I like cities where you can walk almost everywhere. In my case this would be almost any city I have ever visited. I have walked an average of 10 km a day in Barcelona, New Orleans and Boston. I have walked along the river in Dubai under a blazing 49 degrees Celsius. I have walked the boarder to get to Tijuana and walked around the city trying to look relaxed. I used to walk home both in Porto and London so I didn’t need to cope with overcrowded buses or subways. I have walked in Los Angeles and got lost around Chinatown trying to walk back to somewhere. I had to follow a couple of tourists with a map in Venice after getting irremediably lost walking along narrow alleys. I can’t read maps.
I have walked all the way from downtown Atlanta to Georgia Tech even though there were no real sidewalks. Where Atlanta did have sidewalks, me and some friends where told by a screaming police officer that we couldn’t just stand there waiting for a cab. We were loitering. It was a new word in my English vocabulary, describing some kind of illegal activity that I didn’t even know I was engaging in. All four of us that night, waiting for a taxi to show up after our farewell dinner, had grown up in countries with past military or other forms of dictatorships. We all remembered stories told by our grandparents or parents about how it was forbidden to stop on the sidewalk for a chat just in case it would turn out to be some kind of conspiracy. It stroke us as really odd that this was happening to us in Atlanta.
In Porto, sidewalks have become wider, probably because the city got used to being voted “best destination” of this and that over the past few years. Wider sidewalks accommodate more tourists and make people feel safer. They are, I suppose, also more efficient, there’s more space to move quicker. According to James Petty, “all urban architecture or urban design has a level of control built into it,” pedestrian crossings and sidewalks exist to guide the behavior of the public. The sidewalks in Brasilia have no corners. This avoids impromptu meetings that could disrupt the efficiency of the city.
I had never really thought about this before Atlanta. I’m absolutely urban, I have tried to live in the countryside for a few months and even though I enjoyed the quietness, I also missed the noise and the people and the new discoveries you make when you experience a city, your own or somebody else’s, just by walking. Even if there’s no sidewalks. It’s just easier to be a dilettante walker when the sidewalks are there. You don’t really get to understand where you are just driving around getting from point A to B. Walking allows you to stop and look, it creates a common space and it helps to experience cities beyond their efficiency, just as places of history and stories. I like cities, I like their “inclusive” character but, as Petty also notes, “you’ve got a point where that kind [urban planning] of controlling becomes direct, explicit, and targeted against certain groups and not others.” Cities with sidewalks still seem to avoid this, at least they make you feel more welcome.
Photos: my own