Sidelining Sidewalks in Car-Crazy LA
By Maya Parmer
Published Jun 23, 2009 9:10 AM
Here's a riddle to ponder the next time you're stopped in traffic. What is used everyday by people from all walks of life, all over the world, yet goes virtually unnoticed?
Most of us take them for granted. But not Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, UCLA urban planning professor, who recently concluded her sixth year as Department chair to focus on research and her just published book, Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation over Public Space. Loukaitou-Sideris co-authored the book with Renia Ehrenfeucht, the professor's former Ph.D. student and now an assistant professor at the University of New Orleans.
Sidewalks focuses on the policies of five major U.S. cities (Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Miami, and Seattle), but Loukaitou-Sideris' personal pedestrian journey starts in her native Athens, where she spent her youth frolicking in the vibrant Greek street life, where café tables extend onto sidewalks, and windows and open-air shops merge indoor and outdoor spaces into a collective community. After growing up amidst the structural and urban beauty of Europe, Loukaitou-Sideris came to the States in the early 1980s as an international graduate student to study architecture at USC. California car culture shocked her.
"Why aren't people on the sidewalks?" she wondered.
With a focus in urban design, Loutaikou-Sideris soon began researching the public environment of Los Angeles, its physical representation, aesthetics, social meaning and impact on the urban resident. While the proliferation of the automobile widened streets and shrank sidewalks in Southern California, the scholar/author reminds her reader that legally, pedestrian movement has always been the primary purpose of pavement. But socially, do pedestrians still have the right of way?
Maybe not, says Loukaitou-Sideris, who writes, "The richness of the sidewalks has been lost with the banning of street vendors and protestors." Those restrictions arose after the Democratic National Convention held at Staples Center in 2000, where brouhahas erupted from protestors who could not exercise their right of free speech on private property. And the border between private and public still is a thin curb.
So, if sidewalks are a place of dissent, a place of shelter, an urban forest and a space of economic survival, who is responsible for their care? Each year, hundreds of lawsuits attempt to negotiate these pavement politics. And the authors also dissect the impact of the 1995 Attorney General's proclamation for the resurgence of walkable communities as a vital step to maintaining and improving the health of our nation.
Bet you never thought your next step on concrete would be an exercise in democracy.