public Space," chapter in Eran Ben Joseph and Terry Szwold (eds.), Regulating Place: Standards and the Shaping of Urban America, 2005, pp. 141-166., Routledge, 29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001 Web site: http://www.routledge-ny.com/ Email: info@routledge-ny.com . In the paper, we discuss the history of sidewalk provision and use, how sidewalks are provided and maintained today based upon a survey of ten U.S. cities, and we discuss the four strategies included in this summary in more detail.

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