Pavements date back some 2000 years, but are seldom built with pedestrians in mind. Here’s why reinvented sidewalks could benefit your joints — and the planet
7 July 2021
WHEN Viveca Wallqvist first phoned a local asphalt company, she didn’t mince her words. “I have something to tell you,” she said. “Your material is really hard – too hard. People are getting hurt.” Her comments didn’t go down well. “They were like,’Who is this crazy scientist?,’” she recalls. Asphalt is supposed to be hard, they said. But a few days later, the company rang back. It was the beginning of a journey that could reinvent the ground we walk on.
Wallqvist’s passion is rare. It is more than two millennia since the Romans laid their first pavimentum, from where we get the word “pavement”. Since then, very few people have questioned the fact that the pavements we walk on are, in effect, extensions of the road surface, made of stuff with properties that almost exclusively reflected the needs of horse-drawn and then motorised vehicles rather than pedestrians. Wallqvist, a materials chemist at the Research Institutes of Sweden in Stockholm, is determined to change that.
Meanwhile, in London, plans are afoot to build a giant research facility to test new, spongier walking surfaces. It is the brainchild of Nick Tyler at University College London, who is also convinced that pavement pounding is harming us. The average person takes around 200 million steps in a lifetime, he notes, and we aren’t evolved to deal with such hard surfaces.
So, after waiting more than 2300 years for a pavement …