The City Talks — Rights of Passage: Sidewalks and the Regulation of Public Flow

On Thursday last week (January 20), I went to the latest edition of The City Talks at the Legacy Gallery. Nicolas Blomley’s lecture was called Rights of Passage: Sidewalks and the Regulation of Public Flow, and was based on his recently published book. He focused on a term he has coined for how engineers view sidewalks, distinguishing “pedestrianism” (his neologism) from “civic humanism.”

When I invited Francesca Smith-Jones* to the talk, she expressed amazement that anybody would study sidewalks academically and said she wasn’t interested in coming. Yet as Blomley pointed out, most writers on urban themes view sidewalks as important sites of “productive encounter” and “collective activity” that serve social and political ends as public space. Among the writers Blomley pointed to are Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl, William Whyte and Spiro Kostof. (Jacobs’ famous comment on the “intricate ballet… of the good city sidewalk” is widely quoted, including in my recent grad school application.) This idea is what Blomley means by “civic humanism,” and is clearly an important aspect of public space and urban scholarship.

Blomley contrasted this view with that of some engineers and municipalities, which he labelled “pedestrianism.” In this view, the only function of sidewalks is to promote pedestrian flow and all other sidewalk uses (benches, bus stops, garbage cans, newspaper boxes, busking) are conditional on maintaining flow.

His analysis (and his idea for the book) began with Vancouver’s attempt to outlaw “obstructive solicitation” and an expert opinion he offered in a court case challenging the City’s ability to do so. The idea behind this case was that outlawing panhandling infringed on several Charter protected rights.

During his research for the book, Blomley discovered that civic engineers think of sidewalks in a totally different way from civic humanists. He quoted one Vancouver engineer as saying that his “principal concern is safe passage and smooth and unobstructed pedestrian traffic flow,” and that streets and sidewalks are “sites of competing interests of various moving and static elements.” The engineer believed that there was no need to justify the single-minded focus on flow above all the other uses of sidewalks. Blomley found this attitude prevalent among other engineers, and quoted a humourous discussion he had with a Houston engineer who didn’t understand that there might be alternate uses of sidewalks.

This attitude, said Blomley, stems from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when sidewalks were seen as areas of disorder that needed regulation to maintain morals, public order and circulation. He also mentioned municipal bylaws and engineering codes that propagate this attitude, and said that municipal bylaws (like Vancouver’s mentioned above) have been supported by the judiciary.

Towards the end of his lecture, Blomley said that he did not want to suggest that flow is bad or that pedestrianism is “insidious” or “sinisterly motivated.” He indicated that engineers see it as a common sense category, and that it exists in a different mental universe than the rights talk that dominates in the civic humanist view. Pedestrianism has its own history and dynamics, he said, and this research provides an opportunity for both sides to better understand each other.

See my previous posts on The City Talks lectures here and here.

*Not her real name.

This entry was posted in Book Review, Events, Homelessness, Infrastructure, Land Use, Law, Pedestrians, Planning, Policing, Public Space, Research, University Courses, University of Victoria, UVic, Vancouver, Victoria. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The City Talks — Rights of Passage: Sidewalks and the Regulation of Public Flow

  1. Cail S. says:

    Hey Vincent, I’m glad to hear your run down of the talk since I had class and couldn’t go. Sounds interesting. There’s an interesting part in a book about bicycles and the politics of automobility by Zack Furness that has a really interesting section on how the automotive boosters with the media worked together to transform how the whole street, not just the sidewalk was conceptualized. See here ( on page 48-49.

    • vincentgornall says:

      Blomley was asked at the end about the relationship between pedestrianism and trafficism, and said that the first predates the second. When motor vehicle traffic became more common, though, it became even easier to separate the two and create the different zones that encourage flow and support pedestrianism.

  2. John Luton says:

    Great piece on the public realm. While we need to mange the engineering of sidewalks to make it safe, (consider the needs of those with visual impairments or mobility challenges requiring wheelchairs, walkers etc.); we need also to recognize that sidewalks and everywhere else we walk or gather in the public right of way should embrace this humanist perspective too. I like it. Places to sit, public art to enjoy, buskers to listen to, room to engage with our fellow citizens – they are all a legitimate and desirbable use of our sidewalks.

    Here’s a little taste of how easy it is to design fun into a sidewalk:

    • vincentgornall says:

      You’re right – both perspectives are important in helping to create good street life and communities. Blomley did an excellent job illuminating both, making them understandable and useful. The research he’s done is a good antidote to the “silos” of knowledge that have separated civic humanists from engineers.

      From what you’ve posted here and elsewhere, I’ve always admired your candid street photography. The one you posted here is particularly engaging. I’ve been considering getting a camera to keep in my pocket for my walks around the city. Can I ask what kind of camera you’re using?

  3. John Luton says:

    I’m using a cheap Fuji Finepix S1000, it was under $200 a few years ago. It’s held together with a rubber band to keep the batteries from falling out. I don’t like the colour as much as my old Kodak Easy Share, which was around $500. I beat the crap out of the cameras I carry with me while I ride. It has always been the shape and feel of these ones that has attracted me. Bigger than the flat, credit card sized cameras but not as clunky as an SLR, and with a hand grip design that I find useful for holding steady.

  4. Corrado Poli says:

    I apologize for self promotion, but regarding the topic of this article I need to quote my forthcoming book: “Mobility and Environment. Humanists vs. Engineers in Urban Policy”, Springer, New York-Amsterdam. See…/9400712197

    • vincentgornall says:

      Thank you for posting the link to your book. From the description on Amazon, it looks like the book is relevant to the topic of this post. I’m hoping that along with your self-promotion, you can add some value to your comment beyond simply posting a link to your own book. Can you tell us how the themes in your book intersect with the themes of Blomley’s talk? Do you agree or disagree with what Blomley says? Have you read Blomley’s book?

  5. Pingback: The City Talks — City, Nation, and Empire: The Urban Texture of Montreal’s 1960s | Vincent's Victoria

  6. Corrado Poli says:

    Sorry for my late answer, but I have just read your reply only to night. Actually, I regret that I haven’t yet read Blomley’s book, but hope to be able to get a copy soon. As you have probably read in the presentation of my book, I claim that we should not focus on “solutions”, but we should act politically against professional and business lobbies, otherwise we’ll never change a well entrenched mentality about traffic policy. I’ll keep in touch with … possibly more thoughtful ideas … now I’ll go to bed as I’m exhausted … it’s 11pm in this part of the world, i.e. North of Venice, between the Adriatic Sea and the Alps.

  7. Pingback: Upcoming: The City Talks — “Theatre and the City: Early Modern London in Reality and on the Stage” | Vincent's Victoria

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