Today we will be discussing:
- The real reason there were no sidewalks in the Dark Ages (they didn’t need them)
- Ditto the Middle Ages
- What finally made much needed sidewalks possible in the 1800s (the building of drains and sewage tunnels in the larger cities); and
- Today’s law on sidewalks:
Can you smoke on them? — Yes, but restrictions are coming. And you shouldn’t smoke anyway.
Can you ride bicycles on them? — No, but local rules may vary.
Can you litter them? — Of course not! For shame!
Can you have sex on them? — Not in Russia, if you’re a gay or lesbian couple, and not in the Middle East at all.
And we start with some history to impress your date next time you’re actually walking on a sidewalk!
Our Guide: Here Is the City.
The Rest of Us: Yes, we can see that. We can see it all around us. It’s beautiful!
Our Guide: Well, we’re also standing on the city. Sidewalks are a relatively recent innovation, found only in modern cities beginning in the 1800s. True, sidewalks first appeared 2,000 years ago in the Roman Empire, but after Rome fell, sidewalks died out. No one else made sidewalks after the fall of ancient Rome.
The Rest of Us: No sidewalks in the Dark Ages? Sounds intuitively correct.
Our Guide: Ah! But no! The reason there were no sidewalks in the Dark Ages wasn’t the Dark Ages. There simply wasn’t enough horse or wagon traffic to force walkers off the roads.
The Dark Ages — beginning around AD 500 with the fall of Rome, and lasting until 1100 — was a period so named, of course, because of the marauding and pillaging across Europe and North Africa by various northern tribes. But later, when the Dark Ages ended, there still wasn’t much horse or wagon traffic. There was still no need for sidewalks.
The Rest of Us: So the Middle Ages — ?
Our Guide: The Middle Ages, which began around 1100 with the emergence of separate kingdoms and urban life, lasted until about 1450. Then the Renaissance began with the flourishing of art and scholarship and the great interest in classical forms. But even with the growth of urban life, we still didn’t need sidewalks.
The Rest of Us: But the Middle Ages did see the first cities.
Our Guide: Yes. In fact, we like to put it this way: As the Middle Ages got under way, people rejoiced, and said, “At last! Here Is The City!!”
The Rest of Us: What? “Here Is The City?!” You mean all those medieval towns were just a stunt to advertise this blog? Do the historians know that?
Our Guide: Well, you know, commerce drives the wheels of history —
The Rest of Us: But even commerce wasn’t producing sidewalks….
Our Guide: Not during the Middle Ages — but it did finally begin to happen.
The Rest of Us: Exactly what finally began to happen?
Our Guide: Commerce — plus population growth — finally began to increase the volume of horses and wagons on the roads. The Renaissance got under way about 1450, and through the 1600s and 1700s, the roads in towns and cities became increasingly clogged with horses and wagons. That trend started to force walkers to the sides of the roads.
The Rest of Us: However — ?
Our Guide: You’re right. There was a “however.” There was a new development as towns and cities grew that delayed improvements in roadways, and delayed the building of sidewalks. Streets all over the city were becoming flooded with rain water and sewage, because there was no good way to get the water out of the streets.
The Rest of Us: So you could ride a horse or wagon — or a carriage — in the roadway, but there was no decent place to walk through the runoff from that mess.
Our Guide: Right. The modern drain system in a large city is something we take for granted today, but when you think about it, it’s an engineering marvel, no question. A way had to be found to build drains that would simply let water flow off the roads and sidewalks —
The Rest of Us: And suddenly we’re talking about the legendary tunnels under the streets of Paris and London! A fascinating subject!
Our Guide: Exactly right. In the 1800s, large cities built subterranean tunnels — or sometimes large open channels underground — and these systems were extensive, covering entire cities and running for many miles.
And finally, as they built those underground facilities, cities began to build sidewalks alongside their roads, which were now free of water, trash and waste, thanks to the frequent drains right in the curbs that confined the roadways.So sidewalks are only 175, maybe 150 years old.
In England, the new emphasis on sidewalks led to the word “pavement” coming to refer not to the roadway for use by vehicles, but to the better made sidewalks constructed for people to walk on. Through the 1800s and the 1900s, sidewalks improved steadily and now it’s a pleasure to walk the streets of a modern city. Most modern cities. Many modern cities.
The Rest of Us: This history stuff is all very interesting, but….
Our Guide: Come on, now — you can use this stuff to impress your love next time you’re actually walking on a sidewalk!
The Rest of Us: Well….
Our Guide: You can add depth to your romantic encounters: “Did you realize, dearest, that the reason they didn’t have sidewalks in the Dark Ages wasn’t the Dark Ages themselves, but the fact they didn’t need sidewalks?” — “Oh, George. You’re so deep! And so…so very historical!”
The Rest of Us: Can we change the subject and ask for some information that would be, shall we say, a little more useful? Is it lawful to smoke while walking on a city sidewalk?
Our Guide: You can smoke on a city sidewalk unless there’s a “No Smoking” sign.
The Rest of Us: In other words, you can still smoke “in town.” Outdoors, at least.
Our Guide: Yes, but restrictions are coming, even outdoors. In Seattle, in the State of Washington on the U.S. west coast, it has been illegal for some years, now, to smoke within 30 feet of an outside door that provides entrance into a building, or exit from a building. The concern is that if someone is smoking where the door is, someone else who happens to open the door may suck smoke into the building.
The Rest of Us: Surprised you haven’t told us we shouldn’t be smoking anyway.
Our Guide: As you know, if you follow this blog, the yearly death toll in the United States attributed to smoking now stands at 443,000 — that’s per year — even though the percentage of American adults who smoke has fallen from 42 percent in 1964 to 18 percent in 2012. You shouldn’t be smoking, anyway, and we assume by now all smokers in London have wisely quit while they still can.
The Rest of Us: (General laughter.) Another question: Can I squeeze my True Love on a city sidewalk?
Our Guide: Not in Russia. Not if you’re a gay or lesbian couple. And not in Middle Eastern countries at all, since public displays of affection can invite trouble most anywhere, and certainly on sidewalks.
The Rest of Us: And what about littering? Can we drop a bit of litter on a city sidewalk, and can we ride our bicycles on city sidewalks?
Our Guide: Good heavens!
The Rest of Us: (General laughter.)
Our Guide: Would you drop litter on your front porch at home? The police will give you a citation if you drop litter on a city sidewalk, or throw something in the street. If you were my child….
The Rest of Us: (More laughter.) Our tax money paid for these sidewalks, you know….
Our Guide: The rule of law is clear: Once your tax money goes into the treasury, you can no longer control either the use that is made of your money, or the use that is made of the goods or services your money buys. The law is clear on the point. As all of you well know.
As to riding a bicycle on the sidewalks: Generally, the rule is you cannot ride on the sidewalks. But we do know of cities where an unusually steep up-hill has led the city to post signs permitting pedal cyclists to leave the roadway and push or ride their bicycles on the sidewalk. Then, back to the road.