by Carol A. Westbrook
When I was child, I knew every square inch of the streets in my Chicago neighborhood. I could tell you which trees grew where, which houses had the grumpy people to avoid on Halloween, which grass patches had four-leaf clovers, which stretch of sidewalk had the most black chewing-gum spots, and which playgrounds had the fastest slides. It was my world, a world of texture and wonder. I knew the detail so well because my school friends and I walked the half-mile home from school every day. Of course, that was back in the 1950's, when children were expected to walk home after school, and some of us even went home for lunch. The neighborhoods were safe then because everyone knew everyone else, and there were so many people on foot that they could look out for the kids.
Even today, I enjoy walking through the streets of my current neighborhood in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Come along with me and I'll show you things you wouldn't otherwise notice in a car. We can peer into the living rooms of grand houses, such as the one on the right, once owned by a politician or a wealthy coal mine-owner whose mine has long since been abandoned. Some of these stately homes have been gentrified, like mine, while others are derelict. I'll point out some very big, very old trees–and a small but thriving dawn redwood newly planted in a municipal park. We'll read the historical markers about Indian chiefs long dead, whose people have disappeared from our midst. We'll cross a bridge over the mighty Susquehanna River, and then walk over the levee into the bottomlands under the rusting train trestle bridge, where frogs jump and catfish hunt them–just a half-mile from the city center.
Recently I re-visited my old neighborhood in Chicago and walked home from school again. Fifty years later, and I still remembered much of the detail. A few of my favorite trees were still standing, much increased in girth. The penny-candy stores were gone from the corners, but Al's tavern was still there (with a new name, but the same old signs). Sadly, most of the houses had barred windows, and all the yards had locked gates. I was the only person on foot. Times have changed.
It is a sad fact of American life today that people don't walk. Perhaps they are out of the habit, or they never got into the habit. Many people are afraid they will get mugged. Others claim just don't have the time to walk (though they will pay monthly dues to join a health club so they can walk a treadmill). Most, though, will tell you that there is no place to go. I'm afraid I have to agree with them on this point.
If you are fortunate enough to live in a city like New York then you will have places to go on foot–and you probably don't need to drive at all. You can exit your front door, and walk around the corner to buy a gallon of milk or a print newspaper. The same is true of many foreign cities like Paris and London, and a few college towns or urban neighborhoods in the US. But for the rest of the country, you have to get into your car and drive to run an errand, or even to get to the mall or the health club.
For walkability, the worst place I ever lived was a perfect, well-built home with a large yard and attached garage, in the middle of a subdivision built on old farmland in Indiana. As you can see in the picture on the right, I could enter my car from the house via the attached garage, drive to work and back again, stopping at the fast-food drive-through-window to pick up dinner. I never had to experience the weather, and I had well over 20 fast food choices within a 5 minute drive! No wonder that one third of all adults in Indiana are overweight, with an average BMI over 30, making it the 7th most obese state in the country. People don't walk because there is no place to go.
It's well recognized that walking is good for your health. Just blog “reasons to walk” and you will come up with at least a dozen sites that are quick to point out the health benefits of regular walking: stress reduction, lowering blood pressure reducing weight, fighting osteoporosis. Clinical studies have shown that a program of regular walking will add years to your life: 150 minutes of brisk walking per week–the amount recommended by the American Heart Association as well as the federal government's Physical Activity Guidelines–will add an average of 3.4 years to your life. Better yet, do the calculations on calories. You can walk a mile to and from your local Dairy Queen, burning 100 calories per mile, enough to treat yourself to a guilt-free small vanilla ice cream cone. It's a win-win!
Walking is good for the health of a city, too. Urban developers are beginning to recognize the importance of foot traffic in city design. The more people are out and about on foot, the safer it is for everyone. Crime goes down and people feel more secure about going out for a walk. Small businesses and restaurants thrive as they remain open later in order to catch the evening crowd.
But it's going to be a long time before we get people out of their cars and on to their feet. That's because walking has to be something you WANT to do, not something you feel you OUGHT to do. Why would anyone want to walk? Because it's a great way to explore, find new shops and businesses, find out who has listed their property for sale, and keep an eye on the local conditions. Our neighborhood association keeps an eye on derelict properties, and looks out for building code violations; being on foot is the best way to do this. And as a walker you can more easily watch the seasons pass. You can enjoy the gardens when they are in bloom, and watch the trees turn red in the fall. You can visit with the dogs who are out walking their owners, and also have the chance to run into someone you know. You feel part of the neighborhood.
There is poetry in every neighborhood if you look for it. For me, that is the wonder of walking.