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Failing Sidewalks Show Where the 'Common Good' Ends

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As unlikely as it sounds, Los Angeles City Council members are beginning serious discussions to put property owners on the hook for the city's neglect of its sidewalks. (Some of the backstory is here at KCET's 1st And Spring.)

As has been widely reported (for example, on KPPC here and in the Daily Breeze here), Councilman Bernard Parks supports shifting to property owners both the costs of sidewalk repair and the liability for "trip and fall" accidents.

Sidewalk damage is almost always caused by street trees. What had been a spindly sapling planted by the city or a developer decades is now a mighty oak . . . or something less noble.

The species of street tree was typically picked by price and availability and without any consideration for what the tree would become in its maturity. Block after block in Los Angeles was planted with ficus trees -- fast growing, dense with shade throughout the year, and particularly brutal on sidewalks, curbs, gutters, and sewer lines.

Trees like the ubiquitous ficus have heaved sidewalks and gutters all over town. Council man Parks told KPCC's Patt Morrison:

"(S)ince the 1970s, the city took responsibility for sidewalks that were broken by trees. Over time, they've taken responsibility for all sidewalks. The city has tried over the last 20 years to repair sidewalks. They've expended over $100 million over a 10 year period and fixed only 500 miles of sidewalks. And the sidewalks - about 10,000 miles of them - are in worse repair [...] than they were before."

Parks' solution to the crumbling of the city's street infrastructure is to privatize sidewalks. Under one proposal, property owners would be given just 90 days after receiving a maintenance citation to fix raised or broken sidewalk panels. If the repairs weren't made, more citations would follow and future "trip and fall" claims would be the homeowner's to pay. (In my experience, "trip and fall" settlements begin at $10,000.)

You can already see the many layers of "Catch 22" in sidewalk privatization:

  • The city allowed sidewalks to fail over the past half-century, ignoring both its trees and its hardscape. But the city council is preparing an ordinance that would allow inspectors to cite property owners for the city's neglect (and collect new revenue from the citations).
  • Some property owners would spend thousands of dollars on repairing their sidewalk section, leaving others nearby to rot. Homeowners with insurance would eventually pay more for a comprehensive policy that covers the new risk of a "trip and fall" on "their" sidewalk. Homeowners of modest means and without insurance would be directly exposed to civil claims.
  • No rational person will want either a sidewalk or a street tree in front of their home because of the added risk; clandestine tree felling will follow. In wealthy neighborhoods, owners concerned about property values will pay to have their sidewalks fixed. Sidewalks in poor neighborhoods will become impassible, worsening their quality of life.

And these are not the only possible outcomes of the city's accelerating abandonment of its neighborhoods in the name of economic necessity.
Since the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles and most cities big and small have operated under an unspoken compact. Modern cities in the Progressive Era began to define the "common good" as an egalitarian sharing of the benefits and risks of providing roughly uniform municipal services. Everyone's trash got picked up by the sanitation department. Everyone's waste got carried away by the city's sewers. Nearly every neighborhood got a paved street and a sidewalk - even a shade tree to soften the heat and glare of a summer's day. Taxpayers shared the risks of civil penalties if public property caused someone injury.

That compact is breaking down. The "common good" is a burden some Los Angeles City Council members want to shuck off, one sidewalk at a time. And the end of the process is clearly in sight: a failed city that makes a place for people of power and wealth and kicks to the curb everyone else.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Tantek Ã?elik. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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