Monday 20 April 2020

In praise of urban walking

If the fit and active amongst us hadn’t already realised, we are all rediscovering the joys of walking. Whether your lockdown is partial or complete, the appeal of our open spaces has never been so great. Luckily, if you live in a place where the world outside your front doorsteps hasn’t been designated out-of-bounds, you can still enjoy the freedom of the outdoors, however confined your social space. Never before have there been so many walkers and so few cars. But paradoxically, whilst we are seeking popular recreational spots - often all at the same time - we are invading each other’s personal spaces, precisely what we should be avoiding. It’s fine if you live in the country, but if not, the higher the population density, the greater the pressure on the parks, beaches and woodlands near our urban dwellings. No wonder the powers that be are stepping in and closing off routes and car parks that provide access to these local beauty spots. Like it or not, if we want to preserve our environment and at the same time stay safe, we are going to have to be more resourceful about how we recreate and instead make do with the commonplaceness of our own neighbourhoods.

Our world might be getting smaller, but even if the bounds of our geographical realm are limited to a radius of one-kilometre (as in France), that’s 3.14 square kilometres to discover, rising to a whopping 78.5 square kilometres for a zone with a five-kilometre radius (Belgium). A more sensible yardstick might be what’s within walking distance of our homes, which is probably somewhere in between the two measures I’ve specified above. That’s still a lot of ground to cover!

But space is only one factor in the distancing equation. Now that our lives are no longer dictated totally by our working hours, we don’t all have to go at the same time. You can enjoy a walk any time of the day: early morning, late evening or even in the middle of the night! As the days in the northern hemisphere get longer, so does the scope for daylight walking. We no longer have to be creatures of habit!

But there is another overriding reason why we should be out walking:
It is undeniably good. It is good for our muscles and posture; it helps to protect and repair organs, and can slow or turn back the ageing of our brains. With our minds in motion we think more creatively, our mood improves and stress levels fall.
These are not my words (though I wish they were), but those of Shane O’Mara, a neuroscientist working at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland who has written about the physical, but above all, the mental benefits of walking. He practices what he preaches and is a passionate walker, but even more so, a passionate urban walker:
Walking is the way to get to know a new city: rambling out, about, on foot, taking in the sights and sounds and smells and sense of the new city. Enjoying getting footsore while noticing the little things making a city different, interesting, and great. Cities possess a vitality, attractions, upsides, and downsides.

In other words, for us townies, there is a world out there waiting to be discovered on our own doorsteps – in terms of fauna and flora, culture, history, architecture and – crucially – sensorially. View your surroundings in a different way, observe the subtle changes in nature over the seasons and the different angles and intensities of light throughout the day. Record it photographically if you wish. Sometimes it can feel like stepping out onto a different planet if we compare a walk we make in summer to the same one we made last winter. In spring, even over the course of week, much can change.

Wherever you live, there is plenty to hold our interest within walking distance of our homes. If you’re interested in wildlife, but never had the time, look for the tell-tale signs of spring in birdlife around you: April and May are the months when migrating birds arrive back in our midst to breed. Listen out for the warbled flute of the blackbird as it sings from its elevated perch, and the sounds of swifts as they screech around the rooftops late in the evening. Try to identify wild flowers (aka weeds) growing between the paving stones. Since your local council has probably decided unsightly wayside plants are no longer a priority, they are now growing in profusion. Less traffic also means less air pollution, so at night lift your eyes and binoculars up to the stars and discover the planets and constellations.

The built environment is often no less inspiring than the natural one. Find an old map (there are plenty online), check out how much your neighbourhood has changed over the years, walk the streets and discover the secrets of their past. It doesn’t have to have been grand architectural schemes or remarkable feats of civil engineering that have transformed your neighbourhood, just subtle, almost imperceptible developments. If we only realised, history is slowly evolving before our very eyes. It’s more than likely that someone famous lived in your area, there may be a special architectural attraction, a commemorative plaque, a deserted railway line, an industrial shell or a canal towpath. There may even be some graffiti that’s worth admiring!

What about kids? Why not create a treasure hunt for them to do in your neighbourhood, using architectural features and street furniture as your guide. That way your kids can uncover the idiosyncracies of your neighbourhood on foot too.

My own personal realm spans the entire urban field from bustling town centre to serene woodland on the urban fringe. It’s a treasure-trove waiting to reveal itself, with a history that dates back to Roman times, but which also has a landscape more latterly scarred by coalmining. The industrial age brought to the region much expertise, innovation and prosperity and this is reflected in its diverse and modern architecture. The area was also traumatised by war, as the seventy or so Stolpersteine dotted around town bear witness: these are small brass plates embedded in the pavement and inscribed with the name and life dates of victims of Nazi persecution. More recently, my adopted home town has seen a burgeoning of street art, with gable ends and building facades all over town being adorned with massive murals.

A Stolperstein in Turin

If you choose to go outdoors, do so sensibly and in compliance with the guidelines that apply in your own country. Choose a route that minimises your social contact. Be more flexible with the times you go out, it doesn’t have to be in the afternoon or at weekends. But most of all, discover and enjoy the delights of walking!