Against the Brick

A lot of good things have happened in Washington, DC in recent years and I think the policies pursued by the Williams and Fenty administration have mostly been worth supporting. One important exception has been a tendency to replace ordinary drab sidewalks built out of concrete slabs with nice-looking but impractical brick sidewalks. The day after a sidewalk’s been redone as bricks, it looks great. But after that, all kinds of troubles emerge. Rob Goodspeed left DC for the Boston area, which is inflicted by a plague of brick sidewalks, and remarks:

I was in Harvard Square one evening last fall when I light rain began falling. A girl dashed out of a convenience store doorway, hurrying for an unknown reason. Turning the corner she abruptly slipped and fell on the brick sidewalk. No quicker than she had fallen she jumped up, unhurt, to continue on her way. Yesterday in Downtown Crossing, a man using crutches slipped on wet and snowy brick just as I left my office. These incident are repeated thousands of times in Boston and around the nation, at times resulting in injury. Sidewalk slips are commonplace, yet illustrates the complex ethics of contemporary urban planning. The material that contributed to these falls, brick, has many well-known flaws including a low friction coefficient when wet. However in the convoluted calculus of sidewalk materials, the grip of material surface inevitably falls behind a host of other factors.

From the point of view of pedestrians, there’s not much to like about brick sidewalks. When wet they’re often slippery. Bricks easily become uneven or loose due to tree roots or uneven soil, complicating shoveling and leading to tripping. The uneven surface can be treacherous for bikers, strollers, or the impaired. Some even point out they can easily become projectiles in the hands of miscreants. Yet brick remains a common material throughout many cities. Boston’s tourist meccas, Faneuil Hall’s plazas, Downtown Crossing’s streets, and even the Freedom Trail itself are made from brick. In Washington, D.C., miles of new brick sidewalks have been installed in the past few years in some of the city’s busiest pedestrian corridors.

The madness must end. I’m not sure what’s behind this brick craze. In Boston, the general idea seems to be that everything ought to look old, so I guess dangerous, slippery, slanted and broken brick sidewalks fit the bill. In DC? I dunno. Has big brick somehow seized control of local governments? Apparently this is all especially hard on the disabled.