How walking might save the world (or at least our cities)

seen while walking in Edinburgh
CC BY 2.0 Seen while walking in Edinburgh/ Lloyd Alter

Cities work better when people can walk, and people get healthier and happier when they walk in cities.

Nobody walks anymore. The joke used to be that in much of the US if you see someone walking, they are looking for their car. Now, if you see someone walking (particularly if they are not white) you call the police.

But walking is wonderful. It is good for your health, and as TreeHugger Melissa has written, “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.” TreeHugger Katherine loves walking in the morning in the freezing cold in the country “before the day has warmed up. Smells are intensified, as if the air has been cleaned overnight or allowed a respite from daytime commotion, and has not yet been contaminated by the next day’s flurry of activity.”

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

I prefer urban walking, and am not alone; John Elledge writes in the Guardian that Urban walking isn’t just good for the soul. It could save humanity. He walks a great deal, mostly in cities.

The received wisdom, though, is that the best walking is done in the countryside, where the air is clean and the views are dramatic. Walking in cities – especially the suburban or industrial quarters where I often end up, even if I don’t intend to – is less fashionable. Well: the received wisdom is wrong. Urban walking is better, and I’m willing to go head to head with anyone who says otherwise.

Times SquareIn Times Square there are so many walkers they have to tell you how to do it/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Where many are afraid to walk in certain parts of certain cities, Elledge points out that cities are more interesting, that the countryside has its dangers too.

One reason is that, with the best will in the world, the countryside is boring. One field is very like another, and many of them are filled with cows which, though nobody likes to talk about it, have a nasty habit of killing people they take against. In a city, there’s more to see, and you’re less likely to get stamped on by a cow.

walking the Williamsburg BridgeWalking the Williamsburg Bridge/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

When I visit a new city I walk everywhere, often for hours. You get to see it in great detail, at the granular level, even more so than on a bike. You get a feeling of scale; the last time I was in New York I walked from the World Trade Center to Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and had no idea that they were actually so close, just over an hour’s walk. In that hour I walked through what felt like the history of the city, from office buildings to Chinatown to tenements to the Williamsburg Bridge to Williamsburg itself, a whole other world. I felt I was really beginning to understand the city. Ellege says this too:

And here’s one compelling argument for the superiority of urban walking: understanding cities matters, because they’re the place where many of our problems will ultimately be solved.

Bloor Street in Toronto is full of stuffIt's hard to walk on Toronto's Bloor Street for all the stuff there/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

If you walk a lot, you begin to see how cities work well and how they fail; there are popular walking streets in Toronto where I live, where on a nice day you can barely get by because of all the sidewalk junk. The delivery truck in the bike lane doesn’t make it very nice either. But then as I have noted before, people who walk and people who cycle (and now who scooter) are all fighting over crumbs. Here Elledge is right too:

There’s another argument in favour of walking in cities, one that’s more about the city than the walker: cities that encourage walking are nicer. Not just less polluted, though that’s often true, but more interesting, too: a street with heavy footfall is a street that’s likely to attract the bars and cafes and other things that make a city worth living in, in exactly the way a dual carriageway won’t.

Walking on south Bank in LondonWalking on the South Bank in London/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Walking is healthy. Walking is fun. People who walk engage with their cities in a different way, they are connected to it. It’s why walkable cities are such a joy. 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?

How walking might save the world (or at least our cities)
Cities work better when people can walk, and people get healthier and happier when they walk in cities.

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