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Bricked Alleys, Sidewalks: Lovely? Historic? Expensive? Dangerous?

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 1 of the October 2019 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

“The sidewalk is the most public of public spaces,” writes UCLA Professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris in her 2011 book, Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation over Public Space.

What a conundrum in choosing sidewalk and alley material! Local officials must balance aesthetics, cost, safety, vandalism, tree effect, and friction coefficient.

A Sampling of Residents’ Comments About Bricking

■ Dupont West resident Winston: “I love bricked alleys and sidewalks. I walk . . . [my dog] daily. Before the bricking the alleys were frequently trashed and full of potholes. After the bricking the alleys are almost pristine as if because the city cared by affording the bricking, residents care.

■ Columbia Heights ANC 1A Commissioner Michael Wray: For the past 13 years I have had a brick alley and sidewalk. It would be quite sad, and I would be disappointed, to ever see them removed. They do take some additional care but I think they are worth it for our block. Also, I can’t tell you how many times I have to open 311 tickets for concrete sidewalks with cracks and holes that never seem to get fixed.”

■ Columbia Heights resident Henry: “The city does not seem to have a rhyme or reason for bricking some sidewalks and alleys and not others.”

■ Georgetown resident Mary: I love this charming historic flavor that orange bricks give this neighborhood.”

■ Elderly Georgetown resident Jim: “I enjoy the brick sidewalks on the 2500 blocks of P and Q, but there is a maintenance problem since the walks are now uneven. I also wonder about installation; that is, whether the bricks were placed on top of a cement structure.”


Mayor Muriel Bowser, during a walk-about in Dupont West two summers ago, nodded approvingly as she viewed the bricked alleys and sidewalks installed by the city government during her first term.

According to the Federal Highway Administration’s “Guide for Maintaining Pedestrian Facilities for Enhanced Safety,” although brick surfaces (brick) are decorative, they increase the amount of work required for mobility. In addition, brick and cobblestone have inherent changes in level that are often tripping hazards. Alternatives to brick sidewalks include colored concrete pavers, sometimes stamped to look like brick, and asphalt or concrete paths with brick trim. Both alternatives preserve the decorative quality of brick but are easier for people with disabilities to navigate.

Kentucky Architect Gary Kleier, however, has another view, summarized in seven “major points to consider” which he shared with The InTowner:

“■ In terms of durability, brick has a slight advantage over concrete because it can accommodate small amounts of movement without cracking.

“■ The cost to install a brick sidewalk over a bed of gravel and sand is about 3 times the cost of concrete;

“■ The cost to repair a concrete sidewalk can be from ten to thirty times the cost of repairing a brick sidewalk;

“■ The time required to repair a brick sidewalk is very little compared to concrete, it requires no heavy equipment and is relatively quiet;

“■ Brick is more environmentally friendly than concrete because it allows some amount of rainwater to enter the ground where concrete will not;

“■ Brick can be recycled where concrete cannot;

“■ Where esthetics are a concern, brick is probably more desirable than concrete.”

A bit of history: In the 19th century it was the responsibility of property owners to take care of their streets, sidewalks, and alleys, resulting in a mishmash of designs. This was a privatized approach. Most were dirt or wood slats. As cars became the major mode of transportation, this became a municipal obligation. Until the late 1800s concrete was unavailable. The first concrete street was in Bellefontaine, Ohio, in 1891.(Historian Clay McShane outlines in his book, Down the Asphalt Path.) Many people connect bricks to history, but 75 years ago there were no brick sidewalks

Adding Value, Making Neighborhoods Lively, Lovely & a Public Amenity

Many residents view bricked sidewalks as charmingly historic, lovely and a public amenity attracting tourism. As noted by urban designer Jeff Speck in his book Walkable City, many people advocate for bricks for the “urban experience;” that is, the walkability. But these enthusiasts may not be aware of a number of negatives.

For example, costs. As Robert Goodspeed, Professor of Urban Planning at the University of Michigan once wrote   when a student at Harvard, it is estimated that it costs $19 per square foot for brick, $15 for concrete and $8 for asphalt. (Given that his figures are from 10 years ago, when can well expect that in today’s dollars they would be far higher.)

In an article published four years ago in the Portland, Maine Press Herald, it was reported that estimated costs for brick were $130 per square yard versus $100 per square yard for concrete.

Another negative is the difficulty with myriad maintenance challenges, such as the freeze-thaw Winter cycle which compromises the integrity of bricks and pavers. “Pavers are definitely high maintenance for us,” Dan Haak, the assistant city engineer in the St. Paul, Minnesota public works department told The InTowner, citing, particularly, the use of salt during their harsh winters which “over time the freeze/thaw with salt starts to break them down.” An article from three years ago in addressed this issue in its otherwise upbeat reporting on how use of pavers are “making streets lively.”

