Why I Walk
At a recent event, I was asked by a number of people why I did what I did? Why was I so interested in cities? where did it all start? I tried to answer as plainly as I could. It started with walking around the city, getting to know the places that I hoped would one day become home.
Here, perhaps, is a more developed answer. . .
What happens to us when we walk? This is a question that has been asked for centuries. The French philosopher Frederic Gros writes: ‘By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone’. I am not so sure. Perhaps even the opposite is true. I would argue that as we walk we become more someone, not less.
Civilization began when we stopped walking, when we decided to settle down and live alongside each other, in each others’ lives. Yet we have never remained still, and today, in an age of hyper-speed and ceaseless motion, we seem to see the world only in terms of flows, velocities, efficiencies. Constantly on the move, we rarely think about why, how and what our movement says about us.
We assume that there are only three ways of walking: to, from, and being lost. Writ large, these encompass the pilgrimage, the exile, and the dilemma and pleasures of walking in circles. We manage our lives as a negotiation between points in a landscape. Sometimes we are moving away — a leaving either by force or compulsion, heading into the uncertain future. Or each step is leading us towards a final destination, the end. And then there is a third option: we are in movement, but neither the action nor the location offers us any kind of signal or signpost. We are off the map, caught between time and place.
But this obsession with departures and destinations misses one of the essential ways in which walking transforms us, and the world. We often overlook the dynamic potential of ‘being there’.
As we walk through a landscape, it matters where we are, as much as the experience of being in motion. As we move, we are always walking through a landscape. It is between these two uncertainties that the history of walking is strung. It is a story of becoming: creating ourselves with every step.
What do we think about when we think about walking? René Descartes, for instance, claimed that it was thinking that proved that he existed. The body had little to with it. For as he wrote in Principles of Philosophy: ‘all places are full of bodies. Nothing has an enduring place, except in so far as its place is determined in our minds.’ Yet you only have to take a walk to see how wrong he is
And here’s why. As a result of being in our bodies, we impose ourselves upon the places that we enter and exit. And in turn, because we are more than just bones and muscle, the places impress themselves upon us. Thus walking proves the complicated truth that we are not a binary composite of the thinking mind and walking body. For as one step follows another, you cannot divide the self from the body. Instead, rather than searching for fissures within ourselves, we should look at how our thinking/walking bodies interact with its environment.
Walking reminds us that we cannot rely on History (capital H) alone to explain our present condition. The study of the past can only be understood by the dynamic calculation of space, Geography (capital G), to comprehend the places we are in. The difficult trick, however, is that we must allow ourselves to be aware of the ‘there’ in every place we go.
When we walk, there is no history without geography; there is no past without place. And it is the crucible of the past, the place and our bodies that meaning and identity are created. As a result, we must pay more attention to ourselves in the world, to being with each other, in the constant re-creation of the places where we live.
This is what walking teaches us. Our daily lives are made up of the obstacles, barriers, bottlenecks, gradients and infrastructures that we only discover on foot. Where we are — the spaces that we are walking across, away from, or to — sticks to us like a burr, letting us know what we can and cannot do through hidden rules and gestures. The world speaks back to us as we enter it with each step.
This is increasingly important when we think about the urban environments that are being created around us, and how the metropolis speaks to our sense of belonging, of being there. The city today is increasingly a place of exclusion, defining who is and is not allowed where. Walking forces us to see how these enclosures operate, and how groups are divided up and managed. Walking in the modern city makes brutally visible the political violence of the market.
The speed with which we walk also has a lot to say about what we can do, and where we can go. Time has always had an influence on the ways we walk. As we become increasingly obsessed with efficiency and smooth movement through an unhindered landscape, are we losing the point of ‘being there’ in the first place? Can we redesign the city that will allow us to walk more? Would this enriched public realm make us better citizens?
Walking also has potential as a social practice, uncovering the secret rules and codes of our everyday lives. Walking can bring us together, and allows us to connect. It pushes down barriers and challenges boundaries. It allows us to see beyond ourselves, and to imagine how we can live together.
Some philosophers have walked to escape their thoughts, while others have found their argument in the pulsing swing of legs on their daily constitutional. For me, walking is thought and action in motion. It is so much more than just putting one foot in front of the other, but a fluid matrix between body, place, and history. As a result, this potentially most banal of activities becomes a fascinating prism through which we can see and understand who we really are.
This has a profound impact — on me at least. In his book of the same title, Robert MacFarlane proposed walking as the best means to find ‘The Old Ways’, brushing the leaves from the trail to reveal the steeped truths that are often forgotten in sedentary modern life. I am sure that this is true, but it is not a path I am much interested in. Walking is not an act of nostalgia so much as a tool of transformation. We do not rediscover our buried selves when we walk. Rather walking is an act of becoming, of stepping into our future being.
The point is to claim walking, both alone and in the crowd, as a counter-current, as a way of moving against the flow. Walking is a push against the powerful, a way of saying ‘I am here’. It is a protest not just because it defines the walker who refuses to disappear, but because it offers alternative pathways with each stride. It can bring down empires, and nurture dreams of a better future.