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.