Sidewalks become a battlefield for some suburbs
Windsor Heights, Iowa — When officials in the Des Moines suburb of Windsor Heights began talking about installing sidewalks to improve safety and encourage outdoor activities, they anticipated some grumbling from residents.
They didn’t expect packed City Council meetings, protest signs stretching down leafy suburban streets and threats to defeat officials in the next election.
“People are afraid of change,” City Council member Threase Harms said of sidewalk opponents. “They are very passionate, but I think they’ve gone a little too far with their passion.”
At a time of rising obesity, intense opposition to sidewalks may seem surprising, but similar disputes are raging in neighborhoods across the country.
Residents have crowded into meetings to oppose sidewalks in communities from the Minneapolis suburb of Edina to parts of Washington, D.C., and from the Rochester, New York, suburb of Irondequoit to the Kansas City suburb of Prairie Village, Kansas, and the Milwaukee suburb of Delafield.
Most of the disagreements are in neighborhoods built in the 1950s and 1960s. The absence of sidewalks was intended to give the neighborhoods a rural appearance and more privacy at a time when walking for exercise was less common.
More than half a century later, lots of residents want to keep it that way.
Chris Angier, who grew up in Windsor Heights on a street without a sidewalk, has moved from the area but has been involved in efforts to fight the sidewalks that would cut across his mother’s lawn. She’s in her mid-80s and has lived in the house since 1964.
Angier blames the sidewalk push on newly elected City Council members who moved from Des Moines and other nearby cities. “Many of us older residents wish they’d go back where they came from,” said Angier.
In the suburb-like Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Hawthorne, residents have bickered over plans to install sidewalks along a busy thoroughfare, Chestnut Street.
The fight has been going on for so long that supporters recently bought new pro-sidewalk signs because the old ones had weathered.
Resident Everett Lott said that with few exceptions, younger people with children seek sidewalks and older residents resist.
“People feel like it’s their land and they shouldn’t have their land infringed upon,” Lott said.
Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, an urban planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, notes privacy has always been a selling point for suburban residents, dating back a century or more.
“Suburbs were marketed as completely different from the evil urban settings,” she said. “Private, rural, very green areas.”
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