25.6.14

Why 'Sidewalk Closed' Signs?

["Pay Attention to this Sign!"]
Since I started this blog in 2005, I've taken pictures of a great many things: detritus, idiosyncratic signage, shop windows, doorways, lampposts, temporarily abandoned dogs...

There are also lots of sidewalk pictures that don't make it: interesting buildings, random sunsets, etc. For a photos to graduate to an actual blog category, there are two basic requirements.

First, the object, infrastructure, or situation has to grab the eye. The truly mundane -- think of doorknobs or gutters -- is not visually interesting enough to merit photographic documentation.

Second, that visual thing has to reveal something about how infrastructure affects our daily lives. Our built environment typically sits in the background. All around us things are silently "doing work" from the corners of our eyes. What happens when we look?

Oddly enough, once I acquired a dgitibal camera, one of the first things I began taking pictures of were 'sidewalk closed' signs. Why 'sidewalk closed' signs?

It all began with this photo, taken in 2006 near Hamline University in Saint Paul:

[The original 'sidewalk closed' sign.]

I remember like it was only yesterday when I happened on this scene. It seemed to sum up so much about our city streets and daily life.

There was one simple reason...

Everyone Ignores These Signs

[They also tend to ironically block the sidewalk even when not used.]
There is little on this earth more functionally useless than a 'sidewalk closed' sign. A fence? Now that's useful. Concrete barriers are semi-useful.

These signs? They make a mockery of signs.

If "freedom" is the degree to which people are able to overcome their environmental obstacles, pedestrians are by far the most liberated mode of travel. In a car, one little orange barrel can keep you from your destination. On a bike, a well-placed set of stairs might force you to dismount.

On foot, it takes one hell of a fence to stop you from walking where you want to walk. Hence desire paths, razor wire, parkour.

Almost everywhere that 'sidewalk closed' signs exist, people ignore them. They walk around. They walk in the street. They push the sign to the side.

For the most part, people walk where they want to walk. People walk where they feel safe, and along the most direct path they can find. Unless you're German, no amount of signage will stop you if you think it's the best way.



 
[The only conceivable purpose of these signs is to provide liability relief.]

Abstract v. Lived Space

The difference between expected theoretical behavior of people and actual real world behavior of people is akin to what urban theorists call "abstract vs. lived space." The concept comes loosely from French sociologist Henri Lefebvre (also quoted in my recent Minnpost column).

Basically, abstract space describes the theoretical spatial relations between people, buildings, technology, etc. Abstract space is how we think of things operating in maps, models, and stories we tell about ourselves. Typically these stories are relatively simple, "rational", efficient, hierarchical. Think of the rules the rules of a highway: keep right unless passing, zipper merge, don't speed, etc. That is abstract space.

Lived space on the other hand is what actually happens in the real world. Lived space encompasses the everyday resistances of actual behavior, the various ways that buildings or people or technologies escape their stated intentions. In lived space, people speed. Buildings fall apart. Pavement cracks. Machines stop working. The world fills with conversations and daydreams.

In this example, the 'sidewalk closed' sign perfectly illustrates the difference between these two conceptions of space. In theory, all pedestrians obey all signs. If the "sidewalk is closed" for whatever reason, people cross the street and continue on their way using the adjacent sidewalk.

In the lived space of the real world, people are tired when they walk, can see the sidewalk right in front of them, don't want to cross the street, and can easily step around the meaningless sign.

[A stop sign on the transitway that most people will ignore.]

[A "pedestrian stop sign" that most people will ignore.]

And This is Why We Must Walk

As designers, we ignore lived space at our peril. I often see design approaches that seem to dwell completely in abstract space, where the actual behavior of people seems irrelevant to the stated goals of an urban situation. This might be bike racks, architecture, street design, or whatever.

Almost always in these cases, "desire paths" form around the poor design. People vote with their feet. If you design a space or situation contrary to the actual behavior of most people, you'll find yourself ignored.

And this is why engineers, architects, decision makers, and planners must actually use the things they are building. If you don't take the bus on a regular basis, you probably have no idea how the bus is used. You don't see how people sit, interact with each other, use the payment devices, or negotiate the bus shelters. You can't do a good job designing or planning a bus system unless you actually use it.

The same is true for sidewalks, crosswalks, bumpouts, and pedestrian signals. Unless you actually walk around regularly (not just once), you won't understand how people walk and use streets in workaday lived space. And you'll end up designing things that are completely ignored... like 'sidewalk closed' signs.


http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2013/05/donate-to-this-sidewalk-blogger.html

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