• For women, walking in cities means reclaiming public spaces and flouting a culture that casts us as objects or elegates us to the domestic. (Getty Images)
Walking can be an enriching, powerful way to slow down and connect with the place you live in — as long as you benefit from freedom of movement, writes Neha Kale.
By
Neha Kale

26 Jan 2017 - 12:37 PM  UPDATED 26 Jan 2017 - 12:38 PM

My relationship with favourite places has nothing to do with the presence of late night wine bars or the probability of decent coffee, but the potential to take interesting walks. When I lived in Melbourne, I loved nothing more than strolling to the markets, past crumbling Victorian terraces and working factories operated by third-generation migrants.

On a recent trip to New York, a place that practically wrote the book on street life, stumbling across basketball courts filled with kids of all backgrounds trading crackling insults and community gardens wedged between pricey cupcake stores attuned me to the bass line of that city more than any museum ever could. In Sydney, my daily walk is a forty-minute ode to grandmas drinking tea in their bathrobes and tradies cursing around yawning potholes, punctuated by a cat snoozing on the sidewalk and that mood-lifting scent of a frangipani tree in full bloom.

Ironically, walking through the city – exempt from screens, deadlines and the pull of Twitter –  is the one time I feel connected to both the world and myself. It’s the one time, to use the modern-day parlance, I am mindful.

Technically, moving through the places we live in should be a mundane pleasure, simple and accessible to everyone. So why is this so rarely the case?

Tributes to the possibilities of walking in cities have existed as long as cities themselves. Dickens found inspiration for his most famous characters walking the streets of Victorian London at night (counter to laws that made it illegal to loiter on streets past 8pm). The 19th century French poet Baudelaire invented the figure of the flâneur, an urban wanderer, often an artist or writer, who “moves through the labyrinthine streets and hidden spaces of the city, partaking of its attractions and fearful pleasures, but remaining somehow detached and apart from it”. Wordsworth believed that walking was so synonymous with thinking, he covered nearly 180,000 miles by the age of 65.

Walkability is also regularly considered an important facet of liveability. There’s a reason that pedestrian-friendly places like Melbourne, Vienna and Copenhagen regularly top surveys of the world’s most liveable cities, while Los Angeles and Jakarta rarely make the cut. And as car culture careens us headfirst into environmental catastrophe, we’re wising up to walking’s mental and creative benefits. One April 2014 study by Stanford University found that participants who’d just been for a walk could come up with 60 percent more ideas than those who had not.

But although walking can be magical and generative and a hell of a lot cheaper than aerial yoga, it can also be seriously fraught. In her July 2016 book, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City, Lauren Elkin points out that the figure of the flaneur has always been male and makes a case for female flaneurs (flâneuse) – women like Virginia Woolf, war reporter Martha Gellhorn and Sophie Calle, the French artist who famously trailed men in the streets as part of an art project. For women, walking in cities means reclaiming public spaces and flouting a culture that casts us as objects or elegates us to the domestic. Of course, it’s a price we often pay in street harassment. The night I walked home from a friend’s in London and burst into a run after being followed by a man was a timely reminder that for female walkers, an acute awareness of danger is always part of the deal.

Of course, it’s a price we often pay in street harassment. The night I walked home from a friend’s in London and burst into a run after being followed by a man was a timely reminder that for female walkers, an acute awareness of danger is always part of the deal.

And the ability to linger and saunter through cities and reap the daily joys of the urban experience is only relevant if your freedom of movement isn’t restricted to walking, head-down, from point A to point B. In a July 2016 Lithub essay, Garnette Cadogan, a lifelong walker, reflects on traversing on foot as a black man through the streets of New York City: “No running, especially at night; no sudden movements; no hoodies; no objects—especially shiny ones—in hand; no waiting for friends on street corners, lest I be mistaken for a drug dealer.”

According to a November 2016 article in The Independent, which reported an attacker tearing a hijab from the head of a woman at San Diego State University, hate crimes against minorities going about their lives in public have spiked since Trump’s election. And Stella Young writes in a September 2014 ABC piece about how Melbourne’s status as a liveable city completely overlooks its lack of wheelchair access.

Technically, moving through the places we live in should be a mundane pleasure, simple and accessible to everyone. So why is this so rarely the case?

“I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory,” writes the beloved illustrator Maira Kalman in her graphic novel, The Principles of Uncertainty and it’s hard to deny that walking through a city heightens your senses and helps you find beauty in the everyday. There’s an underrated magic to walking, yes. But we can’t forget that magic has its limits too.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @Neha_Kaletinyletter.com/NehaKale , Instagram @nehakale 

 

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