Does walkability reflect Earth’s livability?

“Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.” —Jane Jacobs

 

Miners used to place a caged canary near the ceiling of a mine tunnel to provide an early warning of impending disaster. If the canary died, miners knew poisonous gas was building up in the mine, and they had to get out in a hurry.

Walkers are today’s canaries in the mine: unfortunately, “the mine” has moved above ground and is now the Earth’s inhabited surface. Walkers are those people who choose to go outdoors to visit or inhabit the earth’s surface. In doing so, we repair ourselves physically and mentally, but, in the largest sense, walking and walkers repair the Earth. We cannot help but engage with our surroundings. The terrain, the landscape features, and the weather determine how we place our feet, where we go, and how we feel. But we in turn act on our surroundings, natural and human. We pick up trash, move obstacles, and lift up fallen bikes. We direct lost children and greet acquaintances and strangers alike. Building community is not done from inside a moving car. Good Samaritans and cops on the beat are always on foot.

When we go outdoors—strolling, browsing, jogging, or walking toward destinations or for exercise—others are drawn outdoors as well. The presence of people (be they young or old, women or men, fit or infirm) draws others outdoors by illustrating that the place is safe and comfortable. For humans, there is no delight like the presence of others, and no greater indication that a place is habitable.

The small social interactions and public discourse that happen along sidewalks and in plazas, squares and other well populated public places form the backbone of community and society.  For example, during the Arab Spring we observed that public plazas and parks incubate democracy: a direct relationship to the marketplaces and meeting places, the original forums, of ancient Greece and Rome, which citizens reached on foot to interact with each other.

Due to their role in developing public life and community, walking and lingering are particularly critical in cities. And cities are increasingly critical because since the year 2000, more than half the world’s population calls a city home, a majority expected to reach three quarters of the planet’s population by 2050. In cities, 90 per cent of people’s presence in streets and parks comes from their strolling, sitting, eating at outdoor cafes, and otherwise lingering outdoors. The other 10 percent of people in the streets are hustling between car and office, supermarket or school. We know instinctively to avoid streets where that is all people are doing. So urban cores are only viable to the extent walkers are willing to linger there and designing well for walking and lingering outdoors in cities is critical for the livability of the planet.

(For a gallery of urban images that expands on this point, click here.)

People outdoors make cities livable

We are attracted to urban spaces filled with people, considering them interesting and safe. Here a monthly Art Walk draws thousands to the streets and squares of Portland, Maine, summer and winter.

Still,  in the last 50 years in developed countries, as suburbs have sprawled and automobiles have proliferated, more and more people have stopped walking as a matter of course. Who leaves the house to amble along empty streets who doesn’t have to? Who leaves their car where so much traffic, noise, glare, wind, and fumes have emptied the plaza? Who enters any place without paths?

No, in these settings, hardly a single canary from among us still flutters. Yet, if no one lingers on the trail or sidewalk, in the street or plaza, we rightfully say that the place is dead.

But walking is what humans do: walking upright is what caused us to evolve as human.  How do we stay human—creatures on two legs—without walking?

Given the centrality of walkways to our landscapes and the importance of walking to our lives as humans, how could path layout and design not be important?  As a result, isn’t attention to walking paths needed—increasingly—to keep us canaries alive?

 

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