I learned to love walking in college. I went to school in Charleston, South Carolina, and I was taken with the dreamy feel of the Southern city, which was gas-lit and mysterious at night, overgrown and soft-focused by day. Charleston is also super-walkable—the peninsula of the old city covers only about 8 square miles, and its roads and avenues are rambling, rather than gridded. Getting lost on foot is both easy and advisable, and that’s how I spent most of my extracurricular time.
Here, I learned to walk slowly, to consider details, to smell the jasmine, so to speak. Quite the contrary to New York, which I suppose I regard as my home city (loud, proud daughter of the Jersey Shore, here). There I had learned to walk fast. Not always great for making observations, particularly on frigid February evenings, but it is great for feeling vital, connected, and forward-moving.
In Doha, Qatar, where I lived for a few years, I learned how to watch people walk. In a nearly sidewalk-less city, the souq (a large outdoor market) is the best people-watching thoroughfare, so it was there where I’d drink my Turkish coffee and take note of the Louboutins, the Italian loafers, and the old Qatari men with hands clasped behind their backs. Whenever the weather was nice enough, everyone would come out to enjoy the fresh air in each other’s company—to take a walk for walking’s sake.
Now I call Austin, Texas, my home. It’s a city of nature and neighborhoods, and at first I thought long walks around these parts were mostly for dog owners or outdoorsy people (neither of which I am). But with the temperatures already hitting 80 degrees here, I decided to abandon both bike and car for a few afternoons getting around on foot. Besides my increased levels of vitamin D (yes, I feel it), I know a lot more about the awesome mid-century modern homes in my neighborhood because of it. Also, I wasn’t alone—turns out even sprawling Texan cities have a few dedicated walkers of their own (besides that infamous Texas Ranger).
The French have particular words for different types of walkers, which should make sense to anyone who has spent time in Paris, City of Lights and consummate strolling. The flâneur is the aimless sort, while also being observant and engaged; she makes a study of the streets she travels. From an industry perspective, flâneurs might be contemporary street photographers in the vein of Bill Cunningham or The Sartorialist. Then there are the badauds— the voyeuristic walkers—who try to disappear into their surroundings and lose themselves in the city they travel.
For those of you looking for a book on the subject, or just to bypass Netflix with a more analog pastime, consider checking out Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Of course, not every walk should be thought of as a cultural act. Much of the time we walk out of necessity—to work, to play, to catch the train—but in our era of ever-encroaching screen time, purposeless walking might just be the best habit to grow. And if the unexpected sights and sounds of your city aren’t enough of an enticement, consider the physical and psychological benefits. A recent study has found that as little as 200 minutes of walking a week (that’s about half-an-hour a a day) can considerably reduce one’s risk of developing depression later in life. You don’t even need to break a sweat.
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