The downside of sidewalks

While more sidewalks tends to correlate to less car trips, it also can add to the toxins and pollutants found in drinking water from storm water runoff. Fortunately, solutions are underway!

The presence of sidewalks encourages people to get out of their cars, especially for their shorter trips (which are the majority of trips taken in this country), and walk.  The health benefits extend not only to the walker but to the planet, as well.

Posted by Megan RisleyMay 12, 2011

There is only (yes, only) one problem.  Sidewalks are typically constructed of a robust mix of cement, forming concrete hard and fast.  While weeds manage to root up through the cracks, the type of surface formed leaves little breathing room.  This is a concern for more than just plants.  Impervious surfaces such as concrete and traditional asphalt are basically like big bookshelves.  Lining these shelves are titles like “Dirt and Grime all the Time”, “A Survivor’s Guide to Toxins,” and “So that’s where I left my junk!”  In other words, streets and sidewalks are undiscerning hoarders.  And there’s no way to tell what’s collecting on unless you work in a storm-water treatment plant.

Various recent studies suggest storm water to be the leading cause of health risks from drinking out of the tap, not to mention aquatic habitats in urban waterways, nationwide.  Whatever particles, toxins, oils, and dirt that collects on these sidewalks gets swept in full force into our water system, which hasn’t, on the whole, been updated since the 1970s.  Water quality affects human health and ultimately the quality of non-human life in Puget Sound.

In general, these unforgiving surfaces comprise 60% of cities nationwide.  Thinking of this as five parking spaces per car in an urban area puts things into perspective.  So, unfortunately, in this way, sidewalks pose a bit of a problem.  Fortunately, solutions to this are in the works.  A proven strategy for dealing with storm water runoff, low impact development (LID), is on the rise.  LID’s main focus is water resource engineering and natural habitat maintenance, and believes that nature and the built environment can work symbiotically.  So, science says, sidewalks and streams don’t have to be enemies!

This is great news, since sidewalks and health aren’t enemies, either.  Sustainability advocates care of people and planet simultaneously, so it’s not just that we need more sidewalks, it’s that we need better sidewalks as well.  Take a look at what this DIY neighborhood is doing to make it better for people to walk. For more about developments in this area, including tool kits to put to work in your area, stay tuned!

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