8 Principles to Better Sidewalks

This article first appeared on The City Fix, an online publication of the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Walking is the oldest, most democratic way to get around. But as urban areas have become more sprawled, walking has slowly been suffocated by other modes of transport that are less healthy for both people and cities. Wide, congested roads have taken precedence over pedestrian sidewalks, crossings and public spaces. Too often, the pedestrian areas that do exist are poorly constructed and maintained.

The World Resources Institute’s latest publication, The 8 Principles of Sidewalks, now available in English, makes the case for shifting back to pedestrian-friendly streets. More people walking means fewer people depending on motor vehicles to get around, reducing transport emissions and strengthening individual health. A higher number of pedestrians also creates safer streets and brings more commerce to shopfronts. More broadly, walkable and people-centered public spaces enliven neighborhoods and foster positive urban coexistence.

While 8 Principles of Sidewalks was originally published in Portuguese by WRI Brasil, the issues it addresses around people-friendly public spaces are relevant to cities across the globe. The report is more than a technical guide for constructing safe, accessible and inviting sidewalks. It’s intended to inspire cities toward collaborative urban transformation – to show what’s possible when stakeholders work together under shared principles to reinvent an aspect of the city used by everyone and achieve higher quality of life for all.

These eight interconnected principles highlight the key elements to consider when designing city sidewalks and how they help promote more active, more livable cities:

1. Proper Sizing


  • Sidewalk furnishing zone
  • Sidewalk pedestrian zone
  • Sidewalk frontage zone

Result: Provides enough space for people to use the sidewalk in a variety of ways: to walk, to socialize, to access buildings, etc.

2. Universal Accessibility


  • Curb ramps
  • Tactile surfaces
  • Low-angle running slope

Result: Allows everyone access to an urban space.

3. Safe Connections


  • Safe and accessible crosswalks, street corners, stairs, public transport stops and other urban spaces

Result: Ensures safe, continuous walking links to other means of transport.

4. Clear Signage


  • Informative maps and signs
  • Pedestrian traffic signals at intersections

Result: Promotes communication between people and the urban space.

5. Attractive Spaces


  • Vegetation
  • Urban furniture

Result: Provides an environment where people feel comfortable and encouraged to use the space.

6. Security


  • Public lighting at the pedestrian scale
  • Active frontages

Result: Invites people to occupy urban spaces more regularly and improves security.

7. Quality Surfaces


  • Combination of stable, slip- and flood-resistant materials based on site needs

Result: Confers both comfort and safety while walking.

8. Efficient Drainage


  • Cross slope at appropriate angle
  • Rain garden

Result: Fosters sidewalk resilience.

Read the full article on The City Fix for more detailed information about the 8 principles to better sidewalks. The full report by the World Resources Institute, “The 8 Principles of Sidewalks. Building more active cities” is available here.