My Wellness App Is a Bright Green City

vests on walkers

A city that is easy and safe to walk in is a city that keep you healthier and happier.

My inbox is full of ads for health clubs and fitness programs. The Guardian is full of reviews of apps that promise to get you into shape, to motivate, to track your progress, to monitor your every move. Everybody is still talking about Peloton.

But the best tool for our health fitness could be right outside our door, using our own two feet. Years ago, Alex Steffen wrote an article about how electric cars were not the answer, and titled it "My other car is a bright green city." After reading Margaret McCartney's article in the Guardian, I am going to steal it for my title.

Dr. McCartney notes that we don't need fancy spas and wellbeing weekends, and complains that the entire fitness and wellness industry has been commodified. "Wellbeing is presented as complicated, complex, difficult to achieve correctly and best when purchased – all while requiring gurus to access it. This entanglement of industries makes what should be straightforward – a healthy lifestyle – into a complicated consumerist mess."

Walking in Berlin

Walking in the wonderful residential streets of Berlin/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

She suggests instead that our environments should be designed to maximize our health.

Exercise should be joyful; at its best, we should hardly know that we are doing it. Street play used to be common – now in many areas it requires special schemes to give children priority over cars for short periods of time. We need to turn our understanding of wellbeing on its head: away from individuals and towards populations.
We need better infrastructure for walking and cycling so they become the primary method of urban transport. We should be able to cycle safely in everyday clothes, and it should be easier and faster than driving. It should be possible for children to walk to school without worrying about traffic.
walking with boys in the rain

© K Martinko – A rainy forest walk

This is something that we have been going on about for years. Melissa Breyer of TreeHugger wrote in 10 ways to get the most from walking:

Walking is not about gear or clothes or expertise; it’s easy, cheap, and exceedingly kind to the body. Walking for the sake of taking a walk is emotionally as well as physically pleasing; walking for the sake of getting somewhere is cheaper and easier on the planet than driving.

No room for Pedestrians on NYC's 8th Ave so they walk in Protected Bike Lane from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

But our cities are not designed to promote it. Colin Pooley of Lancaster University studied walking and found it to be the second most important form of transport. But it is not always easy to do; in most cities, sidewalks are impossibly crowded because all the space has been taken away and given to cars.

In most locations, road space continues to be dominated by, and planned for, motor vehicles and people on foot are crammed on to pavements that are often too narrow. Pedestrians are made to wait for long periods to cross busy roads, exposed to traffic noise and emissions, and then given insufficient time to cross before the lights change to keep the traffic moving.

I have also written that Walking is climate action. We don't have time to wait for the existing fleet of gasoline powered cars to be replaced by electric cars.

Lexington before and after

© John Massengale

What we have to do is everything we possibly can to encourage walking. That means making our streets more comfortable for pedestrians, even if we have to take space back from parking and from roads and make our streets more like they were before, as John Massengale's fabulous photo of Lexington Avenue in New York shows.

Which brings me back to my title, My wellness app is a bright green city. That's the kind of city that Dr. McCartney described, where walking is easier, healthier and often faster than driving.

  • We have to stop criminalizing walking with stupid walking while texting laws, and hi-viz silliness, but instead, give the people who walk the highest priority.
  • We have to make walking the safe, comfortable and default choice for trips under three miles.
  • We have to insist that all new residential development be built at a density where you can actually get somewhere, to a store or to good transit or to a doctor, by walking.
  • We have to slow down; as Katherine Martinko has written:
Walking is a healthy, green way to transport oneself, but it requires time, which is at a premium nowadays. By making the time to walk, however, we create a healthier world filled with happier individuals.
Sidewalk in Toronto

Sidewalk in Toronto/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But so much depends on how our cities are designed, and how much attention is paid to the needs of people who walk. I noted earlier that "I have walked a mile in suburban Toronto and it felt like an eternity, but ten times as far downtown without being bored for a minute. This is the true test of a place – what is it like to walk there?"

It's time to take back the streets so that you can walk everywhere without getting killed, poisoned or deafened. It's time to build that bright green city. And this New Year's, resolve to get out and walk.