What Makes a Good Sidewalk?

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Courtesy / Bill Barker

The sidewalk at the 500 block of Funston Place by the San Antonio Botanical Garden is an example of quality pathways.

There are lots of things to consider when determining what makes a good sidewalk, but to be recognized as a Walk Friendly Community, sidewalks must meet three criteria: adequate width for the situation, a buffer between the sidewalk and the street, and level sidewalks at driveways.

A smooth, continuous pathway wide enough to accommodate users is a pretty obvious requirement. The National Association of City Transportation Officials recommends that a sidewalk should be at least five feet wide in order to allow two people to walk side-by-side and to provide for those using wheelchairs. Sidewalks should be wider, of course, in busy or commercial areas. The “shy distance” within about two feet of a wall, fence, curb or other vertical surface cannot be counted as part of the sidewalk width.

If you are a sidewalk user, you know the importance of a buffer between you and the street.  Oddly, there is probably no other part of a street that has more synonyms.  It is often called a “parkway” in Texas, but there are over fifty names for it, including “verge,” “hell strip,” “parking strip,” and my favorite: “besidewalk.”  Whatever it is called, it has many benefits, including shielding the pedestrian from the vehicles moving on the street. 

The last of the “must haves” is having the sidewalk continue to be level at driveways.  To pedestrians, particularly with mobility or vision limitations, a dip and then a rise in the sidewalk at driveway is at least irritating if not a hazard. 

A terrific sidewalk example can be found along the 500 block of Funston Place at the edge of the parking lot for the San Antonio Botanical Garden.  It is the work of Ten Eyck Landscape Architects.

This sidewalk not only nails the basics, but it takes it to the next level.  In order to get the most bang for the buck, public projects should achieve multiple benefits, particularly when they can be achieved with just good design.

This sidewalk uses a bioswale in the parkway to capture stormwater, slow it down, filter it, and let it soak into the ground.  This Low Impact Development technique has been promoted by the San Antonio River Authority as a cost-effective way to keep our water clean and plentiful.  The sidewalk design uses the swale to manage rainwater from the street as well as the adjacent parking lot.

Being part of the San Antonio Botanical Garden, the landscaping is exceptional.  This not only contributes to the natural beauty of the sidewalk and the stormwater treatment, it cools the pedestrian environment.  San Antonio’s urban heat island effect is increasing, and trees and other vegetation can clearly reduce the temperature of the pedestrian environment.  Further, the landscaping wisely includes drought and water tolerant plants which will need little watering.

There is also evidence that landscaping reduces traffic crash rates on Texas roads. 

With the significant need for more sidewalks in San Antonio, it is nice to know that that there is a great model that can be used to make the city more sustainable.   

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