Sidewalk’s Sidewalk

On March 4 I joined Bianca Wiley, Beth Coleman, and Sarah Sharma — three women I admire greatly — at the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto for “A Pedestrian View of Sidewalk Toronto” (what’s Sidewalk Toronto, you ask?).

Here are my slides and text:

Mattern McLuhanCentrePPT by shannonmattern on Scribd

Sidewalk’s Sidewalk: A Pedestrian View

[2] When the motorcar was new, it exercised the typical mechanical pressure of explosion and separation of functions. It broke up family life, or so it seemed, in the 1920s. It separated work and domicile, as never before. It exploded each city into a dozen suburbs, and then extended many of the forms of urban life along the highways until the open road seemed to become nonstop cities. It created the asphalt jungles, and caused 40,000 square miles of green and pleasant land to be cemented over… Streets, and even sidewalks, became too intense a scene for the casual interplay of growing up. As the city filled with mobile strangers, even next-door neighbors became strangers.

“This is the story of the motorcar,” Marshall McLuhan explained in 1964, “and it has not much longer to run.” [3] He noted in Understanding Media a “growing uneasiness about the degree to which cars have become the real population of our cities, with a resulting loss of human scale, both in power and in distance. The town planners are plotting ways and means to buy back our cities for the pedestrian from the big transportation interests.”

[4] And the arrival of a new medium was making it possible for those planners to conceive of a new, less auto-centric form of urbanity. Television – that “hot, explosive medium of social communication” – would render meaningless such phrases as “going to work” or “going shopping,” McLuhan predicted, because we would soon be able to do these things from our own homes, via video-telephone or two-way TV. Television was collapsing distance in such a way that the car’s extension of our corporeal mobility was no longer necessary – or desirable. “The tide of taste and tolerance has turned, since TV,” he explained, “to make the hot-car medium increasingly tiresome. [5] Witness the portent of the crosswalk, where the small child has power to stop a cement truck.”

[6] If we update McLuhan’s 1964 vision for Toronto of 2028, when networked, ambient technologies will have supplanted the television, that small child needn’t even worry about finding a crosswalk. Autonomous vehicles, with their lidar and sonar and multidirectional cameras, will constantly be watching for his approach, ready to stop on a dime. The crosswalk could potentially migrate, too, depending upon traffic patterns and time of day. [7] Those shifting functions would be signaled by colored LEDs embedded in the pavers. [8] And our small child’s caretakers needn’t worry about shielding him from the curb, either – because there won’t be one. Quayside’s “shared streets,” inspired by the Dutch woonerf principle, will call on pedestrians, drivers, cyclists, wheelchair users, skaters, and other moving bodies to share space and negotiate around one another’s presence. Such negotiations – of power and privilege, publicity and privacy – have long distinguished the sidewalk as a species of space. [9] And as we examine Sidewalk Labs from a pedestrian perspective, I thought it might be useful to think critically about the pedestrian commitments implied in their name.

I must admit that I’ve adopted this conceptual approach in part because I’m not an expert on the Quayside project. It’s too fast-moving a target, whose trajectory is informed by too many local politics and legacies, for me to claim any expertise from my station in New York. [10] Yet I have written quite a bit over the past several years about smart cities and urban infrastructure and, on a few occasions, Sidewalk Labs and Alphabet’s other geospatial initiatives. [11] And in Spring of 2016 I published a big piece about New York’s version of Quayside, Hudson Yards, where Sidewalk Labs was one of the first tenants, and where I speculated that the Labs might be playing some role in developing urban technology for the 28-acre, $25-billion-U.S.-dollar project, the largest private development project in U.S. history. [12] I took my Urban Intelligence class on fields trips there in 2017 and 2018, where our tour guides confirmed that Sidewalk Labs was developing “digital master plans” for Hudson Yards and other cities.

[13] While Sidewalk ultimately chose you over us to build their city “from the Internet up,” New York is dealing with its own tech-urbanism drama. As you might know, last month, after facing weeks of opposition from activists, union leaders, and lawmakers, Amazon pulled out of a deal to build one of its two HQ2 campuses in Long Island City, Queens. [14] Then, just a little over a week ago, Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and dozens of legislators and CEOs published a full-page open letter in the Times, begging Amazon to come back. Like any passionate courtship, break-up, and attempted reconciliation, the New York-Amazon negotiation has migrated across platforms – from Twitter tirades and international press, to letter-writing campaigns, [15] paper flyers and sidewalk protests.

The sidewalks here served as a medium. I’m sure McLuhan would approve of such a designation. And while this spatial medium might’ve played a critical role in quelling Amazon’s project, [16] they’re a source of inspiration for Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff, who said that “Sidewalk Labs is a nod to both the rich mix of personal intersections that give great city streets their vitality and also the incredible ability throughout the history of cities to solve local challenges through innovation.”[1] He thus acknowledges that sidewalks themselves are a medium for sociality, but also suggests that, like other media technologies, sidewalks and the cities they compose are maintained and improved through disruption.

Doctoroff’s observation is, of course, nothing novel. [17] Jane Jacobs, another Torontonian, regarded streets and sidewalks as “the main public places of a city,” its “most vital organs,” whose sociality helped to maintain safety and stability. [18] And the rudimentary spatial form has been around for quite some time, as Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Renia Ehrenfeucht write in their book Sidewalks.[2] [19] The first sidewalks reportedly appeared around 2000 B.C. in central Anatolia, or modern Turkey. Ancient Corinth supposedly had sidewalks, and the Romans their semita, too. [20] Yet in medieval cities and towns, pedestrians “mingled with horses, carts, and wagons.” These were among the original “shared streets,” an innovation for which we typically credit 20th century Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman.

