Most of the snow melted in my city during a Christmas warm front (although now it's back to being brutally cold outside), but in early December, we got quite a dumping of snow. In a matter of hours, our city went from being chilly and brown to being a winter wonderland. It's pretty but also, naturally, a hassle for those traveling through it. While the city showed up to plow in short order, many of the sidewalks (which is what I use as my main mode of transportation) stood neglected with piles and piles of snow accumulating. 

Photo taken a few blocks from my house in Milwaukee, where you can clearly see the shoveling line between the neighborhood pizza parlor (out of frame to the right) and the surface parking lot next door.

Photo taken a few blocks from my house in Milwaukee, where you can clearly see the shoveling line between the neighborhood pizza parlor (out of frame to the right) and the surface parking lot next door.

As the days went on and the streets became tidier, several patches of sidewalk in my neighborhood became worse and worse, with snow compacted into icy, dangerous clumps. Whenever I'm crossing a busy intersection or navigating a shoddy sidewalk, I immediately think about the elderly residents in my neighborhood, the wheelchair users, the parents with small children... I'm fortunate to be able-bodied with decent balance (not to mention good snow boots), so if I have trouble crossing a street or walking down the sidewalk, these neighbors undoubtedly have it much harder. If I used a cane or a wheelchair, I wouldn't have gone outside for days because those unplowed sidewalks would have made travel flat-out impossible.

During this snowy season, it is very easy to figure out who your attentive and caring neighbors are: They're the people who shovel. Shoveling clearly shows how present property owners are and how connected they are to their neighborhood.* As I walked down the street after that big snowfall, I could immediately tell which apartments were vacant and which landlords lived far away from their properties (my area is mostly commercial and residential rentals).

The surface parking lots were by far the worst. I'd bet their owners only visit these lots a couple times a year. And why would they visit more often? They're just managing a piece of asphalt. So not only are parking lots bad neighbors because they waste precious space in our towns, contribute negligible property taxes, and create space vacuums, they also leave dangerous sidewalks around them.

In contrast, during a slackchat yesterday, David Moss asked Chuck Marohn what he liked best about his new house (Chuck recently moved from a home on the edge of town to a home near the center of town). He answered: "My neighbors. Someone shoveled my sidewalk this week. Lots of kind people here." Chuck also made this same comment on Facebook earlier in the week: 

I love living in town. Got home today and someone had shoveled the three inch snowfall from my sidewalk. How kind.

In the old house, it would take me 90+ minutes to blow the snow from the driveway. I got the snowblower out today and in 30 minutes cleared two neighbors' driveways and two others' sidewalks.

So in the time I saved not driving to and from the old house, I was able to spread some cheer and still have time left over for me. This is the good life.

When neighbors are present and connected with one another, the whole community benefits; when they're not, it's a loss for everyone.

Of course, there's another solution to the problem of shoveling: make local governments responsible for plowing sidewalks, just like they're responsible for plowing roads and streets. As I wrote in an article about winter walking last year, "The failure of cities to plow sidewalks is utterly indicative of the way they view pedestrians." If cities wanted to prioritize a more affordable mode of transportation than driving—more affordable for government and more affordable for resident—plowing sidewalks would be a small step to getting more people out walking. 

Until that time though, I'll look to the sidewalks of my neighborhood to show me who my engaged and present neighbors are. 

(Top photo by Melissa Gutierrez)

*Note that my city offers a program for the elderly and handicapped who aren't able to do their own shoveling. 


Related stories