As an avid bicycle commuter who resides in a community where bikes are permitted to ride along certain roadside paved pathways (sidewalks of 7-8 feet wide), I find the gray blandness of most sidewalks/pathways to be quite boring and uninspiring. For miles and miles, pedestrians and cyclists are subjected to a monotone of cement that dulls the senses and makes the ride less enjoyable than it otherwise could or should be. I believe the blandness can be an aesthetic detriment to the community, as well. So how does one liven up sidewalks without turning them into unsafe and costly concrete billboards under our feet and/or bike tires? Here are a few thoughts and ideas for turning the bland into grand – other suggestions are very welcome:
- Good landscaping – well-done native landscaping can turn almost any bland concrete feature into something special, including sidewalks and pathways. I particularly like native wildflowers in the buffer strip between the roadway and sidewalk/pathway.
- Mosaics – applying/inserting beautiful mosaics into segments of the concrete can enliven and increase the visual appeal of a stretch of sidewalk – Orlando International Airport has successfully done this within its passenger concourses.
- Color toned concrete – mixing subtle colors into the concrete can awaken concrete from its bland slumber and create a unique riding/walking experience. Approximately a one-mile segment of “heritage sidewalk” along Hamilton Road in the Cedar Bend Heights Heritage Neighborhood in the eastern suburbs of Lansing, Michigan has incorporated a color tone that enriches the historic flavor of the area (see photo below).
- Mixed of materials/textures – nothing requires the entire sidewalk/pathway be constructed from cement/concrete. Accents incorporating brick, metal, and/or stone can make a world of difference in the aesthetic appeal.
- Lighting accents – tastefully designed and installed accent lighting can bring new life to the blandest stretch of concrete. The lighting must be subtle and directed in a manner that prevents glare and light trespass.
- Variable routing – must the sidewalk/pathway always be engineered to be absolutely linear? – how about some curvilinear aspects? How about going around a tree instead of through it? How about some whimsy in design?
- Other options – embedded markers, artistic flair in design, or inscriptions are some other options to consider. Even the occasional chalk coloring contests can bring temporary life to the otherwise bland aspects of concrete.
While I am not proposing that every square inch of sidewalks be updated using one of the suggestions above, there are many locations where this can add fun, whimsy, and a sense of place to the community.
- An historic district stands out more with sidewalks that are complimentary to its heritage; and
- An avant-garde arts district must have some eccentricities to its sidewalks, otherwise, its unique characteristics are diminished; and
- A cultural and entertainment district needs sidewalks and pathways that accentuate the vibe of the district, while also providing safe passage for events held after dark.
Infrastructure should not be a dirty word indicating blandness. It should be tailored to specific situations so that it complements the character and aesthetics of its surroundings versus detracting from them. Turning the bland into something grand is a matter of good planning, public input, innovative ideas, inter-departmental and agency coordination, and overall community cooperation.