The phrase “built environment” appears regularly in this blog, and for good reason. It’s general and all-encompassing enough that it typically summons large images, which is what it should do. The blog has an expansive scope, and only with individual articles—and the photographs that accompany them—does the real precision come into play. And through those photos, it becomes far easier to reveal that not all features within the built environment are vast in scale.
Take this one:
In the center of the sidewalk is what might appear to be a change in texture. But a zoom-in makes it clearer:It’s a rut. And it ties directly to the gutter on the left of the photo. Essentially, it’s an embedded extension of the downspout, helping to channel water from the house, across the sidewalk, to the curb and into the storm sewers. It’s a clever solution, and it’s ubiquitous in certain neighborhoods of the small Pennsylvania city where I took this photo.
But only certain neighborhoods: those that, by my estimation, date from 70 to 100 years ago. Older parts of town. And, in most of eastern Pennsylvania, homes built before 1940 had no front setbacks; the home’s foundation is flush with the sidewalk and only a couple yards from the street itself. The sidewalk-downspout is hard to find in the 1950s neighborhoods, because the developers built homes with considerable setbacks and legitimate front yards. Thus, the gutters could just drain into the highly pervious soil. And then, in the neighborhoods after 1960, sidewalk-downspouts weren’t necessary because, in most cases, the homes had even bigger yards…and, also in many cases, no sidewalks whatsoever.
But the majority of small cities in eastern PA have grown little since before World War II, so a preponderance of their housing dates from a time of zero setbacks. These cityscapes form a sharp contrast to what we might encounter in most of the Midwest, or even cities in western Pennsylvania, where even the most densely packed urban neighborhoods often still have at least a tiny front yard or a garden. But, in this city near the Delaware River and many of the small boroughs nearby, a stroll down a sidewalk gives pedestrians the chance to shake the hands of homeowners from their front porches (the good) or to peer into their windows (the not-so-good). And they get to step over a sidewalk-downspout or two, or twenty.
But there’s the rub. What no doubt seemed like a smart little innovation in 1920 has a more pernicious effect today.The ruts captured in these photos seem reasonably gentle. But there does not appear to be a standard for how deep the cut might be, or the severity of the arc. And, as a runner, I can assure you that a sidewalk-downspout makes the sidewalks of eastern Pennsylvania treacherous. Furthermore, I cannot imagine they’d be ideal for the disabled. Most of the ruts are less than six inches wide—no larger than the gutters that they service—and I’m sure the average wheelchair is sturdy enough to navigate them with out too much of a problem. But I don’t see how they’d be comfortable for the person in the wheelchair, and they certainly wouldn’t have a net positive effect on the wheels themselves. The wheelchairs themselves would need suspension or shock absorption, and, in fact, some do, though I’d imagine most suspension creates inertia as well, thereby requiring more strength to initiate movement.
My suspicion is it isn’t just the change in development patterns that explains why we no longer see these extensions of gutters into pedestrian space. Sure, we’ve come up with better solutions, like the concealed sidewalk drains in the absolute bottom photos of this website’s gallery. But I also imagine such a design would be illegal today; it wouldn’t hold up against the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). At any rate, no municipality’s land development ordinances or construction specifications would encourage such an installation.
The sidewalk-downspout is another example of a humble, nondescript micro-improvement that seemed like a good idea at the time, but was so banal that it literally became a part of the infrastructure. And, for a good forty years, it was part of every home constructed in an urban environment. Now we ponder, “What were we thinking?”—as we often do as we reflect ruefully upon decisions of the past. And we’ll be scratching our heads thirty years from now over the shortsighted mistakes we’re making right at this moment. I, for one, am glad most contemporary neighborhoods lack these sidewalk irregularities. Of course, that sometimes means they lack sidewalks altogether, but that’s a topic for another article.