Urban Walking (Galway, Dublin, London, Paris, New York, Miami Beach, Lucknow)

Music: Stevie Wonder; Sharon Shannon, Mundy & Galway City; Bagatelle; Pet Shop Boys; St. Vincent; Billie Holiday; Jan Hammer; Divya Kumar

Most Humans Now Live in Towns and Cities

Most humans now live in towns and cities - the trajectory towards urban living has been heading in one direction for more than half century now, as the graphic from Our World in Data above makes pretty clear.

By definition, most of our future walking will happen in our towns and cities - if we shape our towns and cities around people.

Will our towns and cities become ever more car-dependent - pouring litres into pint pots, with spills all over the place? Or will we change how our towns and cities are organised, so populations and workplaces are more evenly matched and dispersed, reducing the daily morning and evening mass-movements by private and public transport?

The pandemic has brought many reports of tech workers leaving their cities - trading them for other smaller, perhaps more remote, urban places - and they are trading places with others who long for the city. But, truth be told - the populations of cities have always been in flux - people do come and go.

This chart from the European Environment Agency projects migration to cities will accelerate in the coming decades in less-developed regions, and will still continue in more-developed regions.

Will humans still seek the bright city lights post-pandemic? I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that humans being what they are - restless, novelty- and reward-seeking, hyper-social, increasingly well-educated, ageing, and all the rest of it - will seek the attractions of urban living. There are all sorts of other reasons, too: there are network effects and agglomeration effects in cities, where specialising in something is possible, because others are there, doing similar things. Los Angeles and Mumbai have given us Hollywood and Bollywood for that very reason. And these human networks are sticky, and difficult to move. They also attract related industries - specialised finance, logistics, management, for example - all focused on movie making. Moving Hollywood to Texas isn’t going to happen, any more than Bollywood moving to Kolkata.

There are going to be other urban challenges, post-pandemic: see here previously on the intersections between urban-living, and our increasingly well-educated, ageing world, bringing new challenges we have barely started to recognise.


Walking the city

I’ve recently 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.

There many reasons for this bias - some are straightforward - urban and suburban paths are outside my front door - and I want to make the most of them. Footstep for footstep, I generally enjoy urban walking more than rural walking. That’s not to say I dislike nature - I don’t! Nature is wonderful, and we desperately need to green our cities for all sorts of good reasons (there’s a list of benefits here).

Urban walking for me is the very best, incomparable, 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 and big things making a city different, interesting, and great.

I’m starting to digress a little. Here, I want to present a few memorable urban walks I’ve undertaken, and consider some thoughts by Stanley Milgram on the vitality of city living.

Cities possess a vitality, attractions, upsides, and downsides that make them singular. Walkable cities - cities that are designed for people moving about under their own steam - acquire a particularly sociable character. And town and cities continue to 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; download here - it is very readable), where he presented an early social psychological analysis of city living and city life.

In ‘living in cities’, Milgram explores 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 means the speed of life, and the quality of our interactions with each other. There is a density of social interaction afforded to people on foot into compact urban spaces unavailable in the countryside.

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, 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 crowded space 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.)

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Some of My Favourite Urban Walks

Now for a change of tack: here are a few urban walks I have really enjoyed in Ireland, France, India, the UK, and the USA, along with some music appropriate to each city.

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 2 hours).

Dublin: Nightwalking

I live in South County Dublin, close to the coast. Prepandemic - if I attended an evening or night-time event in Dublin city centre, I would 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 - but much longer, if you feel like it).

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 Dalkey 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 are place names that always enchant me: Otranto Place is one - how wonderful is that?

The recent pandemic has resulted in the provision of improved footpaths and cycleways in various parts of Dublin, including along the coasts. There really should be a continuous and generous sea-walk and cycleway with shelters along the entire perimeter of the bay; it would open Dublin 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 - or more, if you feel like it).

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 mostly 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 2 hours).

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 was living, 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

Paris gave us the names for 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 - maybe two hours - or so).

Another thing about Paris: Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, has embarked on an ambitious vision for transforming urban living into connected urban villages, with all of the amenities of life within a fifteen minute walk from your front door.

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).

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.

Memories of Collins Avenue, Miami Beach

A nearly 22 km 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.

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