The Public Space
October 08, 2014
by Ken Mayer
Consider the sidewalk. Where I grew up, there was no sidewalk – at least on our side of the street.
Apparently, the developer of our subdivision felt that a sidewalk on one side of the street was enough. So, we took our skateboards across to the other side or sometimes just rode in the street. The lack of a sidewalk has the effect of lifting inhibitions about using the street for unintended purposes like tennis or sled riding.
Another sidewalk that went missing during my youth was gone for more than four decades. When the Interstate Bridge opened over the Missouri River from downtown, it had no walkways. In short order, the old Douglas Street Bridge was closed and destroyed. That was in 1966. It was not until 2008, when the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge opened, that there was a way to cross the river on foot.
Even today, I can’t walk the short distance, less than a third of a block, from my house in TownView Terrace to the #13 bus stop at 13th and Pierce without walking in the street. There is no sidewalk on either side of the street.
I’ve been a walker all my life. It’s a simple pleasure that affords both exercise and contemplation, but at the same time makes me keenly aware of the sidewalk.
Besides being nonexistent, sometimes the sidewalks are neglected to the point of being a dangerous barrier to the walker. The freeze/thaw cycle, tree roots and age can create trip hazards. A good home inspector will sometimes point these out to alert the buyer that the property contains a potential personal liability.
If you walk regularly during the winter months, you know that many homeowners don’t clear their walks promptly. This creates another liability from falls, but worse, often forces pedestrians into the street where there are still greater risks.
It seems to me that the state of our sidewalks is an important public space and public health issue.
Over the last few years, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have issued some guidelines for exercise. Despite all the interest in exotic workouts and special diets, it may be that the miracle cure is nothing more than exercise. And, not much of it.
In general, the guidelines call for only 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. That’s 30 minutes a day, weekends off, or just 22 minutes a day, 7 days a week. Even more astonishing is that 10 minutes at a time is enough. Yes, you read that right, 10 minutes.
The CDC reports that only about 1 in 5 Americans meet even these modest guidelines. Worse, about 1 in every 8 people over 65 manage this level of activity.
Perhaps the most accessible and obvious way to get those small amounts of exercise when you have a few minutes is, you guessed it, the sidewalk.
I’m a big believer in making it easy to do the right thing. Often that means removing barriers. It’s been my experience, both personally and teaching others, that those barriers discourage the proper behaviors far more often than they “build character.”
If we want to have a healthy city, maybe those wellness coordinators and fitness czars ought to clear the path, so to speak, and make sure that the humble sidewalk is truly walkable year-round.
The Public Space
Ken Mayer is a freelance writer, photographer, consultant and adjunct faculty member at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has served on the boards of The Nebraska Choral Arts Society, Downtown Omaha Inc. and Landmark’s Inc. Mr. Mayer has been a consultant and volunteer for Omaha by Design since 2002.