Urban Walking is the best…!

I’ve just written a book about the science of walking – how we do it, why we do it, where we do it, and why it’s good for us. I’m often asked about country walking (which I enjoy), but, If I’m honest about it, I generally prefer urban to rural walking. It’s right on my doorstep, and just needs a comfortable pair of shoes.

people walking on street between buildings
Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

And, of course, 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. Walkable cities acquire a particularly sociable character. Cities attract people to live in them, despite their downsides. Why is this? The renowned social psychologist Stanley Milgram wrote a remarkable, and sometimes overlooked, paper entitled “The experience of living in cities” (1970[i]), where he presented an early social psychological analysis of city living and city life. Milgram was celebrated for his idiosyncratic and pioneering research, including his disturbing studies on obedience[ii].

In his ‘living in cities’ paper Milgram explores many facets of city life, from the high degree of stimulation cities provide, to the anonymity they afford. He also focuses on the tempo and pace of city life. By tempo and pace he is referring to the speed of life, and the quality of our interactions with each other. There is a density of social interaction afforded by crowding many, many people on foot into compact urban spaces. Milgram suggests that measuring walking speed in a variety of large cities, smaller towns, and villages could be instructive. He cites an unpublished study by William Berkowitz, who measured walking speeds in major US cities (Philadelphia, New York, Boston), and in smaller towns. Milgram cites Berkowitz as stating “There does appear to be a significant linear relationship between walking speed and size of municipality, but the absolute size of the difference varies by less than 10%” (p. 1467). This is the first mention I can find (in the scientific literature) examining if your walking speed differs, depending on the city that you are walking in. No further details are provided, sadly and regrettably. We are left, along with Milgram, pondering if this variation in walking speed arises simply because of the need to avoid other people when walking about in the city. People need to dart quickly here and there to avoid what otherwise would be unavoidable collisions. Of course, writers through the ages and our own anecdotal experience suggest that the pace of life does vary between small villages, medium-sized towns, and large cities. People leave the city to enjoy a slower pace of life, and go to the city in order to be stimulated by it (more details in Chapter Six of In Praise of Walking)

Here are a few urban walks I recommend in Ireland, France, India, the UK and the USA…

Galway-Salthill (West coast of Ireland): One of the best urban walks in Ireland for me is walking from Eyre Square in Galway, out through Shop St, down Quay St, past the Spanish Arch, through the Claddagh, and on to the Promenade in Salthill. The Promenade walk has been extended at Blackrock, running down behind the Golf Course, on towards the holiday and caravan parks of Knocknacarra. This is a great walk, proceeding along Galway Bay with fabulous views across to Clare, gray light dancing on seawater, and the feeling you’re approaching the end of the world. Sometimes visible are the Aran Islands, and beyond, the great emptiness of the Atlantic, bringing inland storms and rain, providing the dangerous route to the New World beyond. There’s plenty of good coffee en route, and heading back to town via Threadneedle Road, Taylor’s Hill, St Mary’s Road and the Cathedral is a nice circle back to Eyre Square. Galway could easily be the most walkable city in Ireland; the urban planners need to stop pouring cars into its medieval streets (about 1 hour 45 mins).

Dublin: Nightwalking – I live in South County Dublin, close to the coast. If I attend an evening or night-time event in Dublin city centre, I will usually, weather permitting, walk toward home, down Baggot St or Northumberland Road, past the RDS, the Merrion Gates and on to Blackrock (if I’m tired, I might catch the DART here). I started doing this back in the days when there were long queues for taxis at taxi-ranks – you could always hail one on the return journey, once you were decently out of town. On a late autumn evening, with daylight a fading memory, this is a glorious walk. It’s quiet, cars are few, and the views (of the houses along the road, and across the bay to Howth) are wonderful. The distant lights sparkle, and the slow-moving, laden boats and ships heading for Dublin port bring the mystery of distant lands. Nightwalking is a sensory contrast to day-walking: the sights, sounds and smells are different, and somehow more intense. Lights within houses afford occasional glimpses of lives not visible during the day (about 1 hour and 30 mins).

