During the 2020 lockdown, governments around the world encouraged people to take short walks around their neighborhoods. Yet even before COVID hit, amid the renewal of city centers and environmental and public health concerns, walking was promoted in many places as a form of active travel, to replace car travel. .
This resurgence of urban walking has been a long time coming. Our first baby steps could still be celebrated. But since the explosion of car use in the 1950s, people in Europe and North America have walked less and less.
UK transport statistics show an annual increase of about 4.8 billion motorized passenger vehicle miles (from car and taxi use) in the four decades to 1990. The last decade of the 20th century saw that slow growth. But until recently, our collective use of the engine kept increasing.
The pandemic changed that. Passenger motor vehicle miles decreased by more than 68 billion. And surveys suggest that 38% of people who started walking as a new activity plan to continue doing so. My research shows that walking is more than an activity: it ties you to where you are and unlocks your memories.
How walking connects you with your city
In the 2000s, as part of their Rescue Geography project, geographers Paul Evans and Phil Jones facilitated group walks in the Eastside district of Birmingham, Britain’s third-largest city. The idea was to ‘rescue’ local people’s understanding of an area before it is redeveloped. They walked former residents through the streets they knew as children, before these inner city neighborhoods were demolished in the 1950s and 1960s and moved into the suburbs, a change that saw the automobile become your only option for everyday transportation.
Similarly, in my doctoral research I used walking to understand how a neighborhood in Caerleon in South Wales had expanded in the 1960s and 1970s. I did a lot of one-on-one interviews with people who weren’t sitting in a room, but strolling through streets they knew well. It became a way to explore how spaces act as thresholds to memories and levels of the unconscious, which would otherwise go unrevealed.
People showed me the streets where they had lived at times in their lives. One person took me down the route he took to school in the 1970s as a teenager. Passing by certain stores sparked stories of how she would walk to pick up a block of cheese or slices of bacon for his mother. He told me how his family’s buying habits had changed over time. After buying a freezer in the late 1970s, they began driving to the supermarket outside of town.
I met another family who had lived on the same street for three generations. The grandfather was 70 years old, her daughter was middle-aged, and her granddaughter was 11. Her daughter described how the streets she had known as a child in the 1980s were now much busier and more dangerous because of the cars. She described her daughter’s world as “narrower” as a result.
How walking unlocks our memories
Walking changes the way we tell our life stories. Taking a street we once took often unlocks things – it may not take us as long to remember specific dates. We find a kind of freedom to delve into our memories.
This is consistent with the non-figurative theories advocated by the geographer Nigel Thrift. In general terms, this approach highlights how being physically in a specific place can help us to recover feelings or knowledge that are deep in the subconscious.
In her research with immigrant communities in the UK, sociologist Maggie O’Neill has used traveling and participatory theater as what she calls biographical methods to explore ideas of borders, risk and belonging.
Similarly, I collaborated on two public walks with a dancer, Marega Palser. I planned lines on the ground linking environments such as houses, shops, schools, busy roads, pathways, and green spaces. And Palser turned the material she had collected from my traveling interviews into short pieces of street theater that we shared as a collective.
Palser’s performances were deliberately charming and funny, eliciting unexpected responses. In one case, she used toy vehicles to recall a car accident from the late 1960s.
One person recalled how a relative in the 1960s accidentally punctured the gas pipe (very new technology at the time) in the kitchen of his town hall home. Although the anecdote initially seemed unimportant, we learned that the incident had occurred on Christmas Eve and that the council had come immediately to fix the problem.
Minds went back to a time when the now common technologies were just emerging. Many more attendees showed up and shared stories of their lives between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s. They told how central heating had come to newly built houses in suburban developments and how supermarkets had offered more options.
As with Evans and Jones’s Rescue Geography project, I found that it was through touching and feeling these geographic spaces that people could connect with their memories. Walking, one middle-aged person told me, “takes you back to yourself, on a journey, to the places you’ve lived.” They talked about the “filled connections” these places have, going back to childhood and thinking about people who have spent their entire lives living in one place.
Walking is slowing down life and thinking about the local. Allow conversations. Develop empathy. More than just physical activity, it is a way of thinking and a state of mind. From online resources for composing walks and apps to track them to online walking communities of people who walk every street in your city (the commuters of all streets), there are plenty of ideas to get you started walking, too.