[21] By the mid-18th century, some Parisian streets had foot pavements and trottoirs, and elevated walkways lined many boulevards. [22] A few decades later, “when sidewalks were increasingly common in London,” a “border territory” emerged “between the footway and the carriageway”: the gutter, a textbook liminal space, became the place for all those who don’t belong.[3] [23] And by the early 19th century, many large cities, as part of larger public works projects, were paving and legislating sidewalks and occasionally including tax assessments for their provision. Wood and gravel eventually turned into concrete. “[S]idewalks had become important elements of the urban infrastructure, and thousands of miles of [them] were paved in American cities.”[4]

[24] The sidewalk is indeed a concrete site with its own materiality and sociality, which are shaped largely by its in-between-ness – and this very liminality demonstrates just how much is negotiated, or mediated, in this zone. A sidewalk is, and has been, home to sandwich board-hawkers and newsstands, window displays and stock tickers, graffiti and surveillance cameras. But it also mediates between ontological conditions and political positions that parallel those central to the Sidewalk Labs debate – and data-driven urbanism and private development more generally.

[25] In the nineteenth century, because street improvements were known to increase property value, they were typically paid for by abutting property owners.[5] This is why one would commonly see breaks in the sidewalk along a given block, reflecting crests and troughs of entrepreneurialism. Those sidewalks also often served as extensions of commercial space, where grocers could display their produce, peddlers could lay out their wares, and plyers of licentious trades could advertise their services. [26] But even now, when sidewalks are commonly regarded as public works, abutting property owners are still responsible for keeping them clear and in good repair. Some of those owners privatize the sidewalks, restricting particular uses and limiting access to particular people (typically those who can pay). [27] And in many cities, particularly in the developing world, sidewalks are the conduits for vibrant shadow economies and cultural networks. Annette Kim documents such uses in Ho Chi Minh City in her fantastic book, Sidewalk City.[6] For these reasons, Loukaitou-Sideris and Ehrenfeucht argue, “sidewalks are simultaneously public and parochial – open to all and yet a space of which a group feels ownership.”[7]

[28] We see similar tensions at Sidewalk Toronto, where critics and champions debate the proper division of labor between public and private – not only in the physical realm, but in the virtual one, too. There’s concern over the ownership and monetization of private data – and proposals to create data trusts or commons, [29] or to involve a trusted public institution like the Toronto Public Library. I won’t say much more about this because I assume(d) that one of my fellow panelists would be focusing on these issues.

[30] One of the primary concerns over data management is the risk incurred by already-marginalized populations. Urban sidewalks have also historically harbored their own forms of risk. They’ve mediated between subjects’ identities and either reinforced, or allowed for challenges to, traditional social hierarchies. As Loukaitou-Sideris and Ehrenfeucht describe the 19th-century sidewalk: “Acts of deference or domination were negotiated as people passed each other.”[8] People of color and low socioeconomic class were expected to step aside, into the gutter, so as to avoid impeding the smooth passage of the elite. Yet the streets were also where the oppressed practiced small acts of resistance or engaged in political demonstrations to demand equality. The sidewalks were sites of contestation and media for resistance.

[31] Meanwhile, 19th-century “women who wished to maintain middleclass propriety were relegated to private realms.” If they wished to walk the sidewalk, they typically needed an escort. But by the middle of the century, some cities had passed ordinances against sexual harassment. [32] Geographer Ayona Datta is still working today to highlight and mitigate gender-based violence on the streets of the informal settlements in India’s smart cities.[9] She’s not alone; sidewalks everywhere are still home to hate crimes and harassment – regardless of how “smart” a city is. [33] Here and elsewhere, the presence or absence of curb cuts and other accessibility measures can open up or close off a city to someone in a wheelchair, or a caretaker pushing a stroller, or a homeless person pushing all of her belongings in a cart. Sidewalk politics are issues of access and equity – and, for those in underserved areas, they’re emblems of environmental justice, too. These issues of equity and accessibility and security pertain to the virtual realm, too – and to the cloud of data that hovers over our networked urban neighborhoods.

[34] These are just a few of the ways in which, as McLuhan might say, a sidewalk serves as a medium. [35] And by considering the history and politics of this old-school medium, we might help to contextualize the ways in which Sidewalks Labs has adopted both the opportunities and risks of its namesake. Sidewalk’s sidewalk is one of modular pavers and movable street furnishings, timber canopies and traffic patterns that respond to immediate needs. None of it’s all that innovative – all of these individual technologies have existed before. [36] What’s novel here is not the TV, as McLuhan proclaimed in his time, but the data harvested and processed both to render these streets and sidewalks so hospitable and responsive, and to render their inhabitants trackable and targetable.

[37] The new crosswalk portent in tomorrow’s city is perhaps not the small child with the power to stop a cement truck, but the sovereign subject – or the collective – with the power to curtail surveillance capitalism disguised in timber and sustainable concrete, [38] pin-up boards and post-its. [39]

[1] Quoted in Alissa Walker, “The Case Against Sidewalks,” Curbed (February 7, 2018):

[2] Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Renia Ehrenfeucht, Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation Over Public Space (MIT Press, 2009).

[3] ibid.: 16.

[4] ibid.: 17-18.

[5] ibid.: 18.

[6] Annette Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[7] Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Renia Ehrenfeucht: 6.

[8] Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Renia Ehrenfeucht: 86.

[9] “Gendering the Smart City: A Subaltern Curation Network on Gender-Based Violence In India” :


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