buildings with waterfront view
Photo by Steven Hylands on Pexels.com

Dublin: Day-walking – Coastal Dublin is really quite special, and we really need to turn the face of the city toward the sea. A walk hugging the coast from Sandycove to Booterstown is wonderful; the sea to the right, the city suburbs to the left. Much of this walk can be taken along quiet paths away from the traffic. The Dart trundles along beside you, and the occasional seabird hovers and swoops from above; the expansiveness of the bay, with continual changes of orientation toward Howth is arresting. There really should be a continuous and generous sea-walk and cycleway with shelters along the entire perimeter of the bay; it would open the city out to the bay in the most delightful and wonderful way, and provide another means for people to get around under their own steam (about 1 hour 20 mins).

London: Day-walking – There are so many walks in London, from glorious parks and streets to gritty and grim urban villages. London changes merely by turning a corner; there’s no homogenising master-plan here, as the city is continually remade. One lovely walk is to start at the World’s End Estate, near the River Thames in Chelsea. Head up the King’s Road, on through Eaton Square Gardens, and then to Green Park. Piccadilly awaits (call into Hatchards bookshop); then take the backstreets through Mayfair. Cross Oxford Street (don’t hang around – it’s not worth it), and head for the Wallace Collection (a really lovely and not especially well-known museum). Then onto Marylebone High Street – rest your feet in La Fromagerie, with its great cheeses and food. No visit to Marylebone is complete without going to Daunt’s bookshop – possibly the most beautiful bookshop in London. The room to the rear, with books organised by country of origin, rather than topic, is a bibliophile’s delight (about an hour and a half).

scenic photo of bridge during dawn
Photo by Pierre Blaché on Pexels.com

A London Walking Memory: It’s cold, sunny, spring Sunday, years ago in London. I’m not broke, exactly, but money is tight, working as an office temp. But I have a weekly Travelcard, allowing me to travel all the way from Streatham, south London, where I live, to anywhere worth going in the vastness of London, so I can spend time just wandering about. My Travelcard is my passport to the city. I go to meet my brother at Liverpool Street Station. He’s just travelled in from Essex, where he’s studying. Where will we go? A short walk to Petticoat Lane market, then a long wander about and through the market, which seems to go on for ever. Then eventually we escape, and head south to the river, and into the Dickensian streets of Wapping. The narrow streets, not then gentrified, with buildings of brown and grey brick and stone, and few people about. This jumble of cobbled streets, so different to other parts of London, feels like a walk into the past. The weather is wonderful – one of those London times when the sun shines, the city is quiet, the air is cool, and it feels like the day will last forever. We walk along the High Street, parallel to the Thames. Wonderful. A long looping walk eventually takes us back to Liverpool Street, and our separate journeys home. (About 3 hours).

Paris: Day-walking and Nightwalking in Paris is one of life’s great treats; Paris gave us the original urban walkers – the flâneur and the boulevardier. A really nice walk is (ironically) between two monumental cemeteries: proceed from the cemetery in Montparnasse (Cimetière du Montparnasse: go see Samuel Beckett’s grave, or that of Simone de Beauvoir or Jean-Paul Sartre, among many others), then head along via Le Jardin du Luxembourg or the Boulevard St Michel, and then onto Isle-St-Louis (averting, or not, your gaze from Notre-Dame). From here, head to the Pompidou, and visit the Fontaine Stravinsky (which manages to be silly and beautiful). Finally, head via the Marais to Père Lachaise Cemetery; here, watch the people standing in awe (and, often, in tears) at Jim Morrison’s grave (but remember, Callas and Chopin are here too, amongst many others). Finish off with a coffee and a carafe d’eau in one of the local cafes (Gate-to-gate, about an hour and a half or so).

photo of alley during daytime
Photo by Shvets Anna on Pexels.com

India: Evening-walking – A few years ago, I was speaking at a conference in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India. An historic, though small, city by Indian standards – only about 3 million people. It’s a warm evening, but a nice time of year, so the walk will be pleasant. My hotel is close to the Gomti River, as well as some very pretty urban parks. You can loop around the parks, then head upriver, and eventually turn off on Naibullah Road, following a winding circumnavigation back to the river. The sights and smells of India are intense. The noise of the cars, the smell of cooking, the smell of diesel and kerosene, the mopeds and spices. It’s exhilarating, crowded, the friendliness of the people. I love India. It gets under your skin. Night falls so quickly there; blink, and it is dark (about an hour and a half).

