Living Out Front
The sidewalk is an essential element to any great city that is designed for people. The very nature of walking out of your house and feeling comfortable is contingent on your surroundings. People love to feel protected and in control of their environment.
In my life I have lived in a lot of places. I was born in Ohio and lived there until I was 5. One of the memories I have as a child was that of all of the neighborhood kids playing in the street in front of our houses. The street was the meeting place where all neighborhood activities took place. After Ohio, we moved to Columbia, South Carolina where our house was much larger and on a very large piece of land in the woods. It was suburban but also very wooded, backing up to a lake. We spent every day outside playing in the woods and in the neighborhood. We didn't play on the street as much, but rather in the park behind our house. When I turned 10 we moved to El Paso, Texas. Our house there was up in the mountains and on a street where we once again returned to playing in the front yard, riding bikes and playing games with the neighborhood kids. Three years later, we moved to Laredo, Texas. This experience was a bit different because I was older and our neighborhoods were very isolated from each other, lacking any sort of community. Granted, the weather was much hotter and this neighborhood, unlike the others, was newly developed. All of the houses were built brand new and the streets were wide, lacking sidewalks. I don't have any memories of being in the front of my house for any length of time.
Rather than make this post about the "good old days", I am doing it for another reason. I have recently been working on photo books for my kids and came to realize that much of their lives were spent on the street in front of our houses in Chicago. Their first walking photos of them are on the front sidewalk, and that is where we spent a lot of our time. We valued the space out front where we could sit and watch the neighborhood, but mostly because our kids ONLY wanted to be out front. Our instincts were to stay inside or in the backyard, having grown up in mostly suburban places. Our kids and all of the neighborhood kids loved being in front. All of our houses also had transparent fences that separated us from the sidewalk. Contrary to what most people believe about fences, they actually brought us outside. In what would seem a more hostile place, the front of a house in the city can make you feel vulnerable to strangers and such. With our fence, we would sit for hours, working in the yard, with our dog joining us, greeting other dogs through the fence, and our kids generally outside the fence looking for other kids or making chalk art on the sidewalk.
The sidewalk is an essential element to any great city that is designed for people. The very nature of walking out of your house and feeling comfortable is contingent on your surroundings. People love to feel protected and in control of their environment. Streets that are wide with fast moving traffic make people feel unsafe and they will always opt to drive rather than walk, if even a short distance. If this part of the city cannot thrive, people and communities will not thrive. In Texas, we need to understand that by making room for people to walk, we are not eliminating room for people to drive; there just needs to be a balance. If I could take anything away from our time living in the city and raising our kids, it was that people love to be a part of something greater than themselves. People love to feel like they have a community that supports them and that they are a part of.
The street trees, the medians between the sidewalk and the street, and the parked cars were a protection from fast moving traffic and it made this outdoor space an extension of our home. Over the years I took great pride in the garden I was growing in the front yard and how my little garden transformed the street. The front of our house became the place where we wanted to be, and we were proud of the house we were making. We were creating a home and space not just for ourselves, but for our neighborhood. Living in Austin, we are missing that part of life. We currently live in a place where there are no sidewalks and are moving to a place where the sidewalks are confronted with energy poles, no trees and a very wide street. All over Austin, I see chairs in the front yards of peoples houses, but I never see people sitting in them. I am not sure if they are a symbol or if they are where people sit but I have to wonder if the simple move of better streets and a few trees would transform our city from car based to walking?