Walking and wandering are two very different things. Walking is functional; it is merely the act of getting from A to B on our own two legs. But when we wander, it is the journey–not the destination–that matters. Somewhere between these two, there has to be a happy medium. In many of today’s sprawling cities, traveling on foot can be difficult, if not impossible. Even when sidewalks and crosswalks are available, many suburban and urban landscapes are so debased that they provide little inspiration for wandering. To get lost on foot in Paris is a pastime; in Phoenix, it’s a headache.
Between walking and wandering, there is a somewhat political act. It is the decision to walk in spite of one’s environment, and to find enjoyment in humanizing the landscape simply by being present. When I visited Los Angeles for the first time earlier this year, I told several of my friends about my plans to spend much of my time in the famously sprawling city on foot; each and every one of them told me that I was foolish to try. “You just can’t walk around LA like New York,” one said, in an earnest attempt to dissuade me. “People look at you like you’re a crazy person.”
Of course, LA turned out to be a fabulous city for walking, with its elaborate flora and its truly unpredictable urban fabric. Objectively, I can see where some people would find it ugly and alienating for a pedestrian. But then, there’s something to be said for thinking of walkability more as a mindset than a physical condition. We can build environments that encourage more walking, but we must also pay closer attention to peoples’ motivations for walking, and how we can encourage more people to choose to walk: for the sake of their health, and for the health of their communities.
At Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place, McGill University’s Kevin Manaugh spoke about the psychology of why people do or do not choose to walk. “Walkability is not a one-size-fits-all object that we can just build,” he argued. “Often, we think of walkability as the meeting of urban form and content, but we need to remember to bring in resident needs. Walkability is at the intersection of those three things.”
Intent on learning more about that very intersection, landscape architect Martin Kohler spends much of his time moving through cities (doing something between walking and wandering) documenting what he calls his Big Urban Walks. Based on the dérive methodology, Kohler’s 35-70 mile journeys connect two points on the outskirts of a given metropolitan area, with the route between being “guided by the space of the city.” He documents his walks with field notes, GPS tracks, and thousands of photographs. Every time his surroundings change, Kohler snaps a pic; later, he stitches them all together into fascinating, rapid-fire saunters that allow viewers to traverse places like London (above), São Paulo, Las Vegas, and Detroit in about ten minutes.
Watching these videos, I was struck by how much I was reminded of the urban to rural transect tool developed by the New Urbanism crowd. Particularly in the London video, you can see the countryside give way to the suburbs, and watch as the buildings grow taller and closer together towards the urban core. Once past the gherkin, the same transformation happens in reverse, and the screen fades from gray to green. Kohler is indiscriminate when it comes to what Manaugh calls form and content; he walks through bustling historic districts, crumbling slums, and wide open spaces. The city is presented with all of its pockmarks and postcard shots together, in a portrait of urban complexity.
Kohler’s photos are utilitarian, not precious. This, combined with the rapid speed at which images flash by, allows the occasional moment of surprising beauty to strike with the same poignancy that it might have in person. Just as quickly as a beautiful mural or eccentrically-dressed passerby appears, they’re gone. Moments later, across the city, a family passes by, the children in suits and ties; off to some special occasion. These videos take place over the course of a few days, allowing you to actually start to see the rhythm of the streets. This is the life of the city, captured on film.
In the end, it is that life–that thrum of human interaction–that is at the heart of true walkability. When we choose to walk–or even wander–through areas that are more Phoenix than Paris, we make the statement: people should be here. Barring physical impairment, we all have the ability to walk; it is within our power to create a better city simply by being present. Head outside and walk around a bit. See for yourself.