Pavers or concrete? Making streets lively is more important than what’s underfoot

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The redesign of Nicollet Mall reflects the changing goals of Minneapolis’ downtown interests, to create a “consistently compelling urban experience” on the street level to attract people out of the frustrating office skyways.

I was lucky enough to travel to Scandinavia a year or two ago, and got to experience the wonders of walking on lovely sidewalks. Many European cities pave their sidewalks in complex patterns formed by smaller tiles of concrete, brick or stone. If you stop to notice the textures underfoot on historical streets, it makes strolling those cities delightful.

But in the U.S., it’s a different story. Last week the designers of the new Nicollet Mall, downtown Minneapolis’ premier pedestrian shopping street, cut costs for the reconstruction project after contracting bids came in over budget. The No. 1 item on the chopping block was the “intricate brick-like pavers,” a fundamental part of the original design. Instead the architects, James Corner Field Operations, have recommended using poured concrete.

The changes are enough to give any well-traveled Minneapolitan a serious case of sidewalk envy, leaving them asking, “Why can’t we have nice things?”

Slide the white bar (located on the right side of the image) to reveal the new, poured-concrete design rendering of Nicollet Mall. For more such comparisons, see “Can you tell the difference between the new and old Nicollet Mall redesigns?”

But do pavers really make a difference for a city street, or are they superficial? The answer is surprisingly complicated.

Some paving history

If you’ll pardon the pun, the story of street paving has a rocky beginning. Though urban sidewalks existed as early as Roman times, even in the late 19th century most American cities were an uneven affair of cobbled together surfaces. As historian Clay McShane outlines in his book, "Down the Asphalt Path" (easily the most exciting book about street paving available), street paving was left to the individual property owners. A dry goods warehouse might pave its adjacent street with granite to accommodate heavy wagons, for example, or a group of property owners might pool their money and pave their street to boost property values. But most city streets were simple dirt, with some wood slats if you were lucky. Especially in working class neighborhoods, it was muddy.

Paving emerged alongside the bicycle, and early bicyclists began advocating for “good roads.” Once the automobile appeared, paving accelerated to become a fundamental job of urban government. Streets were widened, sidewalks were trimmed, and uniform pavement was constructed nearly everywhere as today’s demarcations of the public right-of-way created the modern streetscape.   

Sidewalks, in particular, became a part of the municipal obligation. The first concrete street in the U.S. was in Bellefontaine, Ohio, in 1891, and by the 20th century, concrete sidewalks were a key piece of the urban puzzle. Today, you’ll find concrete sidewalks along the street grids of the urban core, while suburban arterial-and-cul-de-sac cities typically opt for less expensive asphalt side paths (again, if you’re lucky). These days, in places where walking remains a relevant activity, sidewalks have become more standardized since the Americans With Disabilities Act reforms.

That said, in some cities you can still find the old-school privatized approach to sidewalks. For example, the privately owned sidewalk surfaces of the Las Vegas “strip” are a piecemeal kaleidoscope of surfaces, running into and out of casinos and over property lines. The cobbled-together sidewalks of New Orleans offer a bewildering variety of paving materials, everything from all shapes of bricks down to absolutely nothing.

The cobbled-together sidewalks of New Orleans offer a bewildering variety of paving materials.

Things fall apart

But especially in winter cities like Minneapolis, pavers can pose problems. Some surfaces, especially granite, can be quite slippery when wet, and the freeze-thaw winter cycle often erodes their continuity over time.

“Pavers are definitely high maintenance for us,” Dan Haak, the assistant city engineer for Saint Paul Public Works, told me. “The issue is salt. Over time the freeze/thaw with salt starts to break them down.”

Haak explained that the city uses two main types of pavers: clay bricks and concrete pavers. Concrete tends to erode after a few winters, but brick pavers can also be difficult to maintain, especially if used as a road surface. For example, Fifth Street abutting Rice Park has deep ruts, and the brick crosswalks on Lexington Parkway are often repaired with simple asphalt patches.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
St. Paul uses two main types of pavers: clay bricks and concrete pavers.

“You gotta remember we did that around 1987 on Lexington Parkway,” Haak told me when I asked him about Lexington's brick crosswalks. “The design for those was a concrete trough to support those bricks, and drain holes in the concrete. With salt application, and the freeze-thaw cycle, and the fact that those bricks were manufactured 30 years ago, they deteriorated. But thirty years isn’t too bad.”

The Highland Village Pavers

Even when you build them, pavers can sometimes be more trouble than they’re worth. When the Highland Business Association (HBA) rebuilt their sidewalks a year ago (along with about $1 million of city money), they chose not to replace the decorative brick pavers.

“There were a couple problems with the old pavers,” Tia Anderson, a board member of the Highland District Council, told me this week. “The bricks were laid in a cement trough, so then the water would come in and it would get under them and pop the pavers out. It was a poor design 25 years ago, so when we redid our sidewalks for the sake of cost effectiveness we just did stamped concrete on the majority of the sidewalk."

Anderson did point out that 25 years is a pretty good life span for pavers, but for much of that time people in the neighborhood often grumbled about the slippery and uneven bricks.

