The Significance of Sidewalk Culture

Typically when plans for a city come together, a great deal of thought is put into its layout in accordance with maximizing profits.  When speculating about a city’s future development, special consideration is  given to plans that may affect the most powerful, influential and profitable groups in the surrounding area – stakeholders of the city, like local, state and federal government, military and major employers.  Expansion in this regard is strategic and careful.

But these places grow, change and expand organically as well, by becoming a common ground for city residents to express themselves as individuals, gather together to enjoy a mutual interest and unify for the sake of creating a shared history.  The character of a city – its vibrancy, its lifeblood is generated not by the activities that go on inside the buildings that bring in the most financial gain, but by what’s taking place out of doors.  The painting of murals, the sharing of beloved books, homemade goods being sold and street food are just a few of the many things that give the city its character, vitality and sense of purpose.

 Little Libraries

If you live in any major city across the United States, the odds are you’ve passed by one of these on the street and haven’t even realized it.  Simply constructed out of basic building materials and placed in front yards, on sidewalks and in building lobbies, these mailbox libraries, or “Little Free Libraries” popping up across the country are easy to miss and even easier to take for granted. Simply stated, they’re a free book service to any lover of the written word, allowing the individual to take a book, read it, pass it on to a friend, return it or replace it with another book – whatever they’d like.

Little Free Library constructed out of an old window pane.

Little Free Library constructed out of an old window pane.

These unassuming little boxes full of old books do a lot for a neighborhood.  Mailbox libraries promote creativity by allowing the builder to express their artistic side through their library’s design and presentation.  They also promote community sharing and togetherness by unifying people through a love of books as a favorite novel or children’s story passes from one home to another.

The idea that one could access a free library of books  brought to life by the Little Free Library Organization, founded in Wisconsin in 2009.  Beginning with a small wooden box in the shape of an old school house and posting a sign for “free books”, the idea spread quickly across the globe.  Now there is an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Little Free Libraries in use today.

Proud builder of a Little Free Library poses with his creation.

Proud builder of a Little Free Library poses with his creation.

Most community members have nothing but praise for these mailbox libraries.  When interviewed about her Little Free Library, owner Lindsey Q. had to say: “My husband and I built a Little Library as a way to give back to our neighborhood, strengthen the community bond and of course to encourage reading. After doing some online searches we came up with a shape and my talented husband got creative with the finishing touches. He crafted this using mostly scraps and materials we had from previous house projects…we’re ecstatic with the participation from the neighbors and love seeing the variety of books that come and go.”





The Dalles, Oregon

The Dalles, Oregon

The Dalles, Oregon, has similar intentions in what it offers the public – an informative look into history through murals. The Dalles is a small agricultural town located in central Oregon along the Columbia River Gorge. It is home to about 14,000 people and is rich in history and is known for its ties to The Oregon Trail, The Lewis and Clark Expedition, Celilo Falls, as well as many other landmarks and events known throughout history.

When driving through the downtown blocks, it’s hard to not notice the beautiful murals painted on the sides of buildings. All fourteen murals were constructed by renowned Northwest artists and show scenes from historical events that took place in The Dalles.

Mural featuring the early exploration of Lewis and Clark.

With the steady flow of tourists and new residents in the area, many involved with helping maintain The Dalles realized that some improvements were needed. One of these changes included making the murals more visible. Jake Grossmiller, a resident and active member of The Dalles Mural Society, stated that, “this is the prime center of the city…[these murals] get the most attention by people coming through.

The Dalles Mural Society’s plan was to install lighting above the murals that allowed viewing after sunset to help enliven the downtown area in the evenings.




painters making mural

With help from the City of The Dalles, Columbia Gateway Urban Renewal, Northern Wasco County PUD, The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce, and Wasco County Cultural Trust, the project began in January of 2014. Matthew Klebes, the coordinator of The Dalles Main Street stated that, “it’s great to have the murals at this central intersection lighted,” and “it will totally change the atmosphere of downtown at night.” So far lighting has been added to four of the fourteen murals. The Dalles Mural Society is hopeful that every mural will eventually be displayed under lighting with help from their sponsors and the community.

Sidewalk Commerce

Selling colorful balloons on the sidewalk in Shijiazhuang, Hebei China. Photo © Melissa Donaghue

The value of a vibrant atmosphere to the character of a city can also clearly be seen demonstrated in a community as far removed from those here is the U.S. as that of the Chinese city Shijiazhuang(石家庄). Located in Hebei(河北省) Province on the North China plain.

Shijiazhuang has experienced several periods of rapid expansion since its days as a village of fewer than 600 people in the early 1900’s. Construction of railway lines, strategic in importance during WWII, and in 1968, attainment of provincial capital status, all helped contribute to its growth to a city of over 1.6 million people as of 2001. Most of this growth occurred before automobiles were common here, with citizens relying mostly on walking and cycling for transport. While cars and buses have become more common in the early 21st century, walking and cycling still represent the most common form of transport.

As the population continues to grow, reaching 2.8 million as of the 2010 census, Shijiazhuang still manages to have a small town feel to it, thanks to a high rate of person-to-person public interaction on engaging sidewalks filled with people, recreation, and small business commerce.

