The Beginner’s Guide to Sidewalks

Home Walkways Leading to and Around House
© Harry HU / Adobe Stock

One of your home’s most important exterior features is its network of sidewalks. These are important not only for getting from point A to B, they are also a major aesthetic and safety consideration. Your sidewalk must be maintained to prevent accidents and can become damaged by both weather and plant life.

The following is an overview of different types of walkways, as well as simple tips for maintaining or choosing materials for a new or replacement walkway.

Sidewalk Types

Split Walkway with One Path Leading to House Entrance
© Ursula Page / Adobe Stock

There are three different classes in which a walk may be placed, based on its location and amount of traffic. Depending upon the class, a sidewalk may need to be wide or require sturdier materials in order to keep up with safety and municipal codes.

Primary Walkways

These are the most commonly seen walkways. Not only are the sidewalks along your street a primary walkway, but so is the walk leading up to your front door. As a general rule, these walks should be wide enough for two people.

In some cases, a heavily-traveled walk (such as one leading from your kitchen to a detached garage) will classify as a primary walkway.

Due to the high amount of usage on primary walkways, you should limit them to large, sturdy materials. This not only prevents them from shifting over time, but can also make it easier to remove snow and weeds. It will also lessen the amount of dirt being tracked into your home.

Concrete slabs and brick are the two most popular materials used for primary walks, although large, close-fitting flagstones (usually embedded in concrete) are also commonly seen in upscale neighborhoods.

Recommended width: minimum of four feet.

Secondary Walkways

Most commonly located on the side of a house, secondary walkways may accommodate either one to two people at once and often branch off of primary or other secondary walks. They can be made of various materials, although the function of the walkway will play a role in which materials are acceptable.

For example, a walkway leading to your garden shed may be packed gravel and only one person wide. A secondary walk leading to the back of your garage or along the side of the house functions much like a primary walkway. They’ll need to be of much firmer materials, as you are more likely to use these all year and need to keep them clear in winter.

Recommended width:

  • to accommodate one person and a wheeled object such as a wheelbarrow or trash can: two and one-half to four feet.
  • for fast travel: one and one-half to two and one-half feet.

Tertiary Walkways

The smallest and least-used walkways, these can be of any material and are rarely more than paths or one person wide. Unlike the other types of walkway, tertiary walks are primarily for aesthetic purposes and commonly found in gardens or other places where you aren’t likely to be in a rush or carry heavy loads.

One of the unique features of a tertiary path is the ability to use widely-spaced flagstones with baby’s breath or some other aromatic ground cover between. Gravel is another very common material, and in a few instances, such paths are merely held in place by bordering stones with no substructure. Unlike other walkway types, tertiary paths can be uneven or include gently rounded stones.

Recommended width:

  • for fast travel: one and one-half to two and one-half feet.
  • for slow travel: one to one and one-half feet.

Common Sidewalk Materials

Garden Walkway in Front Yard
© jpldesigns / Adobe Stock

Over the centuries, walkways have evolved from sand or dirt paths to a variety of materials. The most common forms of urban roadside walks are concrete and brick, but a larger variety of materials and design methods are used for home walkways and along rural streets. The function of the walk dictates which materials are viable, but aesthetics may also play a role.

Brick

Once used extensively for roads and sidewalks, brick is both aesthetically pleasing and durable. It may be aligned in a wide variety of patterns, and may be separated with mortar or fitted dry. One of the biggest advantages of brick walks is their modular structure, allowing dry-fitted sections to be replaced with ease. They are also excellent conductors for heated walkways.

The biggest disadvantage is how easily weeds can take root between the bricks, including mortared walks which have become cracked over time. Brick walkways are also more slippery than concrete slab in the winter.

Cement and Concrete Slab

In most cases, a rural or urban road will have concrete slab sidewalks. Concrete and cement slabs are very durable and easy to maintain. Unfortunately, paving with these materials is a complex process and requires a longer drying time than other materials. Slabs can also be frustrating to repair.

One of the biggest disadvantages of concrete slabs occurs when a tree root burrows under it, as this can cause the entire slab to shift permanently. An advantage of laying concrete walks is the ability to add inlays or design patterns while the material is still wet.

Flagstone and Flagstone Pavers

Flagstones are any stone which has been cut to have a flat upper side. They come in a variety of sizes and usually carry natural edges, making them difficult to fit together closely. Most flagstone walkways are anchored carefully to avoid shifting, and the gaps filled with gravel, sand, dirt, or other small materials.

While highly attractive, flagstones are less sturdy than brick or concrete and often a poor choice for walkways that may see frequent wheeled traffic such as garbage cans or wheelchairs.