[Editor’s Note: Reflecting on what Assistant City Engineer had to say about his department’s experience with pavers in St. Paul, freeze/thaw problem there has to be understood in the context of extreme winter condition there in contrast with DC’s generally mild winters. An example of this as seemingly not an issue here can be seen by the pristine condition of the pavers that were put down several years ago in the alley behind the Church of the Holy City at 16th and Q streets that runs south from Corcoran to Q Streets

When Alexandria, Virginia public works staff unveiled its initial Brick Sidewalks Materials and Design Guidelines at a public meeting three years ago, two sidewalk design options, options were presented: concrete or brick, with the positives of each being that the installation and maintenance of concrete would result in lower costs and provide more even walking surface, while brick is more aesthetically pleasing and reflects the character of the historic streets.

Dangerous and Disabilities

Long-time disability advocate Sharon stresses that regardless of the material, the key is maintenance and repair, especially for those who are mobility impaired.

Among the strongest opponents of brick sidewalks are those with disabilities. They contend that bricks cannot meet the guidelines established by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires continuous smooth walking surfaces with no variations no greater than a quarter of an inch. People who are visually or mobility impaired particularly blame the bricks for creating tripping hazards.

Then there those who must navigate their wheelchairs over the brick who regularly encounter places where brick are missing, causing a wheel to get stuck and making it very difficult to move on, especially if one is elderly or frail and lacking the strength to force the wheelchair from where it is stuck.

Another major problem is that bricks are slippery when wet since they have a low friction coefficient. Furthermore, there are considerably more difficult to clear of snow and ice let alone that they ice over quicker than concrete. A Federal Highway Administration’s report on designing sidewalks calls for surfaces to be slip resistant under dry conditions concluding that most asphalt and concrete surfaces are fairly slip resistant.

In Georgetown, the DC neighborhood where its image is nearly synonymous with brick sidewalks, the Business Improvement District (BID) states in its 2028 Plan that “Red brick sidewalks are a prominent element of Georgetown’s streetscape. But these sidewalks are often a source of frustration and inconvenience to pedestrians as . . . uncovered tree boxes make for tricky footing, and bricks that need replacing go untended.”

Understandably, the report glosses over the trip and fall hazards (who wants to admit liability and encourage lawsuits?) that have resulted in lawsuits for other BIDs, but the suggestion that the bricks cause a hazard is there nonetheless.

Over the years, many have written about the challenges with brick sidewalks, yet this reporter continues to attend conferences where architects and planners eagerly display renderings showing perfectly laid brick. Among those who have added to the literature on this subject has been Christine Pafumi’s article, “Bricks, cobblestones and uneven sidewalks can make travel a difficult feat in Boston, which appeared a little over nine years ago in the Making it in Boston on-line blog.

Of particular interest to InTowner readers is the District’s Green Alleys Program, managed by the transportation department (DDOT), its primary goal is to reduce the quantity and improve the quality of storm water runoff along the city’s rights of way. Although alleys constitute a significant portion of impervious surface, most do not have storm water controls, such as water catch basins or grate inlets. To mitigate this, the program utilizes sustainable design and low impact development techniques that reduce the amount of storm water and pollutants entering the sewer system by increasing water filtration and treatment on site. These include permeable pavers, not impermeable bricks.


Tacoma, Washington’s certified Civic Engineer Justin Jones shared this comment with The InTowner: “Brick or paver sidewalks look nice and are great for place making, but are expensive and can be difficult to meet ADA standards. The most difficult engineering task in designing sidewalks is meeting ADA requirements. A trend that we have been seeing is to use bricks or pavers in combination with concrete sidewalks where the main sidewalk area is concrete and bricks or pavers are used as an accent.” Yet, residents in neighborhoods where that kind of combination is utilized, such as along the 17th Street strip between P and R Streets in Dupont East, too many of those bricks comprising the decorative courses pop out creating pedestrian hazards and DDOT never undertakes repairs.

So, overall, what a conundrum in choosing sidewalk and alley material! Officials must balance emotions, values, and logic. In addition, they must balance aesthetics, cost, safety, vandalism, tree effect, and friction coefficient.

Sidewalks are so controversial that UCLA Professor Loukaitou-Sideris has written an entire book on sidewalk and alley conflict and negotiation. On one hand, one might be persuaded by logic against the bricking of alleys and sidewalks based on increased cost of installation and maintenance and dangers to those with mobility and sight challenges. On the other, one might be persuaded by values — that is, the historic value of bricks, of a city that values its communities. One might be persuaded by emotions by the love of bricks, the esthetics, the charm. What a balancing act this issue requires!

*Larry Ray is Senior Instructor at The George Washington University School of Law and has served on Advisory Neighborhood Commissions for both Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights. He also has served as president of the North Columbia Heights Citizens Association.

Copyright © 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.