Before the 19th century, being a pedestrian in a major urban center meant taking a chance with your life every time you went outside. Without separate footpaths to protect them, pedestrians were forced to compete for space with animals, horse-drawn carts, carriages, wagons, and streetcars, running the risk of being mowed down or trampled. And if that doesn’t sound off-putting enough, horse dung and human urine flowed freely in the streets of European and American cities. According to David P. Jordan's Transforming Paris, the paving stones were covered in a slime so foul that the 19th century essayist William Hazlitt actually claimed he could recognize Parisians by their characteristic “light, jerking, fidgeting” gait, developed in order to navigate the fetid streets.
WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS
Why was this seriously gross state of affairs allowed to carry on for so long? According to Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris's book on the subject, Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation over Public Space, the first sidewalks made their appearance around 2000 BCE in Anatolia (now Turkey), and there is evidence that both the ancient Greeks and Romans incorporated roadside pedestrian footpaths in their cities. The Romans even had a special name, semita, for their sidewalks. The fall of Rome in the 5th century CE ushered in a long, dark, sidewalk-less period in Europe, with sidewalks only making a comeback in the wake of the Great Fire of London in 1666, with some reconstructed streets featuring paved pedestrian walkways.
But sidewalks were still a rarity, the equivalent of urban amenities like rooftop pools today. In Paris, a handful of exclusive streets had limestone trottoirs, unconnected pavements that functioned almost like curbs to fend off traffic. The wide-scale revival of the sidewalk and its emergence as an integral feature of urban life can be attributed largely to the career of Georges-Eugene Haussmann, the man behind the massive rebuilding of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s.
HAUSSMANN’S MASTER PLAN
The autocratic, self-styled Baron Haussmann (his title was never officially sanctioned) enjoyed almost limitless power and influence over the redesign of the city. Under his patron Napoleon III, he tore down the cramped, dark streets of medieval Paris and replaced them with wide, light-filled boulevards and block upon block of nearly identical apartment buildings with uniform facades. Flanking the grand boulevards were—you guessed it—sidewalks. But these were no ordinary sidewalks. They were “lined with benches, lush with trees,” according to Marshall Berman's All that is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. They were the perfect stomping-ground for bourgeois Parisians, who turned up to stroll and mingle in droves. From little more than open sewers, city streets were transformed into places to see and be seen among the fashionable elite, redefining the experience of urban life in the process.
The prominence of sidewalks in Haussmann’s plan for Paris owed a lot to 19th century concerns over public health. Drawing on medical analogies, urban planners argued that a healthy city was a city that circulated—where traffic, fresh air, and people could move unimpeded through broad, artery-like roadways. By separating the flow of people from the movement of vehicular traffic, sidewalks contributed to the ordering and cleansing of the city. Paved surfaces for walking meant that pedestrians could avoid coming into contact with the effluvia of the streets, while the introduction of sewer and water systems simultaneously reduced the amount of liquid waste sloshing around the cobbles in the first place. The humble sidewalk became a potent symbol of hygiene and morality, the front line in the crusade against dirt.
Haussmann, always a big spender, was fired by Napoleon III in 1870 after critics accused him of extravagance (under Haussmann, the city’s municipal debt levels increased 15-fold). But his plan for Paris was hugely influential, with its key elements adopted by urban planners in Vienna, Barcelona, and, in the United States, the City Beautiful movement in Chicago and Washington, D.C. With the spread of Haussmann’s planning ideals, sidewalks finally assumed a ubiquitous role in city planning, with paved sidewalks a common feature of major cities by the late 19th century. By transforming city streets into spaces for leisure and consumption, sidewalks fundamentally changed the way we experience urban life.