Return sidewalks to private control

Governments have systematically stripped away the character of neighbourhoods.

Lawrence Solomon
Financial Post
April 3, 2010

Sidewalks in commercial districts should be privatized to retire city debt, to perk up street life and city neighbourhoods and to free city businesses from the tangle of red tape that dampens their bottom line.

At one time, our governments did not intrude much on our use of sidewalks, which have traditionally been privately managed public space. Apart from a minimum of rules, most of them involving public decency, almost anything went. In those tolerant times, entrepreneurial activity flourished. Pedestrians in popular shopping districts might wend their way past foods carts offering exotic fare, past organ grinders with monkeys, past hawkers selling trinkets. Looking up, they would see awnings and store signs swinging overhead. To their side they’d see a profusion of storefronts, their merchandise often spilling out onto the sidewalk.

Then came a creeping government takeover of public spaces. Bit by bit, the traditional expressions of city vitality have been banished, either by bureaucratic weight or by prohibitive fees or by outright ban. Signs that extended over sidewalks, seen as messy by planners, started to be discouraged. Sandwich boards and other street displays, when they were permitted at all, required fees and licenses obtained after submitting detailed site plans. Even signs on the facade of an establishment’s own building could require an elaborate application — a neighbourhood hardware store or coffee shop would suddenly be told that it needed to hire an architect to submit detailed plans, including “before and after” portrayals, before the sign could even be considered. In Toronto, the most multicultural city in the world, governments banned just about all street-prepared foods apart from hot dogs and sausages. When the culinary ban was lifted, the dead weight of bureaucracy remained. Street vendors then needed to buy their food carts from the city at a cost of $21,000 to $28,000 plus pay an annual location fee of up to $15,000. The city decided what ethnic foods could be offered the public, and how many carts to license in this city of 2.5 million (it decided on 13 but only eight vendors in the end met the city’s standards for nutrition, food safety, locally produced food, ethnic diversity, taste and business plan).

In such ways, governments have systematically stripped away the character of neighbourhoods and the iconic establishments that symbolize them, homogenizing city districts and destroying much of the diversity that is the city’s greatest asset.

But the public has been pushing back against the municipal encroachments, most dramatically in the rise of thousands of cafes and restaurants across the continent that occupy otherwise underused sidewalk space. Dubbed private-public partnerships because the eateries rent sidewalk space from cities, the spaces are sometimes enclosed, sometimes not; they sometimes run parallel and adjacent to the property lot lines, sometimes they zigzag between protruding groups of tables and garden pots and other street furniture.

Once widely resisted by city planners for a host of imagined reasons, these sidewalk establishments are now seen as strengths for the cities that embrace them. San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, which takes back more than two thirds of the sidewalk space for high-value uses, leaving as little as five feet for pedestrian walkways, is acclaimed for enlivening its downtown and its downtown economy, for improving public safety because of the eyes on the street and for more intelligently using an important resource — the sidewalk — without hampering walkability for pedestrians.

As good as this growing trend is, it would be far better if cities loosened their grips further by selling the sidewalk space outright to establishments that wanted it, subject only to the condition that the establishments’ use of the sidewalks met public safety and walkability requirements. If establishments had secure rights to their sidewalk space, they would invest more in sidewalk amenities to attract the public — not only in upgraded furniture for their customers but also in lighting, greenery, sculptures and conveniences for passersby, such as water fountains and garbage receptacles.

And not just eating establishments. Retailers of all kinds would benefit from having control over their sidewalks by setting up outdoor kiosks, by providing covered entrances for their clientele and by making better advertising use of the surroundings.

Sidewalk space — now treated by cities mostly as a valueless commodity deserving of nothing more than a slab of concrete — in fact has enormous real estate value, on a square foot basis far outstripping the value of the real estate in the establishment’s existing property. Cities that sold sidewalk space to those who valued it would be capitalizing vast sums immediately while generating ongoing revenue through the additional real estate assessments represented by the now privately owned sidewalks, and shedding themselves of the responsibility for maintenance, too.

City coffers would win, city businesses would win, and most of all, by re-establishing private control over public spaces, city residents and cities would win.

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