Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Walking Around

The Ambulatory Life


All truly great thoughts 
are conceived while walking. 
― Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Few cities in North America are walking cities: New York is one; Montreal is another. You see much when you walk around, but few American cities have such an appeal. I remember staying in downtown Dallas on business in the early 1990s, and decided to stay over the weekend. With business wrapped up and much time on my hands, I decided to walk around on Saturday to explore Dallas and take in its sights.

I soon discovered that it was virtually deserted, save for many cars driving pass me at great speeds on their great roads. I found that experience both odd and disconcerting. Dallas might be a booming city for business, but it's not built as a walking city, notably on the weekends.

There are good reasons that I enjoy taking a walk, even in winter. I find myself agreeing with Nietzsche, who never had to contend with the automobile; I have long had the habit of taking a walk after lunch to clear my thoughts, notably after a morning of writing. And if I am stuck on a passage of writing, walking will usually put things in the right order, at least in my head. In that case, it's important that I walk alone, unaccompanied, since it's not conversation I am seeking but clarity. And conversation  although a pleasant distraction, can only muddle my thoughts.

Even so, there are the walks with a friend or a spouse, each walk different and with a different purpose. The walk with a spouse is to discuss matters that are important at home, including the children, bills, finances, vacations and future plans; it also invites intimacy and the intertwining of hands. The walk with a friend is slightly more distant, and involves discussing how each person is faring professionally and personally, and sharing thoughts or interests, including sports, politics, literature, music, ideas and the general state of the world.

Walking is fundamental to humans; and yet it is not always easily done in North American cities. To walk within the confines of a city requires that the city's urban design allow individuals to do so safely, without the possibility of being struck by an automobile. To be sure, the automobile is a wonderful convenience, allowing you to travel from place to place fairly quickly; the walk has a far different purpose than only getting to your destination, at least in a figurative sense.

Cities that have many green spaces, car-free zones, benches to sit on and aesthetics that are pleasing to the eye—including preservation of older buildings and landmarks— invite pedestrians. A city shouldn't be planned only for efficiency, but for human inhabitation. Many cities in North America are not.