Municipal engineers have a lot more power over city life and politics than most of us realize.
It’s an academic lecture about sidewalks. Could I have even dreamed up an event that sounded more inconsequentially mind-numbing?
But on this cold, rainy, January night, the little Legacy Art Gallery and Café, as part of the University of Victoria’s “City Talks” lectures, has drawn nearly a hundred provincial and municipal bureaucrats, business owners, artists, developers, lawyers, students, urban gardeners, civil rights activists, anarchists… Why on Earth would all these people be so interested in sidewalks?
Within the hour the answer becomes clear, as Simon Fraser University’s Nicholas Blomley delivers a surprisingly riveting overview of the role of sidewalks in social control.
Blomley is a “legal geographer” who specializes in “property and its relationship to the politics of urban space.” His new book sounds similarly recondite: Rights of Passage—Sidewalks and the Regulation of Public Flow. However, much like his earlier work on homelessness, First Nations dispossession, and community gardens, Blomley adeptly straddles abstract academia and on-the-ground activism.
“What is a sidewalk for?” he begins, and it’s soon apparent this seemingly benign question holds the seeds of intense urban conflict.