Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rubber could fix sidewalks, put bounce in our steps

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Winnipeggers were eager to get out of the house to take advantage of the nicer weather in recent weeks, only to find the freezing and thawing -- and the presence of pushy tree roots -- caused many sidewalks to fracture and shift over the winter, making them not only a nuisance to replace, but also a potential danger.

Almost exclusively, concrete and asphalt have traditionally been used for sidewalk construction in North America. Yet, neither is particularly well-suited to the task. Both materials are brittle, prone to cracking when trees grow beneath them and vulnerable to weather damage. Their lack of porosity deprives the soil of groundwater and increases runoff problems.

In the early 2000s, entrepreneurs in the United States sought to better meet pedestrian needs by finding a type of pavement less likely to break. Searching for a malleable material, they ground up discarded tires and designed resilient rubber panels that are harder than a running track but softer than concrete or asphalt.

This solution proved extremely effective. Not only did the rubber bend to accommodate tree growth, but when roots became too unruly, the individual panels could be removed, the path re-graded, roots trimmed and the same panels re-laid.

In fact, city workers discovered roots actually grew more slowly beneath rubber as water could seep through the seams between the panels, reducing the need for roots to spread in search of sustenance. It was also realized that once installed, the ease with which the panel sidewalk could be disassembled and reassembled made it faster and less expensive for utility companies to complete any maintenance or other underground work than having to dig up or drill into concrete slabs.

Best of all, the alternative material was good for its users, as walking or running on a rubber, shock-absorbing surface is easier on one's joints and more forgiving when someone falls. Cities using the rubber sidewalks often experienced a reduction in liability claims from pedestrians tripping, as broken and uneven concrete sidewalks were no longer a hazard.

Recognizing these benefits, in the past decade rubber walkways have been put down in nearly 100 American municipalities. Canadian cities, however, have been slower to explore their potential. A handful, including Kelowna, Vancouver and Calgary have launched pilot projects.

Yet, with Canada's extreme temperatures, a material less susceptible to weather damage may be even more advantageous here than it is down south. After all, the annual freezing and thawing process can force the replacement of concrete walks in as few as three years. Tests have shown rubber stands up well against excessive heat and cold, and the panels are estimated to last up to two decades without cracking. Additionally, where installed, the panels remain undamaged by snow-clearing equipment and have been designed so as not to be slippery in winter. This means that while they're about a third more expensive than concrete initially, over the long run they are very likely the most cost-effective and safest option.

It is often said Winnipeg has only two seasons: winter and construction. To curb the disturbance and costs of this second season, the city should do what it can to find building materials that withstand our climate without frequent replacement. To that end, rubber-panel sidewalks seem a highly promising alternative for future development. With rubber proving itself so favourable elsewhere, the municipal government ought to consider launching its own pilot project to see if it could be a good fit here. The result could be fewer injuries and fewer scarce funds devoted to maintenance. Like the new sidewalks themselves, that is bound to put a little spring in anyone's step.

Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 27, 2012 A11

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