When walking on my own through the streets of Richmond, Virginia on a sunny winter day last year, someone stuck her head out of her car and offered me help.
The offer was genuine and based on the assumption that walking alone in this particular city (and in fact most American cities) implied an emergency. Richmond, like so many other “horizontal” cities, which are spread out diffusely over vast areas (a commonly used example is Los Angeles) is organized around people in cars and their needs.
Consequently, people who drive everywhere see their cars as shells that protect them from the dangers of the outside world and make them feel more secure. It appears to me that in such environments, cars function as spatial and symbolic extensions of their owners’ homes and perhaps even of themselves. They play an important role in nearly all aspects of daily life. For instance, it is not uncommon to have restaurants integrated into strip malls, where in the summer patrons dine in the establishment’s “garden”, which is actually the parking lot, with their cars proudly parked beside them.
Additionally, the extent of drive-through services offered in American cities and suburbs, all of which exclude pedestrian access, is quite impressive: drive-through banks and ATMs, restaurants, pharmacies, cafes, liquor stores – the vehicle being a sine qua non requirement of access to money, consumption, commodities and, in the case of a drive-thru church, even to instant salvation.
Walking in a residential area in the U.S., especially in the suburbs, without a visible purpose such as a dog, a buggy, walking sticks or a sports outfit, does not conform to the rules of pedestrian movement outside of one’s property. Taking a seemingly purposeless walk unjustified by any pragmatic and socially accepted activity is suspicious, just like nudism is. “Carlessness” can easily signify carelessness.
In this context, such unwritten rules are not so remote from the main idea of Frank Lloyd Wright’s utopian (or dystopian) 1932 model of the “Broadacre City”, in which members of an ideally nuclear family could move freely within the area of their own, one-acre property. Everything outside of that nuclear cosmos was to be accessed by car or helicopter only.
In European cities, the plans of which predate widespread car use, walking often seems the simplest option; in the U.S., however, you have to be very careful about the context in which you walk. Walking can be dangerous, too: what is considered suspicious poses a potential threat to others, and it means that walking can make you appear not only vulnerable but also dangerous or insane. Not to mention the fact that if you happen to accidentally trespass on private property in the state of Virginia, as in many others with high rates of gun ownership and wide-ranging self-defense laws, you may actually be risking your life.
Walking, specifically in unwalkable contexts, must also be considered as a gender-specific issue. It is a socially and culturally widespread belief that women should not walk alone, especially in the dark. In order to feel safe while walking, you need to be among other people; you need crowds and the anonymity they provide to feel safe. Interestingly enough, most of the contemporary psychogeographers writing about their walking quests in the seemingly most unwalkable surroundings are male. Will Self writes about his walk from JFK airport to Manhattan, Geoff Nicholson describes, among others, his walks in L.A. and in the desert, Ian Sinclair walks along the London orbital – the M25, Nick Papadimitriou, who calls his practice “deep topography”, walks from Heathrow to Central London, and so on.
I wonder if I would have been offered help back in Richmond if I had been a man.
The situation looks slightly different in cities with more elaborate public transport networks and stricter gun laws, like San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and especially New York. These cities are often referred to as walkable and pedestrian-friendly.
My recent guests from Richmond were thrilled by the prospect of walking from Brooklyn to Manhattan; after three days spent together on foot, they told me that they hadn’t walked so much and slept so well in years. All of a sudden they realized how badly they had missed it. Even though it is hard to generalize (especially when living in New York City, where people – outfitted in polar gear if need be – walk even in the harshest weather conditions), there seems to be a certain nostalgia around walking, a feeling backed up by a media discourse that glorifies walkable cities.
Americans might be slowly rediscovering the art of walking, even if many still see it as quaint. U.S. cities are increasingly investing in new, strictly pedestrian areas and publicly accessible outdoor spaces, since people on the streets bring life to the city. Pedometers (step counters) in various forms, including phone apps, are very popular. Walking is promoted as the new freedom and as a healthy lifestyle, as opposed to the drive-thru car culture of high blood pressure and obesity.
Walking is healthy, liberating and makes you happy. It also is a factor that contributes to the desirability and attractiveness of cities. Reports based on census data show that more and more Americans decide to leave their suburban havens and move to cities – and walkability seems to be an important factor. The Huffington Post published a ranking of the top 10 most walkable cities in the U.S., promoting walking as a modern, healthy and sustainable lifestyle. Other rankings feature the categories “transit-friendly” and “bike-friendly” and talk about cities “scoring” in these disciplines of urban life.
Perhaps above all, walking is intellectually stimulating and urges creativity, as it makes you see things that are not visible from the inside of a car. Individuals moving freely are exposed to others as they pass each other or enter the same subway carriage. I remember one of my American colleagues being amazed by the spectrum of impressions he felt exposed to when moving as a pedestrian through Berlin.
He started writing a blog and felt inspired by the movement and by random acquaintances and encounters, in a way similar to that of various generations of flâneurs, street photographers and other artists before him who acquired their creative energy by diving into urban crowds. He told me recently that ever since this experience, his daily car commute in the U.S. has felt extremely lonely. Walking is a participatory urban activity that brings people closer to the cities they inhabit and makes them more sensitive to distances and to all other impulses. Crowds are necessary to shape the urban space in a way that allows for the emergence of anonymous observers, the followers of the modern artist-spectators. They protect them from being considered insane – which is just what happened in the case of author Robert Walser. In the second decade of the twentieth century, Walser took walks in the small and anything-but-anonymous Swiss city of Biel, where he was the one being observed by others. Since his walking was considered purposeless and his intentions were unclear, his behavior equaled insanity in the eyes of the observers.
The rediscovery of walking in the U.S. strikes me in many aspects as a matter of courage – if practiced, it requires a determination to walk against the structure of the car-centered city. It also means that you have to remove your second skin and leave it in the garage or the driveway, and, feeling a little bit more naked and free, enter the world on foot and feel it with every step.