A Clear Path: Maybe It's Time for the City to Take Another Look at our Sidewalks

A couple of decades ago, downtown's sidewalks were more than accommodating to foot traffic. But then, a couple of decades ago, there wasn't that much traffic to accommodate. Since then, a lot of improvements to our streetscapes have taken place. In some areas, recent expansions to sidewalks have yielded more space for pedestrians. Meanwhile, in others, changes have occurred that have surrendered space to other uses. What were once wide-open spaces are starting to develop bottlenecks for those on foot.

One of the popular additions that bring a lot of life to the streetscape are the various patio areas that front bars and restaurants throughout downtown. They provide both extended seating for the businesses as well as a clear indication to those passing by that downtown Knoxville is alive, well, and an inviting place to spend time. Though the city is now more conservative in its permitting of these areas, the popularity of these spaces continues to grow. Nevertheless, every square foot that is given over to this trendy use—however much it contributes the quality of life downtown—is a square foot removed from the sidewalk's primary purpose. Add a few more obstacles along the same stretch, and sometimes there's not much sidewalk left for walking.

When the city finished its Gay Street streetscape improvements in the late '80s, there was more to the picture than the then-new brick surface. A plan was developed to place "street furniture" to enhance the public space. That scheme dictated the location of things like planters, benches, and trash cans in a pattern that was uniform and made sense. Over time, however, those same objects have been moved around and it's apparent there isn't any plan any more. Planters may be three abreast on one block, while another has none. You can walk for blocks downtown without encountering a trash can, and then hit a block with plenty. Every so often, the pieces just seem to move, sometimes without any regard to what's already in their new location.

A few years back, the city, in conjunction with the E.W. Scripps Company, began placing newspaper "condominiums" throughout downtown in an effort to curb the hodgepodge of distribution boxes that cluttered sidewalks. The centralized containers distribute both coin-sales and free publications like apartment guides, classifieds, and our own beloved Metro Pulse. But recently, those plastic boxes that used to riddle the city are popping up again, sometimes along sections of sidewalk that are already compromised by other uses. So now, we not only have the condo boxes, but a reprise of the clutter they were intended to replace. Recently, one ratty box was plopped down on the curb directly in front of the already-crowded area in front of the Downtown Grill & Brewery. A thin coat of red spray paint on the box reveals it was once used to distribute employment classifieds. The sticker in place now touts that it contains copies of Bargain Mart. Much of the time, it contains nothing at all. It's just in the way.

Retailers occasionally utilize sections of the sidewalk in front of their establishments to display goods, sometimes for sidewalk sales. Restaurants and other businesses place sandwich board signs outside their businesses during business hours to advertise their menus or special offerings. Much of this guerrilla promotion actually contributes to street life. It's nice to know what the special of the day is. But the city's seemingly laid-back attitude toward the practice has left the door open to abuse. For example, there's a sign chained to a light pole 24 hours a day on the 700 block advertising a loft for rent for special events. While none of them may be technically kosher where the city's sign ordinances are concerned, some are more appropriate than others.

At least our sidewalks are alive now. But it's getting crowded in places. Stretches of them that are already narrowed by patio areas, for example, aren't the best place for planters, trash cans, or bike racks. Likewise, it's one thing to permit movable signs to entice people in, it's another to condone permanent signs on sidewalks advertising a business that isn't open to traffic. Blocks that lack trash cans promote litter. And doesn't every block downtown deserve some flowers?

When you live somewhere and you get something new, sometimes you have to rearrange the furniture. And sometimes, you have to get rid of old things to make room for the new. Maybe it's time for the city to take another look at our sidewalks as they're used today and develop a new plan and a set of policies that accommodates placement of the elements that give our sidewalks life, get rid of the stuff that doesn't, and keep a pathway clear to stroll and enjoy the results.