Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Our Love Affair with Cobblestone Streets and Brick Sidewalks

People are moving back to the cities. After decades of migrating away from one another, and building on huge, wooded house lots that isolated us from our neighbors, people are living in close proximity again. It’s a wonderful thing to see. Cities like Portland and South Portland, Maine are experiencing revitalizations.

As part of this rebirth, instead of scorning the old, industrial and warehouse districts, developers are reinventing them as condominiums, restaurants, and office space. And how about the sidewalks and the streets? What are we doing there?

City governments love to preserve cobblestone streets, for sentimental reasons. They remind us of the history of our great cities – the establishment of commerce, government, and prosperity in a region. We also love the old brick sidewalks. It’s feels significant to tread on the very same bricks that our forbearers forged and laid so long ago. Also, cobblestone streets and brick sidewalks fit well with the aesthetics of old brick buildings. They complement one another.

Ah, nostalgia. What could be wrong with it? Well, there’s a lot wrong with it if you are a disabled person.

The old brick sidewalks that are so faithfully preserved are usually uneven and sporadically damaged. The curb cuts and the transitions are typically steep and rough. Old brick sidewalks are difficult for people to navigate using wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, canes, and crutches. They impose a danger to the elderly and others who have difficulty walking.

Cobblestone streets, in and of themselves, are not so much of a problem, as long as they have an accessible sidewalk and flat street crossings. But that is rarely the case.

Our urban planners have a decision to make. Is it more important to preserve the past and have a consistent aesthetic in these revitalized downtown areas, or is it more important to make our cities accessible to everyone. Too often our city leaders are choosing to ignore the needs of their disabled citizens, and serve other interests instead. As a disabled person, and as an advocate for other disabled people, I find this troubling.

Disclaimer time – I manage to deal with the brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets. I am borderline fearless with my wheelchairs. I enjoy the downtown districts in my area despite the inconveniences. But I worry about other disabled people who choose to stay home rather than deal with our 19th century streets and sidewalks.

What do I want? I want our cities to replace old brick sidewalks with modern brick or concrete sidewalks, with ADA curb cuts. I want our cities to either replace cobblestone streets with paved streets, or ensure that there are smooth sidewalks and walkways for street crossings.

How are Portland and South Portland doing? I’m happy to report that in my South Portland neighborhood the city completed a major revitalization a couple of years ago resulting in new street tops that replaced aging pavement; new, wider concrete sidewalks that replaced crumbling brick sidewalks; lovely streetlamps that replaced outdated and mostly nonfunctioning streetlights; and updated utilities underneath the streets. I couldn’t be more pleased with these improvements, especially the sidewalks.

In South Portland there is still one cobblestone pathway that pedestrians must walk down, for approximately 100 yards, to utilize Thomas Knight Park or to walk across the Casco Bay Bridge to Portland. I’ve been working with the city for over a year on options, and it appears that they are ready to move forward with a paved pathway through Thomas Knight Park. It should be installed before winter.

Here is a very short video I posted in May 2013 at an MS website called My Counterpane, which should give you an idea of why cobblestone streets don't work with wheelchairs (if you are receiving this as an email blog post, you'll have to go to the blog website to see the video).

But in neighboring Portland, the situation is terrible. Old, brick sidewalks are in disrepair throughout the commercial district. Curb cuts and other transitions are downright dangerous. Cobblestone streets are sprinkled throughout the Old Port, and many times disabled people have no choice but to hobble over them if they wish to get from one part of the district to another.

When cities give such high standing to old brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets, they are choosing the past over the present. They are choosing nostalgia over accessibility. They are choosing form over function. Worst of all, they are choosing things over people.

How are your cities handling old brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets?


  1. I live in Queens NY. Some of the older areas of the other boroughs have some cobblestone streets, but I don't encounter them too often, however, there is a huge uprising to keep those remaining streets as is, to preserve the nostalgic look. The sidewalks where I live have been a bit irregular and uneven, and became markedly worse after Hurricane Sandy. The trip hazards are unavoidable and on bad days, I think twice about going outside. I have already fallen as a result of these trip hazards, and I know that the potential for a very serious fall is inevitable.

  2. Mitch, I don't know why, but the video isn't appearing either in my email or at your blog site. But I agree completely on the cobblestone streets. My little scooter isn't the powerhouse that your ibot is so those cobblestones would do me in for sure! Even when I was still walking a lot, I could not have handled that because of my balance issues. Even a tiny pebble can cause me to go down.

  3. In NJ, we're near a really historic town -- Haddonfield, which was there from colonial times. They have some cobblestones and brick sidewalks, and I'm nearly thrown out of my seat. I do love the ambiance, but I hate the danger! Instead of totally replacing it, why can't city managers provide a concrete walkway NEXT to the old-fashioned stones and bricks.
    BTW, the last time I was in Portland, I walked from the oceanfront area UP to the center of the business district. Since I could still walk, I didn't need a wheelchair, but that trek really did a number on me! Glad to hear your pleas were answered!

  4. lovespups, that's a perfect example of cities choosing nostalgia over accessibility and even safety!

    Daphne, I'm sorry the video isn't showing up. It's working on my end. I tipped my scooter over once on a brick sidewalk, but that was more about me being drunk than about deficiencies in the sidewalk :-)

    Muffie, exactly! We're not asking for the elimination of cobblestones and old bricks – just consideration for our accessibility.