Sidewalks: The City's Problem, and Greenwood's Solution

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One idea that Seattle can export to still-developing cities is a solution in negative form: If you don't build sidewalks from the start, installing them later is a costly and intimidating proposition.

Mayor Nickels' call for residents to spend less time in their cars this summer has drawn attention to a key infrastructure problem in Seattle. Many people who would like to walk are intimidated by a lack of sidewalks – or the run-down and dangerous condition of sidewalks -- in their neighborhood.

As the P-I reports, City Councilmember Nick Licata recently produced a fact sheet stating that 650 miles of Seattle streets (40 percent of all city streets) lack sidewalks on both sides of the street, and 30 percent of city streets (480 miles) have no sidewalks at all.

The P-I article continues:

According to Licata's fact sheet, the costs to fill in all sidewalks would range anywhere from $270 million to $4.5 billion. That figure does not account for drainage requirements.

According to Seattle Transportation, the city has about $3.43 million set aside for this year for sidewalks in its neighborhood street and sidewalk development funds. That figure will decrease to $2.4 million next year because the sidewalk development fund will decrease, spokeswoman Megan Hoyt said.
When Kate Martin, a landscape planner and designer from Greenwood and pedestrian activist, takes $2.4 million and divides it by the city's 13 districts, she ends up with roughly $185,000 per year, per district.
"At that rate, it's a 400-year plan to fill in all the sidewalks in the city," she said.

But residents in Greenwood are also championing a very promising solution to the sidewalk mess. A group of Greenwood Sidewalks organizers and volunteers were recently awarded a $100,000 grant from the City of Seattle to design several sidewalk-installation pilot programs throughout Greenwood, and to produce a guidebook that will help other neighborhoods throughout the city do the same.

According to landscape planner and designer Kate Martin, who is leading the guide project, the final product will be a comprehensive guide to sidewalk design options, sustainable materials, low-impact drainage design and engineering and other considerations informed by a team of expert consultants. The guide will also give recommendations for how to finance sidewalk installations.

According to Martin, neighborhood sidewalk projects could be constructed for as little as $5,000-$10,000 per home, and that cost could be split up between homeowners. Because that amount is a financial impossibility for some homeowners, the city could help out by offering creative finance solutions such as zero-interest loans (allowing homeowners to pay off the sidewalks at an affordable rate, for example, $50 per month), or by covering the cost up-front and then requiring homeowners to pay back the funds once their homes sell. Public funds could be leveraged to pay on behalf of residents who are still unable to afford the costs.

"Historically, it's never been the government that's built the sidewalks," says Martin. "It's always been the developers and the landowners. So I'm really not expecting the city to come forward and pay for it. But I think they should step forward with planning aspects, and by encouraging people to invest in sidewalks with [finance solutions like] zero-interest loans."

As the program progresses, several Greenwood neighborhoods will construct pilot sidewalk projects showcasing a variety of design and materials options. Martin says the goal is to do between 10-20 pilot blocks where neighbors want to participate. As a result, Greenwood will become a showplace for sidewalk design, where other residents can visit to get ideas and practical inspiration.

We wish Greenwood the best of luck, and we will be following their progress. Neighborhood action shows how local innovation can often bring about big changes in a more rapid and customized manner. But we do need to keep in mind that while this solution provides an accessible route for many of Seattle's neighborhoods, there are still areas where sidewalks will not happen unless the city shoulders both the planning and the cost. And these low-income areas are the neighborhoods that stand to benefit most from the increased safety, low-cost recreation opportunities, health benefits and increased sense of community that sidewalks provide. In the interest of advancing all of Seattle into a more walkable, livable, enjoyable city, it's worth remembering that it's going to take a broad range of solutions to address our broad range of needs.

Photo credit: Flickr/wonderlane, licensed by Creative Commons.