“I really like the new sidewalks,” Anderson said. “We originally wanted to do a colored concrete. It wasn’t any more expensive, but our concern was that was the city might come back in with regular concrete, and it’d be chipped. After a few years, it would look like a checker box.”

MinnPost photos by Bill Lindeke
Highland Park replaced its brick pavers, left, with stamped concrete sidewalks, right.

The new sidewalks do have some permeable pavers around the newly planted street trees (a city requirement), but these days most of the sidewalks along Ford Parkway and Cleveland Avenue are simple gray concrete.

Walkability 101

So if pavers are so difficult to maintain, why would Minneapolis want to spend millions of dollars on intricate bricks in the first place?

The answer is all about walkability, the idea that sidewalks are only as useful as the urban environments that surround them. In that light, the redesign of the mall reflects the changing goals of Minneapolis’ downtown interests, to create a “consistently compelling urban experience” on the street level to attract people out of the frustrating office skyways.

Yet while pavers can be part of the walkability puzzle, they’re not everything. For example, they cannot dramatically affect a street’s walkability without changes to the surrounding city.

“The materials used in streetscapes are less important than the configurations,” Jeff Speck wrote to me this week. Speck is the author of "Walkable City" (which I highly recommend), which boils down the psychology and principles of urban design into a few key steps.

“Certainly, brick or cobble helps calm traffic if it is used in the street,” Speck said. “But brick sidewalks, while lovely, are not key to encouraging pedestrian activity. What matters is the number and width of lanes, the presence of opposing flow (two-way vs. one-way), curb parking, street trees, and all the other things that cause cars to drive at more reasonable speeds and for pedestrians to be protected from them.”

If Speck is right, the loss of the Nicollet Mall pavers might not matter all that much. It will be far more important to create a street surrounded by activity: doorways, windows, trees, and activities that place people at the center. If the Nicollet Mall design accomplishes that difficult feat, it might not matter what surface is underfoot.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 02/18/2016 - 11:22 am.

    Pavers or concrete?

    Consistency may be the more important design imperative here.

    Too many types of pavers with differing safety attributes.

    So, I support ergonomics more than aesthetics in this discussion.

  2. Submitted by Mary Turck on 02/18/2016 - 11:45 am.

    Sidewalks

    Why are sidewalks poured concrete instead of asphalt? Is asphalt that much more difficult to maintain?

  3. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 02/18/2016 - 12:21 pm.

    Concrete Pavers are a horrible material for road or sidewalk construction in the Twin Cities. Within a couple of years they look terrible, and a couple of years beyond that the start crumbling and get replaced with asphalt patches.

    If you want that kind of look then we need to use granite pavers. Those hold up and look great forever. Mpls and St Paul are digging up and virtually giving away truckloads of these old pavers that they should reuse where appropriate.

  4. Submitted by Steve Nelson on 02/18/2016 - 01:27 pm.

    Interesting and Safe

    While I appreciate the effort to make neighborhoods feel more interesting and attractive, I’m amazed that people would accept a surface that’s uneven and not very safe for walkers, runners or cyclists. For example Cobblestone would not have been used 100 years ago if they had the same choice of materials we have today. Sure, make it interesting, but in the end I mainly want an even surface that won’t trip me up on a run, cause me to crash my bike or mess up my car alignment.

  5. Submitted by Monica Millsap on 02/18/2016 - 02:57 pm.

    Couldn’t agree more with all of the commenters regarding safety of paved surfaces. When I travel to European cities, I find that the tourist districts have those cobblestone paths, or those fancy brick pavers. They are absolutely horrible to walk on if you have decent shoes, a nightmare if you have heels, use a cane, have balance issues, etc. Yes, we want sidewalks that are in excellent condition, but the aesthetics don’t matter as much as the functionality and the available attractions that bring people to the area. Even in touristy areas of Europe, I’m sure people aren’t there for the cobblestone and brick pavers…

  6. Submitted by Tom Lynch on 02/18/2016 - 05:04 pm.

    Privatized sidewalks?

    Now there’s an idea a Republican could love.

  7. Submitted by Julie Barton on 02/19/2016 - 07:01 am.

    down with pavers

    As a Nicollet Mall user (rather be outside than in the skyways), I was quite happy to hear they were going with concrete. During winter, I find myself having to walk very gingerly down the granite squares and other pavers on Nicollet. They are so slippery!

    Yeah, they look pretty, but it really isn’t fun watching the elderly afraid to take another step for fear their canes are going to slip from under them. Twice this winter I’ve landed on my backside (in front of Gaviidae and US Bank Center), and that’s a lot less than a normal winter.

    Things can be done to make poured concrete look good: stamping it in interesting patterns, color additives to the mix. I hope the City does those thing. But mainly, I’m glad to not have to worry about my arse when Nicollet Mall is finally finished.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/19/2016 - 09:15 am.

      You stole my thought!

      (G!)

      Seriously, I was going to comment that there’s a lot of variety available in concrete. Colors, as Julie mentions, and stamping, too. The stamped concrete example shown in the photo accompanying the article is a pretty plain and uninteresting example of what can be done. Concrete can actually be stamped and colored to look very much like pavers if that is the look that is desired.

      This change does not have to be a choice between cheaper/safer/more durable vs more aesthetically attractive. To some extent – with a little imagination – we should be able to preserve elements of all those if the will is there.

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