My mother is a sweeper. Her outdoor work is not complete until she has swept her driveway, front walk and, especially, her sidewalk and picked up fallen twigs, leaves, the occasional trash blown down the street or any clean-up around the yard to make the house look great. But in my mom’s mind, what really completes the task is a thorough sweeping. It is this final act that makes for a "good job done." Why? She told me recently it is because it shows that people have taken pride in their home and in their neighborhood.
In my travels to Germany I noticed residents and shopkeepers also took equal care of their sidewalks as they did their homes. A German friend shed some light on why. A smaller percentage of people in Germany own their homes, many of which are handed down through generations. Similarly, people typically remain in their homes until they die rather than owning several homes throughout their lives as is common in the United States. Great personal value is placed on home, both as private property and the public space around it. This fosters a sense of community. Her short answer to my question of why Germans care as much for their sidewalks as they do their private property: "It simply is what you do. It simply is your responsibility."
Minneapolis has approximately 2,000 miles of sidewalk for its 1,000 miles of road. For context, Edina has approximately 25 miles of sidewalk for 230 miles of road. When it comes to sidewalks in Minneapolis, pedestrians are on an equal footing with the four-wheeled type of locomotion. Sidewalks can foster a dense network of relationships across all demographics by creating opportunities for casual contact as we do our errands and get our exercise.
As the Canadian urbanist Jane Jacob notes in one of her books, "A city sidewalk by itself is nothing. It is an abstraction." She notes it only means something in conjunction with buildings and other uses that border it. Those buildings are our homes. Those uses are things like planting flowers in the boulevard; shoveling the sidewalk in the winter and sweeping it in the summer; sitting on your front porch or stoop during warmer weather. As my mom says doing these things "makes the whole neighborhood look better and makes people happier." Who could argue with that?
Matt Perry is chairman of the East Harriet Farmstead Neighborhood Association (EHFNA).