The sidewalk is dying: long live the sidewalk!

Sidewalks underpin the right to the city

Sidewalks are basic urban infrastructure. They have a variety of prosaic yet critical functions. If well maintained and designed, they provide space for pedestrians to walk that is protected from traffic (because slightly elevated with a curb), that is dry (the curb canalises run-off water), and can encourage sociability and community life.

Photo by Dim Hou on Unsplash

Sidewalks epitomise public space and freedom to roam the city. They are the backbone of civic life, allowing everyone – children, adults, people of all abilities – to circulate, to have access to the public realm, and to appropriate the city. Henri Lefebvre’s rather obscure ‘right to the city’ starts with sidewalks. Kropotkin’s peaceful communal anarchy would not be possible without sidewalks. Montreal’s festivals, Paris’s terrasses, and my kids learning to ride their bikes would not be possible without sidewalks.

Indeed, a city without sidewalks would be a city handed over entirely to traffic – a city to which the entry price would be a vehicle.

Sidewalks and freedom, Paris, May 1968

The bad rap: re-writing the meaning of ‘sidewalk’

This symbol (and infrastructure) of public space is under attack.

Big tech companies have already invaded and appropriated terms such as sociability, networks, friends, ‘like’, communication, information, data – none of which seem conceivable today outside the narrow realm of apps, internet and cellphones. They have confiscated privacy – something you no longer have unless you can afford it.

The Californian market-libertarians are now fixating on sidewalks.

For instance, Sidewalks Labs – the arm of Google that was about to implement a surveillance neighbourhood in Toronto – has appropriated and misused the term ‘Sidewalk’. In Google doublespeak, Sidewalk rhymes with datafication, facial recognition and neighbourhoods controlled by AI.

As I write, Amazon is forcing its users to adopt Amazon Sidewalk, i.e. the hijacking of their clients’ broadband by its devices. No longer content with audio and visual snooping, Amazon now wants to colonise everyone’s broadband. ‘Forcing’ is not too strong a word: although there is a short term opt-out option, many people will overlook it: opting-in would be far less coercive – but coercion is the name if the game when it comes to tech devices and data.

'Amason' (Amazon) Avenue and Paris Street
Amazon Sidewalk? Source: “‘Amason’ (Amazon) Avenue and Paris Street” by throgers is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

So what?

Anyway, the point of this intervention is not surveillance – we can hardly avoid being hostages to monopolistic platforms, unless our politicians wake up and start applying anti-trust rules, defend principles of basic privacy, and support genuine consumer choice. .. in other words, unless they begin supporting civic freedom and not just market freedom.

My point is that the the archetypal symbol of public space and access to the public realm – the sidewalk – is being coopted by those who want to privatise our lives and limit our freedom.

Save the (meaning of) sidewalk!

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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