There’s something about walking. Studies continually show us that walking can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, in addition to the benefits to physical health from moving our bodies just to get around.
Cities, generally, are designed to be walked. Walking means we can dictate our own tour schedules, with no peak time travel charge, and possibilities open up beyond bus stops, tram routes, and metro stations. choosing to skip out on places or stop and linger longer. It means a journey from A to B can be just that, or run through the entire alphabet of diversions en route as we invent our own routes and build new connections.
I think there’s so much to be gained from setting out to stretch our legs and test our bearings whenever we visit new places, or become reacquainted with the old familiar streets. Here are my five top reasons why exploring cities on foot is the way to go.
Five Reasons to Walk in Cities
To move on a human scale and at a human pace
Walking is an ordinary practice, done without affording it any attention, and we walk on by everyday, often wishing the time away. But by embracing the action, not the destination, we recalibrate our focus on the moment, and give attention to ordinary time. Driving, or taking a taxi is an insulating experience, cocooned within steel and glass from the culture and context of a city, whereas walking makes a city exist on a human scale.
It reveals the connections between locations, and the living arteries that feed the oxygen of city life. The way people move around us, going about their everyday lives, inscribing their personal geographies on the streets. Walking uncovers the things in the city you didn’t know you wanted to see, the small sensations; the resonant sounds, sudden bright splashes of colour, wafting scents, the things that translate into the experiences all travellers relish.
To reveal layers of history
Walking in a city can be as much moving through time as through space, as the pace of our movement gives time to appreciate the tiny details. Deep-time geological forces shaping the very foundation. Architecture, monuments, bricks and glass. The shapes and colours of the built environment that unfold an atlas into the past, and the personal stories and associations seeded within. Street names, districts, parks and trail marks that tell the story of what once was, serve as portals to descend through time and offer new opportunities for exploration. Paradox-free time travel.
To develop our sense of, and for, place
Many of us now spend the majority of our time indoors, never more true than in our era of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. We often live in a series of disconnected interiors; at home, in the office or workshop, in shops, restaurants, bars, galleries. Walking allows us to start to occupy the spaces in between, and move through the whole of our worlds.
We start to uncover hidden nooks and crannies in places we once overlooked; parks and gardens, small patches of green space that are refuges for the wild among the built environment; the riversides, canal paths, and harbours that once bustled the way roads and carparks do now. Landmarks fulfil their purpose as focal points in the cityscape, aiding navigation as we build our personal maps and orientate our experiences around them.
Breathing, and thinking, space
Once you start to walk, it opens up a whole lot of space mentally as well as geographically. The regular rhythm of your movement, the steady measure of your feet, can be the best way to clear your head, cast off everyday concerns, and start to process your experiences. These can be anything from starting to draft out the article or blog post you might write about your visit, to much deeper analysis of just how you happened to be right there, at that exact moment in time, and how this will moment will shape your onward course in life. Personally, I find that the unconscious activity of aimless walking for hours is absolutely essential for thinking deeply in this way.
You’ll never step in the same city twice
To appropriate the sentiment from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, it’s never the same city we revisit, shaped as it is by the progression of time, the turn of the seasons, and the impacts of current affairs, and neither are we the same people. The intangibles of the place that confirm it’s geography, pinning down latitude and longitude, but fluxing with weather and season and mood in the here and now.
A chance turn down a side street that leads to a new café with excellent coffee, or street vendor serving up a local speciality. A view of an intriguing piece of street art, interpreting the local political or cultural situation, or a glimpse of a flyer for a performance or gig at a venue yet unvisited. The ebb and flow of water in the serpentine length of the river. Sun cast shadows on the path through the park, a drift of blossom, dappled leafy darkness, or skeletal bare branches. Breezes, showers, sunrises and sunsets. Flashes of quick beauty.