The hex on our sidewalks

Sidewalks: we’re lucky that we have them. Just ask people who live in America’s sprawling suburbs and some of the Atlanta, Ga., region’s new cities. Author Jane Jacobs considered them essential to the urban fabric. Sidewalks move people, connect places, and they are key, wrote Jacobs, to healthy neighborhoods and cities. Although Atlanta’s Candler Park neighborhood is connected by sidewalks as old as the neighborhood itself, they don’t always work well because many stretches have been damaged by vehicles and roots or have not been well maintained.

Damaged sidewalk, Atlanta's Candler Park neighborhood. Photo by author.

Damaged sidewalk, Atlanta’s Candler Park neighborhood. Photo by author.

In neighborhood discussions leading up to the development of the Master Plan adopted last year by the Candler Park Neighborhood Organization and approved by the Atlanta City Council, sidewalk repair was the leading item in neighborhood wish lists. According to the new Master Plan, “In much of the neighborhood, sidewalks are non-existent or in extremely poor condition. Broken sidewalks, gaps in the sidewalks and buckled pavement are common on many streets.”

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Hexagonal concrete sidewalk tile. Atlanta’s Candler Park neighborhood. Photo by author.

A century ago, Atlanta built out its sidewalk infrastructure using hexagonal concrete tiles fabricated at local plants, including ones owned by the Cement Stone and Tile Company. Pedestrians can go to almost any part of Candler Park and see hex tiles stamped with the company’s name.

“In Atlanta, the person who thinks anything at all of the kind of sidewalk he walks on must be impressed by the large extent of walk made up of flat hexagonal concrete tile,” a cement industry trade journal in 1909 reported. “And the person who does not ordinarily think of such things also will soon become conscious of the fact that he is traveling over an easy and smooth pavement.”

As Candler Park residents and folks who live in other Atlanta intown neighborhoods know, many of our historic sidewalks are no longer smooth and not so easy to walk along. If you’re pushing a baby stroller or trying to navigate with a wheelchair, you’re oftentimes forced to walk in the street because many segments of our sidewalks are in disrepair.

In Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood, neighbors organized in 2012 to form the Virginia-Highland Sidewalk Improvement Project. They identified and mapped sidewalks requiring repair that posed immediate hazards to pedestrians.

In 2011, folks in Atlanta’s Midtown and Ansley Park neighborhoods were talking about the historic sidewalks and what to do about them. A blog reported in September 2011 that a forum moderated by Atlanta journalist Maria Sapporta had been organized to discuss the sidewalks. The blog post quoted PEDS, an Atlanta pedestrian advocacy group:

Repairing these sidewalks in a piecemeal way is far more expensive than fixing them on a block by block or neighborhood basis. Trying to get property owners to repair sidewalks also adds significant administrative costs, since property owners rarely make repairs on a voluntary basis.

Our sidewalks contribute to our neighborhood’s character and sense of place, yet they remain a vexing problem for residents and planners. One way to provide some visual continuity with the past has been to replace damaged sidewalk tiles with poured concrete that has been stamped or scored to resemble the historic pattern found throughout the city. That approach has yielded mixed results.

Sidewalk repair. Atlanta's Candler Park neighborhood, Dec. 2013. Photo by author.

Sidewalk repair. Atlanta’s Candler Park neighborhood, Dec. 2013. Photo by author.

Last December I passed an Atlanta Department of Watershed Management crew finishing a section of sidewalk just poured where underground pipe work recently was completed. Curious about how they replace sidewalks with old hex tiles, I asked the crew about how it’s done.

“Any time they come out and tear anything up, it’s up to us to put it back together,” explained Watershed worker Grady Broughton. “We put back what the neighborhood and stuff is used to.”

Broughton and two coworkers showed me the metal patterns used to stamp the new sidewalks. One is a full hexagon and the other is a half hexagon. “It’s a lot more extra work. You’ve got to try to match them,” he said.

It takes more time, and is therefore more expensive, to try and recreate the old sidewalk pattern. Colin Heydt, a former chair of CPNO’s Sidewalk Committee, commented on a brief sidewalk post at the CPNO website last year. “The scoring or imprinting of hex design onto good sidewalk is also a problem. It’s more expensive,” he wrote. “It makes the sidewalk less functional, by, e.g., catching high heels and wheels on wheelchairs and strollers, creating spaces for water and debris to sit, etc.”

Heydt also dislikes the mixed aesthetic results of some sidewalk replacements. “I dislike the pretense (akin to my dislike of faux candles and candle wax on chandeliers) and the scoring is often very poorly done,” wrote Heydt.