Flagstone pavers are an artificial variation of flagstones which are prefabricated to have smooth sides. More commonly known as patio stones, they are usually used for building patios and porches, and other large fitted-stone floors.

While not as natural-looking as irregular flagstone, they remain attractive and allow for easier wheeled traffic. They are also much easier to work with than concrete while having a similar result.

Gravel and Crushed Stone

Most commonly used as a filler material, gravel makes a good solo material for tertiary walkways. Provided with a border, gravel walks are an attractive accent for gardens and scenic areas. Weeds grow slower than on bare ground, and the gravel acts as a natural filter for water, reducing the risk of puddles or flooding.

There are numerous other forms of crushed stone available, and you should be careful when choosing which you will use for a walk, as many function better as a filler material or base. Sand is one type of stone which functions poorly as a walkway but makes an attractive filler for flagstone.

Others, such as mason’s sand are best suited as a mixing material for mortar or concrete and should be avoided entirely as a filler material.

Precast Concrete

A close relative of brick, precast concrete comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and designs. This allows for mosaic patterns and smoother transitions to other walks. Overall, precast concrete has the same advantages as brick, but is less slippery in winter.

Uncommon Materials

In some rare instances, walkways may be made up of unusual materials. These may or may not be available in your area, and are often better-suited for specific purposes. Some of these include:

  • asphalt
  • baby’s breath (garden paths)
  • mulch, pine needles, or wood chips (garden paths)
  • synthetic running track
  • treated wood

Basic Sidewalk Maintenance

Clearing Snow from Home Walkway
© bildlove / Adobe Stock

Every sidewalk needs some degree of care during the course of the year. From short-term problems such as ice and weeds to long-term threats by tree roots, properly maintaining your walks may not be as straightforward as it first seems. The following are a few simple tips that will help you keep your walks clear and functional without shortening their lifespans.

Tree Roots

Trees and shrubs are a wonderful addition to any home, providing shade, cleaner air, and a home for birds and squirrels. Unfortunately, tree roots grow in every direction and can upheave even concrete slabs over time. Simply cutting the root is dangerous, as they help trees keep balanced in high winds. There are a few ways to work around roots, however:

Bridging

Bridging over a large root is a practical option, if you don’t mind replacing much of your walk. For roadside walks, you will want an elevated slab above the root, and the connecting slabs to gently slope upwards to form a smooth transition.

The elevated slab should have a cement or stone under-structure which leaves enough room for further root growth. Be sure to consult your local code enforcement agency to make sure such repairs are up to code.

Cut-outs

Cut-outs are a viable solution for walks both on your property, and in front, in the event the visible portion of root does not cross the entire width. Using cut brick or laying a new concrete slab, leave a gap of up to one inch around the root filled with dirt, allowing for future growth.

This will reduce the width of the walk at that point, but allows you to make that section level again. Be sure to make sure you will not violate any local codes during your planning phase, especially along municipal roads.

Stepped Bridges

Stepped bridges are good for portions of your property and work well with most materials. Unlike sloped bridges, the central surface may be of the same materials as the walk or even a decorative wooden bridge.

One or two steps at each end connect the bridge to the walkway. This method is impractical for curbed walks or walkways where wheeled traffic is common.

Weeds and Overgrowth

Weeds have the ability to take root in even small cracks, allowing them to sprout in almost any walk, including damaged concrete. The most popular methods of dealing with sidewalk weeds are pulling by hand, applying chemicals, or using an edger. A small amount of cement or mortar can temporarily patch cracks and prevent new growth.

However, there is a third method which is faster, safer, and cheaper than these other methods. Simply take a spray bottle, fill it with water, and add some salt. Spray the weeds, and the high saline content will kill them. Just be careful not to spray too close to any garden plants, as the salt will be absorbed into the ground.

When lining your walkways with shrubs or other tall plants, there is a potential for those plants to encroach on the walkway. Regular pruning helps, but you may also choose to add short retaining walls, which create an attractive barrier to keep the edges of your walk clear. This also prevents the nearby soil from being washed onto your walk during heavy rains.

Winter Care

Snow and ice are both common problems which affect your walkways. It is easy to shovel snow on flat, even surfaces such as brick or concrete, but you will have more difficulty removing it from flagstone or gravel walks. In such cases, melting is the best option.

Salting is a popular method of melting ice and snow, although the salt will erode your walk over time. You will also need to be careful not to put salt too close to your garden, as it will soak into the ground and kill nearby plants.

Finally, pay close attention to whether there is antifreeze in the salt before using it in a home with pets or near woods. Antifreeze is poisonous and can kill pets or wildlife if they consume it.

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