Chinese city streets and sidewalks have always been the setting for much more than local transportation. Historically they have been known to commonly host merchants and vendors, crafts-people selling their wares and farmers their produce, artisans, musicians, magicians and acrobats, people practicing martial arts, fortune tellers, cricket or cock fighting, puppet and shadow shows, opera performances, beggars, laborers, porters, people socializing, eating, cooking, napping, and even having a shave, haircut or dental procedure performed! Some of these are now obsolete, frowned upon or regulated in modern China, but many can still be seen on a sidewalk stroll.

In the winter farmers who grow sweet potatoes rig up their bicycles with ovens made out of barrels and sell hot roasted sweet potatoes on the sidewalks. Shot in Shijiazhuang, Hebei China. Photo©MelissaDonaghue

Most common are the produce vendors and sellers of convenience foods cooked on the street. Some of these street kitchens resemble American style food-carts, but many more are owner-made modifications to the useful and popular Chinese tricycle. Some of the best, most authentic local cuisine is only available to the foreign visitor adventurous enough to eat with the locals, out on the streets.

As you digest your meal, you might enjoy joining the local spectators of one of the many games of mahjong(麻将), or a Chinese game similar to chess called Xiangqi(象棋),  or a card game, all being played on the sidewalk, or you might quietly observing as large character, Chinese calligraphy is drawn with water and broom-sized brushes on the paving stones. Penmanship and beautiful calligraphy are highly respected here, and this quiet, popular form of practice is meditative, enjoyable, and free beyond the purchase of a brush.

Other recreation commonly found on the sidewalks includes public calisthenics and practice of martial arts of all forms, use of government provided, free public exercise equipment that is installed on some sidewalks, games of table-tennis, and in warmer weather, even the pool-halls will put their tables out on the sidewalks.

Practicing drawing large Chinese character calligraphy with water and huge brushes on the sidewalks is a popular, meditative pass-time in Shijiazhuang, Hebei China. Photo©MelissaDonaghue

With all this activity on the streets comes citizen interactions, communication, co-operation, and shared experiences among citizens, building a desirably vibrant and engaging atmosphere, and helping to translate space into place.  All of this desired activity however, does create its own challenges, like that of the waste from all of these citizens activities. An army of municipal sanitation workers is deployed around the city at all times, and there are many private individuals visibly making efforts at keeping the city clean, but waste control and removal is a constant challenge. Shijiazhuang’s location east of the Gobi desert also brings seasonal dust storms, often leaving the city coated in a fine, yellowish powder, and giving it a worn, faded look, even on relatively new surfaces. Residents do their best to brighten-up in light of these challenges, and sometimes find charming new ways to do it.

As in The Dalles in Oregon, the citizens of Shijiazhuang have lately taken to the idea of murals scattered throughout the city as a way of adding interest, albeit on a smaller, more intimate scale. Local artist Wang Yue adds small murals to the surfaces within knots in the bark of sidewalk trees:

These “Tree Hollow Pictures” are helping to add color, whimsy and welcome surprise to the street scene in a city with long cold winters.

Truly, it is these combined, small efforts like the creation of Little Free Libraries, murals large and small, and the creativity and personality of a cities people interacting with each other that softens and humanizes a city space. The people form the basis of the unique local character and vibrancy of the city.

Submitted by Jill Banaszek, Katie Covington and Melissa Donaghue

Links and Sources:

Gibson, M. (2014, January 3). Four murals get new lighting in heart of downtown. The Dalles Chronicle. Retrieved from

Historic Landmark Commission Minutes [Historic Landmark Commission Meeting]. (2013, May 22). Retrieved from

Richard, T. (Photographer). (2008). The Lewis and Clark mural on an exterior wall in The Dalles [Photograph], Retrieved February 18, 2014, from:

[Untitled photograph of The Dalles Dam]. Retrieved February 18, 2014, from:

A 360° view of the city of Shijiazhuang:

More images from Shijiazhuang:


Jieying Xiao, Yanjun Shen, Jingfeng Ge, Ryutaro Tateishi, Changyuan Tang, Yangqing Liang, Zhiying Huang “Evaluating urban expansion and land use change in Shijiazhuang, China, by using GIS and remote sensing” Landscape and Urban Planning Volume 75, Issues 1–2, 28 February 2006, Pages 69–80

Mateo-Babiano, Iderlina, and Hitoshi Ieda. “Theoretical Discourse on Sustainable Space Design: Towards Creating and Sustaining Effective Sidewalks.” Business Strategy and the Environment.  Vol. 14 No. 5 (Sept/Oct. 2005): 300-314 Wiley Online Library

Wang Di, “Street culture in Chengdu : public space, urban commoners, and local politics, 1870-1930“, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 2003

“Popular China : unofficial culture in a globalizing society” edited by Perry Link, Richard P. Madsen, Paul G. Pickowicz, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford, 2002

De Mente, Boye, “The Chinese mind : understanding traditional Chinese beliefs and their influence on contemporary culture”, Tuttle Publishing, Tokyo, Rutland VT, Singapore, 2009