I’ve been taking a lot of strange walks lately. I circumnavigated the long-gone walls of Old Montreal not long ago, hiked between twin cities in Kitchener-Waterloo, even walked as far as I could get in 45 minutes from the arrivals hall at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. My motivation is that I’m working on a magazine feature about Marchetti’s Constant — the basic transportation principle, uncovered in the 1990s by Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti, stating that all the way back to the days of Neolithic cave dwellers, the mean amount of time human beings spend on their daily commute is about an hour, an hour and a half at most.
In the course of my meandering research, there are a few things I’ve stumbled across that I’d like to share now — a sort of snapshot of contemporary pedestrian culture.
1. Walking has become an act of dissent
For let’s say 14,900 of the years since the time when our ancestors left their caves every day to hunt and gather, the main mode of daily human transport has been walking. Even well into the 19th century, trains and boats and even horse-drawn carriages were vehicles mainly for rare long-distance or luxury travel. But our move to motorized, oil-powered transportation in the last half century or so has been so profound — especially in North America — that there are now vast swaths of our built environment (the zones around airports, for example) where simply walking feels like a fundamental transgression on the landscape.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that walking now needs advocacy and awareness campaigning. I could link to any number of nascent examples — Jane’s Walk campaigns, WalkScore rankings, the Congress for the New Urbanism — but here’s a more strident case in point: WalkDenver. There may be others, but this is the first civic action group I know of founded exclusively for pedestrian advocacy. (The WalkDenver website reports that its first goal is: “Create a movement!”)
Which makes me wonder: Are we on the verge of needing Critical Mass-type walks? Have some cities so totally de-pedestrianized that we now have to re-learn the art of bipedal transport from scratch?
2. An avenue of organized pedestrian dissent: Revive the stroll!
Here’s an intriguing blogpost I came across recently: “Sprawling is Tough for Strolling.” The blogger, Galina Tachieva, is a partner at Duany Plater-Zyberk, the urban design firm credited with pioneering New Urbanism. In the post, she talks about dvizhenie, a vanishing ritual from the Bulgaria of her mother’s youth in which everyone dressed in their finest clothes and simply strolled the local streets en masse.
Here’s Tachieva’s summary of the ritual’s meaning:
In the Bulgarian version of “dvizhenie” a modest street lined with houses and the occasional coffee shop or a store served the purpose as successfully. The main point was the interaction and the ritual; its setting was secondary. The strolling was a tradition for local residents, who engaged in it on a regular basis, usually on a Saturday, a logical day for leisure time in good company.
This talk of dvizhenie reminded me of "The Tomb in Seville," the British writer Norman Lewis’ memoir of his epic journey across Spain in the years before the Spanish Civil War. In most of the small towns he visited, the streets filled each evening for the paseo, a similar mass strolling ritual.
Maybe that’s how the pedestrian movement can gather its own critical mass — a simple, pleasurable evening ritual that works anywhere you can find people willing to give it a try. Bring back el paseo!
3. Chainlink is the enemy of the pedestrian
As any good urban designer knows, the landscape of the city gives us a million subtle clues as to how to behave. Signs — overt and implicit — tell us where to go and where not to. Streets with broad sidewalks lined with inviting shops and cafes invite us to come on in, and wide, desolate commuter arteries with fast-moving traffic tell us to stay away.
One of the things that’s really struck me on my Marchetti paseos, though, is how even in an otherwise welcoming pedestrian environment, the appearance of chainlink fencing often marked a street’s or neighborhood’s transition from walkable to car-centered. There’s something cold and forbidding about those utilitarian steel webs. They trap debris, and their bases tend to be difficult to properly maintain, so they often stand in thickets of weeds and trash. Businesses that want you to pop in on a whim don’t barricade themselves behind chainlink. It’s simply the cheapest, easiest way to fence off a patch of land from heavy traffic. Which is why it's the signal of a street that's built more for cars than for people.
In the absence of a global movement to tear the millions of miles of the stuff already erected, though, we’ll probably be living in chainlink-strewn cities for many years to come. So here’s a novel idea, evidently hatched in the Netherlands: designer chainlink. Lace Fence, a Rotterdam-based company builds elegant one-of-a-kind designs into its conventional chainlink, turning the city’s most inhospitable fencing into something artful.
Of course, the price tag for custom chainlink’s undoubtedly pretty steep. For a cheap DIY version, there’s always yarn bombing.
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