I have been endlessly fascinated by walking. I asked myself Why We Walk while I walked 400 km on the Camino de Santiago. A recent article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker has brought me to this question again in a new context. The article talks about what it means to be a pedestrian in the modern world and how the role of walking has changed as it’s become less necessary. The sad thing about walking for pleasure instead of necessity means that it occurs less. Many of us spend our lives in the sitting position: sitting in cars to then go sit at work and then sitting at home after a long day of sitting. I’m generalizing here as I call myself out on my sedentary life. Our bodies are made to walk, so I must ask myself, Why Don’t We Walk?
Roads are not enjoyable to walk in an increasingly auto dependent world. When living in a residential area there isn’t much activity to make walking around something that invites ‘randomness’. Adam Gopnik writes in the New Yorker about Why We Walk. He says,”We start walking outdoors to randomize our experience of the city, and then life comes in to randomize us.” The sidewalks are public space. In the suburbs we have a lot of private space and little public space. I have to wonder how it could affect our psyche to not brush up against the world. I wonder what we take away when we lose the opportunity to have chance interactions in indeterminate public spaces. I wonder how creative we could be as a culture if the majority of our interactions with strangers didn’t occur over money exchanges. Adam Gopnik talks about the vague excitement and pure chance of walking in New York City.
You could walk anywhere. Saturday all day, Sunday all day, I’d tramp through the lower-Manhattan neighborhoods. The differences, architectural and social, among Tribeca and SoHo and the East Village, to name only contiguous areas, were distinct and vivid and nameable then: cast-iron buildings shading off into old egg- and paper-carton factories sweetly interrupted by small triangular parks, and edging over, as you walked east, into poor-law tenements that were just being reclaimed by painters. I would set off on a Saturday morning and walk all day, and achieve Kazin’s feeling of vague excitement, of unearned release, in a way that I have never felt before or since.
I like this description because it shows the way he was able to interact with the environment around him as a walker. Suburbs that are designed for cars make walking an outdated form of transportation. It’s inefficient and time consuming if you live in a city that’s designed for cars rather than pedestrians. In the suburbs, there aren’t many people dancing in the ‘sidewalk ballet’ as Jane Jacobs puts it. So, I just wonder what a healthier culture there would be if there were more public space for people to live outward facing lives that brushed up against each other.
The article brings up a quote from Frédéric Gros’s book A Philosophy of Walking, “The purpose of walking, is not to find friends but to share solitude, for solitude too can be shared, like bread and daylight.” This quote to me highlights the sort of communion we can have with each other while walking. While I was walking the Camino, I felt that communion with fellow walkers as well as with the landscape. I was sharing solitude with the landscape. I think taking away that walking aspect of communion in our lives further isolates us from nature.
The way cities are built both limits and makes walking less appealing. It’s not just design though, it’s safety. This simple act is not as accessible to women because many women feel uncomfortable walking alone or at night. As this article shows the cultural and spiritual significance of walking, it seems that the ability to walk freely without harassment should be seen as a human right, and the inability to do so, a violation of our basic rights.
Pedestrian as an adjective means lacking excitement or dull yet there is such power in being a pedestrian. Walking reclaims our public spaces. Our bipedal nature is becoming obsolete by design. Let’s get out of our cars and start walking more. Walking has been used as a form of protest and I think that in an increasingly auto-dependent world, there has never been a better time to go for a walk.