Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a professor of urban planning and a scholar of urban design and urban history, has researched the uses of all kinds of public spaces, from parks to plazas. Now she and her former Ph.D. student, Renia Ehrenfeucht, have tackled a most pedestrian subject, the lowly urban sidewalk. In their new book, "Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotation over Public Space" (MIT Press, 2009), Loukaitou-Sideris and Ehrenfeucht, now an assistant professor at the University of New Orleans, track the furious battles that have been fought on sidewalks over free speech, public access and conflicting uses. They have looked into policies governing sidewalks in five cities — Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Miami and Seattle — and found reasons why some cities have a vibrant sidewalk culture and in other cities, sidewalks are devoid of life.
The following is excerpted from an interview with UCLA Today.
What first intrigued you about sidewalks? Coming from Athens, Greece, where there is a very intensive use of sidewalks, I experienced a cultural shock when I first came to this country in 1983 as a graduate student and saw that sidewalks were empty in most places. This was so much in contrast to my own life experiences. I always had this question: Why are American sidewalks empty? What happened to the pedestrians? The book really responds to these questions.
In your book, you talk about sidewalk culture. What do you mean by that?
It's the ability of people to territorialize this public space for positive uses because they feel that it is their own. As a citizen of a city, you feel you can jog, walk your dog or use this public space for public discourse, to display wares or communicate with your neighbors. But there are many instances where our laws have discouraged this sidewalk culture from developing. Cities now require permits for many uses of this public space. And these have intensified over the last decade.
Take street vending. It's banned in Los Angeles, even though you can still find some street vendors in many communities, especially in East L.A. But we have banned not only street vending from sidewalks, but public demonstrations and celebrations. In the book, we document how over the years this emptying of sidewalks took place through regulations and ordinances.