Our brains look path gifts in the mouth

Whether we actually walk to places that might satisfy our needs is determined not just by what the place affords but how our brains perceive those offerings. Like our needs, these personal outlooks and landscape affordances are hierarchical―they operate on us sequentially from more to less basic.

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We assess paths and their destinations according to a hierarchy of what they afford us, from basic access to hoped for pleasure as one part of our decision of whether to walk somewhere or not.

A pre-eminent affordance of a path is accessibility. We must believe we can reach a path, and that  it reaches our intended goal. The presence of a sidewalk or trodden path, its condition, and its impediments as we perceive them all affect our sense of a route’s accessibility. Beyond that, we must perceive the path to be safe, preferably comfortable, and most discretionarily pleasurable to traverse.

Seeking to satisfy a basic need like survival, we will ignore danger and discomfort. Seeking to stroll, on the other hand, we will accept only more pleasant paths. The time we spend lingering outdoors is even more discretionary, and thus we become pickier, more demanding, than even for strolling. Since lingering—that is, periods of sitting, standing, or leaning—occurs along paths as part of walks, I will be reviewing requirements for places to linger as well.

Our thinking about our personal abilities, our peers approval, and our attitude toward walking affects whether we start out or not.

Our thinking about our personal abilities, our peers approval, and our attitude toward walking affects whether we start out or not.

Even with an accessible, smooth path and a sunny day, whether we decide to take a walk will depend on the need’s push as modified by our personal capacities and outlooks, another hierarchy. Basic to this hierarchy is feasibility, beyond which lie physiological, psychological, social, and cultural outlooks that may promote or impede our walking.

Feasibility derives from whether we believe we have the physical capacity, the time, and the freedom from other responsibilities to undertake a walk. Age and physical condition can limit one’s willingness to walk, as can child care or domestic chores.

The prospective path’s length and steepness also contribute to the decision. One proof is that the greater the distance between commercial and residential districts the less likely people are to walk between them other than to go to work. One study found that 70 percent of people will walk a tenth of a mile (160 m) for errands, 40 percent will walk a fifth of a mile (320 m), and only 10 percent will walk half a mile (800 m).

Feasibility is not absolute in an individual or a population.

Beyond walking or not, we decide how far and what kind of walk to take.

Beyond walking or not, we decide how far and what kind of walk to take.

Populations age, move, and change their perceptions about outdoor safety and the advantages of walking, while a person too tired or too occupied to walk one moment can moments later become hungry enough or carefree enough to stand up and head out the door.

An individual’s psychological outlook also helps decide the feasibility of a walk. My belief in walking as healthful exercise and mental stimulation may prompt me to walk where you might find it too challenging.

Cultural background, societal norms, and social support also make a walk look doable for some while daunting for others. Despite many prompting needs, an elder may stay indoors if his friends will not join in the walk. In one study, 90 per cent of the women interviewed said their busy schedules were the biggest barrier to walking, while 75 per cent met goals for increased walking by getting others to accompany them.

These prompters, affordances, and modifiers lead not simply to a walk/don’t walk decision but also to subordinate choices about the length and kind of walk to be taken, as shown here. Follow this link, to see what the overall model looks like.

Using this model of the walk decision-making process can help direct effective landscape intervention decisions by suggesting where people will want to walk and why, and thus how to configure supportive paths.

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