Are we walking for survival or self-satisfaction?

“A hungry people listens not to reason, nor cares for justice, nor is bent by any prayers.”

—Seneca. De Brevitate Vitae

The psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of human needs from most basic to most elevated that helps explain differing levels of attraction to landscape features where these needs can be satisfied.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of human needs from most basic to most elevated that helps explain differing levels of attraction to landscape features where these needs can be satisfied.

Why humans walk starts with an understanding of our needs. A hierarchy of human need is required that will tell us which goals are more compelling, and thus which paths need to be wider and stronger to support the heavier traffic that will be attracted.

In 1954, the psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a theory of human motivation that has since become influential. His hierarchy starts from the most basic physiological needs for survival, rises through the need for physical comfort to safety and up to the desire to belong to groups, then upward further to personal esteem and fully expressed humanity he called “self-actualization,” and even beyond those to “transcendence,” or altruism.

We humans, he argued, must typically satisfy a more primal need before addressing any higher need because the more basic need dominates us until it becomes at least partially satisfied. If we are dying of thirst, we will seek water without regard to danger, affiliation, or anything else. As a result, Maslow concluded that “the easiest technique for releasing the organism from the bondage of the lower, more material, more selfish needs is to gratify them.”

Physical comfort is akin to survival because it means whatever it takes―clothing, shelter, windbreaks―to prevent hypothermia, dehydration, sun poisoning, and the like. Safety and security is primal, too, in thwarting predators, preventing falls over cliffs, and avoiding getting lost.

Since few of our needs―whether for food and water, socializing, or self-esteem―can be satisfied sitting still, walking is often required for their fulfillment. To get food we must go to a garden, a food store, or a restaurant. The same applies elsewhere in the hierarchy―at every level, we need to be able to perceive and reach environments that are likely to fulfill our needs. Over time we have developed knowledge of which environments afford what we need, and which fail to by being barren, uncomfortable, or dangerous. The time involved can be the life of us as individuals or our evolution as a human species.

Using common sense or Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, it is easy to see that the most primal paths lead to water, food, and sunlight. Next most critical paths provide safety in the form of refuges and prospects and routes of escape. Slightly less critical are paths providing strolls taken with loved ones or leading to neighbors’ houses. Paths showing our self-respect or self-esteem relate to our homes, show or handiwork, contain personal souvenirs, or reflect our values. Uppermost, our altruistic outlook is incarnated in paths of benign design, built in harmony with their surroundings for lasting enjoyment of all.

Maslow cautioned about the general application of the hierarchy. Total gratification of a more fundamental need is not usually required to use a higher need to prompt walking. Indeed, some people are so routinely denied fulfillment of a certain need, such as affiliation with others, that they can be motivated by a higher-order need without first acquiring any affiliation. Thus, the order of the hierarchy can vary.

Maslow’s cautions about the hierarchy also apply to its use in motivating walking. Several needs can operate at once, and a person does not need to be consciously aware of any for them to motivate walking.

Since as a species we survived by knowing where to find food and water and where danger lurked, some of our reactions are to symbols or former sites of fulfillment. Places with water attract us not because we are thirsty but because water is basic to our survival and we will need it soon enough so it is best to have it at hand. These truths have led to the Habitat Theory, which will be considered in an upcoming post.

Thus, the most popular destinations for walks relate to food, water, clothing, or shelter, or the means to acquire them. Our most pressing and regular trips are to food stores and to workplaces where we earn the money to buy food, clothing, and shelter.

We also regularly travel to schools, where we satisfy our craving for learning for its own sake, for understanding the world around us, for social interaction, and for mastering skills that will build character and gain us a living.  The need for knowledge is fundamental to us humans―after all, we have developed expressly as the pre-eminent cognitive animal. So we are attracted to almost any place that promises more information, that offers an invitation to explore. Although Maslow did not list a need to know in his hierarchy, it is such a powerful motivator, it should be included as a mid-level kind of motivator and path destination.

Self-esteem expresses itself in our desire for autonomy, the ability to make our own decisions. Path systems support that need by offering choices of route, different paths to destinations, and alternate routes home. Such redundancy serves other purposes as well, particularly accommodating different walkers and different needs, increasing system capacity and avoiding bottlenecks.

The most basic needs―for food and water, mates, and shelter―tend to drive destination walks more; higher-order needs—affiliation, comfort, self esteem,  and altruism—tend to motivate strolls.  However, as William H. Whyte documented, even our favorite outdoor locales for leisure have the fundamentals: water and food, other people for viewing or socializing, seating, and sun or shade for comfort.


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