I reached out to colleagues in historic preservation and to the Atlanta Urban Design Commission. I didn’t get any information from the local agency but preservation architects and architectural historians sent some useful suggestions.

“That is the coolest sidewalk,” wrote Sharon Ferraro after reading the December CPNO website post. Ferraro is Kalamazoo, Michigan’s, city historic preservation planner. Ferraro suggested a combination of solutions including in-kind replacement where the additional costs are borne by homeowners or special tax assessments to spread the costs out. Another suggestion Ferraro made was to use the hex tiles only at corners, “where the change in texture contributes to the tactile bumps for the visually impaired.”

Bomanite sidewalk panels. Credit: City of St. Paul, Minn. Dept. of Planning and Economic Development.

Bomanite sidewalk panels. Credit: City of St. Paul, Minn. Dept. of Planning and Economic Development.

Another colleague provided information about how St. Paul, Minn., preserves neighborhood character where the hexagonal sidewalk tiles occur. The city has a hex stamp that it rents to contractors working in historic neighborhoods where in-kind concrete tile replacement isn’t possible. St. Paul also recommends using Bomanite stamped concrete forms in lieu of individual hexagonal tiles. St. Paul recommends new sidewalks using Bomanite (a decorative concrete manufacturer specializing in architectural concrete paving) forms be laid to match the color and texture of the original sidewalks.

Residents in Virginia Highland also found a creative solution to repairing damaged hex tile sidewalks: recycling. The Virginia-Highland Civic Association reported on one effort to provide residents with opportunities to reuse historic hex tiles. That approach, however, resulted in the replacing the original hex paver sidewalk. That approach may not be consistent with local historic preservation regulations and may not achieve the goal of preserving the streetscape’s visual character.

Safe, navigable, and, yes, attractive sidewalks are essential to maintaining Candler Park’s quality of life. They are a connection between people and places in our neighborhood as well as a distinctive connection to our past. Sidewalks may seem trivial, literally beneath our feet. Yet, urbanist Jacobs found them to be one of the many connected, “small, sensitively managed details” that make up a good and healthy neighborhood.

Note: An earlier version of this post was published in the February 2014 issue of the Candler Park Neighborhood Organization Messenger [PDF] newsletter.

© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein

6 thoughts on “The hex on our sidewalks

  1. Please be aware that the City has an estimated $152 million backlog of broken sidewalks. Historic hexagon pavers are just two inches thick. In contrast, the depth of most sidewalks is 4 inches, so they hold up better. Due to the added cost of installing and maintaining traditional hexagon pavers, Public Works stopped installing these over 30 years ago, Stamping concrete with the hexagonal pattern adds about 50 percent to the cost. Property owners are still allowed to hire contractors to install hexagonal pavers on sidewalks that abut their property, but the additional cost will be their responsibility.

    As a long-time resident of Atlanta, I’m tired of watching my step while walking .Like most pedestrians, I prefer aesthetic treatments that are at eye level.

  2. I hate these things! I do not drive and yes- I think I’m going to hurt my ankle one day because of the uneven sidewalk – I twist it a lot because of it- and also- how high heels can go in the cracks. I can’t imagine wheelchairs or strollers on those things. I don’t like the fake ones either. They just don’t look as good. They are putting miniature ones in urban areas like Auburn Ave. and it is awful!! If it is possible to only place them on residential sidewalks from the public sidewalk to the door- would that be historical enough? What about using them for retaining wall decor in neighborhoods? If they were small enough, they could be accent pieces on edges on the sidewalks- but they are not. Bricks and other stone walks should be that way. I can’t imagine someone who is visually impaired. To me- all of that detail would be annoying- the sound of it. But- maybe there could be a day where the center of the visually impaired could do a survey of how they like the sidewalks. That would be nice.

  3. These 18″ Hexagon’s are still readily available. They are manufactured in Jonesboro by a local concrete paver manufacturer. These old neighborhoods need to continue with pavers rather than stamped concrete. Let me know if you would like more information on how flexible pavements are a better solution.

    • You’re correct that hexagon pavers are still available. Using these as sidewalks, however, costs about twice as much as it does to install sidewalks with plain concrete. Given the large backlog of broken sidewalks, I’d rather have twice as many miles of sidewalks than ones with aesthetic treatments.

      Also, sidewalks made from concrete are 4 inches thick. Hexagon pavers are only 2 inches thick, so they won’t hold up as long.

  4. I broke my ankle while in Atlanta on a brick sidewalk…the grout is getting pretty warn in between some of the bricks…the inside of my shoe tipped into the grout area and down I went.

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