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The eight principles of the sidewalk: building more active cities
The Eight Principles of Sidewalks

Sidewalks are an integral part of cities and should be prioritized as a central component of people-oriented urban design. Photo by Marc Buehler/Flickr.

Nossa Cidade (“Our City”), from TheCityFix Brasil, explores critical questions for building more sustainable cities. Every month features a new theme. Leaning on the expertise of researchers and specialists at EMBARQ Brasil, the series will feature in depth articles on urban planning, sustainable mobility, gender, resilience, and other key themes for sparking more sustainable development in our cities.


Walking is the most democratic way to get around. It is the oldest mode of transport, the most common in the world, it’s free, and it may even help you burn a few calories.

Nevertheless, people are walking less and less. As cities have become more sprawled, highways have replaced sidewalks, creating significant obstacles to walking safely. Sidewalks with broken concrete, narrow widths, and illegally parked vehicles on them are further evidence that walking has is slowly being suffocated by other modes of transport that are less healthy for both people and cities.

We need a shift back to pedestrian-friendly streets. Enhancing the quality of city sidewalks not only attracts more pedestrians, but also helps to create enjoyable public spaces where people want to spend their time.

While they’re decreasing in number, these places do exist already. Living sidewalks can be found in many cities in Brazil and around the world where city leaders have made active transport a priority. Instead of just paving a small strip along broad avenues dominated by automobiles, these cities have decided to enrich their walkable public spaces, emphasizing interaction between people.

To support make walking both accessible and safe, sidewalks should be constructed with these eight complementary and interconnected principles in mind. Together, they not only make for vibrant sidewalks, but contribute directly to the development of active and healthy cities.

Meet the eight principles of the sidewalk:

1. Proper sizing 

Sidewalks are made of up three zones: the free zone, where people actually walk; the service zone, where street furniture like benches or trashcans are located; and the transition zone, which gives those on the sidewalk access to buildings lining the street. Understanding the relationship between these components is key for designing appropriately sized sidewalks.

Principle of Sidewalks 1

Well-designed sidewalks have three zones, helping them serve as vibrant public spaces. Photo by Luísa Schardong/EMBARQ Brasil.

2. Quality surfaces

The material used to construct sidewalks needs to be consistent, firm, stable and slip-resistant. In order to ensure that a sidewalk functions properly, designers must be aware of how the sidewalk is being constructed and the quality of the handiwork.

Principle of Sidewalks 2

On larger streets, pedestrian medians can also be designed to serve as safe, accessible sidewalks. Photo by Luísa Zottis/EMBARQ Brasil.

3. Efficient drainage

Waterlogged streets, paths, or sidewalks are unsuitable for walking. Sidewalks that accumulate water become useless, as pedestrians will likely end up diverting their route through car-filled roads, risking their safety.

Principle of Sidewalks 3

Green areas, even small ones, help drain sidewalks and keep them safe and accessible during storms. Photo by Glen Dake via TheCityFix Brasil.

4. Universal accessibility

The sidewalk, as a public space, should be accessible to a wide spectrum of users—including those with limited mobility. This means designing spaces that serve those in wheelchairs, on crutches, pregnant women, the elderly, and others with special mobility needs. Listing out the different potential users and their mobility limitations during the design process can help ensure the final product will meet the needs of all pedestrians.

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Bumpy or uneven sidewalks are particularly hard to navigate for the mobility impaired. Photo by Gilmar Altamirano via TheCityFix Brasil.

5. Secure connections

Pedestrians often transition to other modes of public transport, and need to be able to safely access stations. It’s important that sidewalks are connected and integrated within larger transport networks.

Principle of Sidewalks 5

Curb extensions, especially at crossings and intersections, minimize the risk of traffic crashes involving pedestrians. Photo by Marta Obelheiro/EMBARQ Brasil.

6. Attractive spaces

Streets are a fundamental part of the urban environment. Sidewalks can play an important role in making the urban experience more enjoyable. Interesting, vibrant sidewalks that can captivate people and make walking more attractive will ultimately facilitate more physical activity while reducing traffic congestion.

Principle of Sidewalks 6

Using lighter, reflective materials to design sidewalks can minimize the urban heat island effect. Photo by USP Cidades via TheCityFix Brasil.

7. Permanent security

Day or night, weekday or weekend, sidewalks are always open for us. However, there are fewer people out on foot during certain times of the day and week, leading to potentially unsafe situations given the lack of friendly eyes on the street. Adopting strategies to positively influence safety and security can further encourage walking and help all city dwellers feel more at home in their city.

Principle of Sidewalks 7

Active ground floors are good for business and help ensure friendly eyes on the street for pedestrian safety. Photo by Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brasil.

8. Clear signage

Just like drivers of motor vehicles, pedestrians need clear information so that they can both orient themselves in the city and understand the rules and guidelines of particular sidewalks.

Principle of Sidewalks 8

This sign in London shows clearly which destinations the average person can walk to in five minutes. Photo by Charlotte Gilhooly via TheCityFix Brasil.

This article was originally published in Portuguese at TheCityFix Brasil.

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