Foot People

In the 1993 republication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the world’s most famous urban planner, Jane Jacobs, argues that there are two kinds of people in the world: “foot people” and “car people”. The former are those who tend to organise their lives around pedestrian travel, who “prefer doing their workaday errands on foot, or feel they would like to if they lived in a place where they could”, the latter those who prefer “hopping into the car to do errands, or would like to if they had a car.”

I’ve always been a ‘foot person’. Partly this is because I’ve always been a countryside person. I grew up in a small rural community in the north of England. The nearest shop was a mile’s walk away, which in the Yorkshire winters was no easy undertaking, but for me it was the norm – and as a devoted nicotine enthusiast, it was a walk that I would be compelled to make, regardless of the weather. It was what I grew up with. As a teenager I held down several jobs in various local pubs, and would walk a couple of miles to work every day, and back each night. The nearest bus-stop was a mile’s walk from my home; if I wanted to travel further afield, that was a mile I would have to walk.

Having walked everywhere during one’s formative years engenders a frame of reference when it comes to space and distance unlike that of someone accustomed to driving everywhere, or having everything right there on their doorstep – just as an American’s conception of what constitutes a ‘long’ car journey inevitably differs from that of a Brit, raised on a tiny island where a three-hour trip up the M6 is an event.

Since the city became an inevitability, perhaps unsurprisingly I’ve always found that small ones suited me best. Partly out of necessity and partly out of choice I’ve always chosen where I live based on the potential for getting where I need to be, day to day, without having to own a car. Unlike many neighbourhoods in, say, the United States, built specifically for cars and thus with little connectivity, the older urban areas in England were designed and built before the mass production of the motor-car and are thus generally very walkable, and there is no excuse not to use that feature to its full advantage.

There is a psychological, emotional and creative aspect to walking in the hills, however, which can’t be approximated by urban wanderings. Harvard physician Paul Dudley White, known to history as the ‘father of American cardiology’, believed that a brisk, five mile walk every day is as good a remedy for a restless mind as anything the worlds of medicine and psychology have to offer. Dr. White well understood the physiological benefits of walking, but like many others before and since he was also a firm believer in the positive effects of the outdoors on our intellectual, creative and emotional faculties.

For the English Romantics, through whose influence wandering the countryside à pied became a popular leisure pursuit in England in the late 1700s, time spent in nature was not only a source of literary inspiration (in + spirare – ‘to breathe in’), but fundamental to the creative process. William Godwin “made whole books” as he walked. Across the Channel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who spent much of his youth wandering the hills of Central Europe, found in the natural world a clarity of thought that eluded him amid the bustle of urban life. “Cities”, Rousseau concluded, were “the abyss of the human species”.

Not all have shared Rousseau’s distaste for the metropolis of course – many literary notables, from Charles Dickens to Will Self, have remarked on the restorative effects of peregrinations through the urban jungle – but it’s in rural environs that most who have written on the subject claim to have reaped the medicinal rewards of a good walk. George Orwell, Thomas De Quincey, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Søren Kierkegaard, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, and of course Henry David Thoreau all extolled the virtues of getting out into the natural world. The physicist Werner Heisenberg was a keen hiker, as were Paul Dirac, Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner, all of whom reported having come to key scientific discoveries while walking in the countryside.

* * *

This was intended to be a post saying a few words by way of introducing this blog and explaining something of what it’s likely to be about, but on reflection there are actually a number of distinct aspects to what I want to do with this site, each of which, if only in the interests of keeping these posts to a manageable length, should perhaps have its own prefatory remarks. So, to be continued….


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