Do Sidewalks Make Us More Social?


Sidewalks have long been considered to be essential parts of America’s social and communal infrastructure. As Jane Jacobs recognized many decades ago, sidewalks are “the main public places of the city’’ and ‘‘its most vital organs.’’ For Jacobs and subsequent scholars of urbanity, sidewalks are active sites of socialization and allowing for open interactions and accidental encounters; they also serve as conduits to easily connect people to their communities as well as create spaces of contention and conflict. In the simplest of terms, having a sidewalk in front of one’s home – be it in a dense city center, a small town, or a leafy suburb- enables residents to easily walk and engage with other residences and community amenities, actions which are often thought to be far more difficult in areas without safe spaces to walk and require vehicles for movement.

It is reasonable to think that Americans living in areas with sidewalks would be more connected to their neighbors and neighborhoods. However, this assumption is simply incorrect. Data from a new national survey from the Survey Center on American Life reveals that sidewalks a have limited impact on how Americans think and connect with their neighborhoods regardless if such an amenity in front of one’s home or not. This follows on years of study that have shown that suburban residents, where sidewalks are not always present, have stronger community sense than their urban counterparts.

Having a sidewalk in front of one’s home does not change how Americans on average rate and perceive their communities. About 30 percent of Americans say their communities are excellent places to live regardless of whether or not there is a sidewalk running in front of their home. Sidewalks also do not make Americans feel any more connected to their neighborhoods and the people who reside there; 10 percent of Americans with and without sidewalks near their homes feel close to their neighbors.

When asked whether one knows someone who is very active in their neighborhood and who regularly coordinates neighborhood activities and events - what Mitchell Duneier terms a “public character” – about 40 percent of Americans say they do. Again, Americans with sidewalks in front of their homes and those without are equally likely to say this.

Turning to the question of how willing neighbors are to help people in their area, there are again no real divergences based on sidewalk status. About 80 percent of Americans say their neighbors are willing to help others in their neighborhood regardless of whether or not there are sidewalks there. Trust in neighbors does not depend on sidewalks either. Three-quarters of Americans have elevated levels of trust in the people in their neighborhood regardless of whether sidewalks are present. Finally, the presence of sidewalks does not impact the likelihood of doing volunteer work within one’s neighborhood is not impacted either. About a third of American’s report doing some form of community work a few times a year or more often regardless of if they have sidewalks.

Beyond communal connections and affinity, some differences do emerge when one has a sidewalk next to one’s home. The most obvious is regular walking in one’s immediate area. Americans with sidewalks adjacent to their homes are more likely to walk than those who lack them. 60 percent of those with a sidewalk in front of their home report weekly or more compared to a notably lower 43 percent of those who have no sidewalks where they live.

However, the data show that walking and sidewalks have no impact on the likelihood one will attend a local event or community meeting. Nor do sidewalks change the regularity with which one visits their local library or has dinner out at a local restaurant.

Sidewalks do have an impact on one’s likelihood to visit a local park, dog park, playground, or community garden. One-third (33 percent) of those with sidewalks in front of their homes report at least weekly visits to these public amenities while about a quarter (26 percent) of those living in areas without sidewalks report the same. Of course, some areas without sidewalks have large backyards or cul-de-sacs that substitute as play areas.

There is also a weak relationship between sidewalks, cafes, and coffee shops. About a quarter (23 percent) of those with sidewalks state that they visit local cafes weekly or more often, while only 16 percent report doing the same in those places where sidewalks are not present.

There may be a few cases where sidewalks can increase the level with which one engages with local communal amenities. But at large, sidewalks hardly impact community connectedness , a drastic departure from common thinking, which has long seen sidewalks as critical public infrastructure connecting the private world directly with the public. These data are particularly noteworthy for they were collected during the COVID-19 pandemic when outdoor life has dramatically increased. Even though the pandemic has driven social life for many from dining, to strolling and making outdoor displays, and increased opportunities for chance encounters, the presence of sidewalks is not changing perceptions about community social capital whatsoever.

While no one is suggesting sidewalks be eliminated, urban theorists, scholars, and planners must acknowledge that sidewalk life may not be as powerful and vibrant as the various ethnographic stories make them out to be. There may be other factors --- like homeownership, tenure of residents, or the presence of families --- that may also play a role.

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photo: Kay Ingulli via Unsplash.

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Pedestrian ways as an independent system

Sidewalks unfortunately have always been the afterthought of the street system. If the street system is not connective the walk system will be underutilized. The grid is thought to be pedestrian friendly, but only if the destinations (shops, parks, etc.) can be directly walked from ones 'front porch' which is rarely possible requiring people to walk (on average) excessive distances to destinations. On the developments we design, we begin with a main multi-modal wide trail system first - the pedestrian highway, then the street system. The minor pedestrian links are in the streets and the major system add the overall convenience. This is the only way to assure pedestrian safety, encourage it's use, and create added functionality.


Sidewalks sure make a difference to them, especially where there's traffic, which is almost any through street.