Seeing the Sidewalk: Giving New Terms to an Everyday Urban Space

Open Access
Rangaswamy, Cara Parry
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Architecture
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Christine Lee Gorby, Honors Advisor
  • Darla V Lindberg, Thesis Supervisor
  • sidewalk
  • urban fabric
  • photomontage
  • representation
  • observation
  • design
Often overlooked, the urban sidewalk is a complex site serving multiple – and sometimes competing – purposes for many stakeholders. Regulations have been the primary means by which design changes to the sidewalk environment have been implemented. This historical reliance on top-down planning approaches has given way more recently to new human-scaled approaches to studying public space, thanks to pioneers like Kevin Lynch, Jane Jacobs, William Whyte, and Jan Gehl. However, these approaches have not been widely applied to the sidewalk. Existing representations of the sidewalk have been incomplete in illuminating that this everyday piece of infrastructure creates a unique urban experience. Photography has, for the most part, been absent amongst the tools planners and architects use to represent and design sidewalks. In this thesis, I analyze and critique the ways sidewalks have been represented, and propose a fine-grained, focused observational approach using photomontage as a technique to create a Photographic Sidewalk Narrative. The result is a photographic tool that represents the urban sidewalk experience and reveals insights about its design potential. I photographed a 250-foot stretch of sidewalk on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan with two cameras using time-lapse and still frame techniques. The still photographs were then compiled to create the Photographic Sidewalk Narrative, which tells a story of this sidewalk segment. Single photographs show specific aspects of the space, while comparing photographs taken at different times of the day, during different weather conditions, from slightly different angles, or zoomed in or out, helps the designer become aware of subtle needs being expressed in the space, which can lead to new insights and design ideas. This thesis adds this new photographic tool to the existing toolkit of ways to observe and understand a sidewalk, which can be used by designers to understand sidewalks as they currently exist, and to inform their future design.