man holding white sack walking beside street stores
Photo by Fancycrave.com on Pexels.com

Memories of New York: I’ve wandered all about the great green lung that it is Central Park, and have then taken the plunge down Fifth Avenue. I stand and view the garish gold on Fifth and 56th, and pass on eating in the Tower’s atrium. A little under two hours later, I’m at Columbus Park in Lower Manhattan. I’ve heard countless accents and languages. Wondered about the steam rising from the subway grates. Studied and smelled the food offered by the vendors. There are too many pretzels on offer, though. Human diversity in its wonderful splendour is on display, with gradations according to the city block. I now wonder, was the future President-elect enthroned in his Tower as I walked past on that Saturday morning? In all honesty, though, I haven’t walked enough of New York; sometime, I would like to properly walk the outer boroughs.

vehicles on road between high rise buildings
Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

Memories of Collins Avenue, Miami Beach: this is nearly 22 kilometres long, with stunning art deco hotels, and pastel colours that I found hard to believe could be real. I walk a long walk, and loop back to my hotel via Atlantic Way. Hungry, I go to eat in a little Cuban restaurant. I order my food, and chat with the waiter. He asks me where I’m from. I say, Ireland, Dublin. He replies with a comment I’ve never heard anyone make before. ‘I collect accents’ he says, ‘can you say ‘I am from Dublin, Ireland’ please?’ I do, and he tries to impersonate my accent. On the third or fourth go he does a passable imitation, then tapes himself saying ‘I am from Dublin, Ireland.’ We both laugh.

parked white coupe
Photo by Julia Kuzenkov on Pexels.com

In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk, and Why it’s Good for Us’ (PenguinRandomHouse).

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Selected as Book of the Month, August 2019 by argosybooks.ie and agreatread.co.uk);

Book of the Week: Sunday Independent

Walking upright on two feet is a uniquely human skill. It defines us as a species.

It enabled us to walk out of Africa and to spread as far as Alaska and Australia. It freed our hands and freed our minds. We put one foot in front of the other without thinking – yet how many of us know how we do that, or appreciate the advantages it gives us? In this hymn to walking, neuroscientist Shane O’Mara invites us to marvel at the benefits it confers on our bodies and minds.

In Praise of Walking celebrates this miraculous ability. Incredibly, it is a skill that has its evolutionary origins millions of years ago, under the sea. And the latest research is only now revealing how the brain and nervous system performs the mechanical magic of balancing, navigating a crowded city, or running our inner GPS system.

Walking 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. Walking together to achieve a shared purpose is also a social glue that has contributed to our survival as a species.

As our lives become increasingly sedentary, we risk all this. We must start walking again, whether it’s up a mountain, down to the parkor simply to school and work. We, and our societies, will be better for it.

Reviews

New Scientist: ‘’informative and persuasive enough to rouse the most ardent couch potato’

The Times: “Fascinating … O’Mara argues [walking] is intimately connected to our bodies, our brains, and ultimately how we exist as a species”

Sunday Times: “Convincing and compelling … In Praise of Walking is peppered with insights about everything from 19th-century poets and flâneurs to modern-day experiments with subjects playing video games in fMRI scanners”

Observer: “Walking makes us healthier, happier and brainier … [O’Mara] knows this not only through personal experience, but from cold, hard data”

Gina Rippon, author of The Gendered Brain: “Full of insights… an accessible and thought-provoking discussion of walking as a key to human success”

Harper’s Bazaar: “A fascinating new book that examines the multitudinous benefits of this form of locomotion”

[i] Milgram, S. (1970). The experience of living in cities. Science167(3924), 1461-1468 (https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1728966.pdf)

[ii] O’Mara, S.M. (2015). Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience Of Interrogation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist

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