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Excerpt from a recent interview on NPR’s Morning Edition program with Steven Inskeep on April 16, 2012. "Americans now walk the least of any industrialized nation in the world," says writer Tom Vanderbilt. To find out why that is, Vanderbilt has been exploring how towns are built, how Americans view walking — and what might be done to get them moving around on their own two feet. Talking with Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep about what is wrong with Americans' relationship with walking, Vanderbilt says, "The main thing is, we're just not doing enough of it." "We've engineered walking out of our existence and everyday life," Vanderbilt says. "I even tried to examine the word 'pedestrian,' and it's always had sort of this negative connotation — that it was always better to be on a horse or something, if you could manage it."
In a series of stories for Slate about "The Crisis in American Walking," Vanderbilt writes about pedestrian life in America, from "sidewalk science" to possible ways to make the U.S. less car-centric. And he finds that what started as a push for convenience has become a difficult problem, as many parts of the country are now designed specifically for cars, not pedestrians. And while Americans have cut down on walking, they've been putting on some pounds. A recent study found that about 35 percent of adult Americans are obese, as NPR's Shots blog reported in January. That equals "more than 78 million adults and more than 12 million children." As one example of how people can take a technological advance and turn it into a reason to stop exercising, Vanderbilt points to the moving sidewalk. "Go to an airport, and look at people on the moving walkway," he says. "I mean, the engineers who built that walkway — it's meant to speed you up, by walking on it. You're not meant to just hop on it and go on a slow, sort of moving ride." Americans' reluctance to be pedestrians has not gone unnoticed — and there are efforts under way to get us walking more. The group America Walks, for instance, promotes walking in our daily lives with its "safe routes" program and other initiatives. And the Walk Score website rates neighborhoods based on how easy it is to walk around in them. Those ideas also contribute to the rising trend of "mixed-use" real estate developments, many of which approximate the feel of an old village square by building cobblestones, sidewalks and lampposts into outdoor malls or apartment buildings.
Vanderbilt says of the movement, "I think the impulse is correct, and it does speak to this hunger that I think people do have, to walk." But, he adds, while such developments offer a way to treat the symptoms of inactivity, they don't address the core problem — of too many people living too far away from the things they need. "It's been argued by certain planners that people will drive to where they want to walk," he says. "But, can we walk to where we want to go? Does it always have to be a matter of jumping in a car?" "Walking is really as natural as breathing," Vanderbilt says. "We're all born pedestrians." Talking with Steve, Vanderbilt cites a thought on walking from philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who said, "I've walked myself into my best thoughts." "I think we've all had that experience, of just taking a walk to clear your head. And it lowers your stress," Vanderbilt says — then adds, "hopefully, it lowers your stress. Some places we have to walk in the U.S., it doesn't lower your stress." (End of excerpt)
As the excerpt from Morning Edition stated above, “We've engineered walking out of our existence and everyday life.” More and more Americans are living away from places they need or want to go, therefore just hopping in their cars and driving off,
without a second thought. We’ve spread ourselves thin in the suburbs of cities, where every place we need or want to go to is more than a mile away from our homes, and we couldn’t fathom walking the great distance. Walking is considered an activity of the past, an afterthought for most of our population, particularly in smaller cities and towns across the country. We’re not going to go as far as to suggest redoing the engineered subdivisions and sprawled out suburbs and redevelop them into connected/integrated neighborhoods with the rest of the areas. That’s not going to happen, however we can take small steps to take a few more steps in our lives. It’s much easier to walk to the local grocery store or other establishment when living within city limits, because things are densely populated and connected, and for the most part, pedestrian friendly. The suburbs are driving centers, where dependency on one’s car has become the norm, therefore engineering walking out of the lifestyle, while adding to the carbon footprint, and inactivity.
For example, when living in a place like Clifton, near the University of Cincinnati campus, one doesn’t really need a car. There are Metro buses available, but walking comes easy, and almost naturally as one leaves their apartment or home. When walking often, you tend to meet new people around the particular neighborhood, making connections and building a rapport with the locals. You also tend to discover new places when walking; things you may have never noticed just by driving by. You tend to know your neighborhood and/or city better by walking, and get a sense of where the connections and access points are to other surrounding areas. Think of the health benefits, not only physically, but mentally as well. Walking can help reduce stress, and help one clear the mind of the day’s trials. People tend to be happier when they walk with less stress on their mind. “Walking is the answer to stress. Walking frees the mind from the stresses and strains of the day. It releases tensions that build up, sometimes out of all proportion. Going for a walk is as good as, and probably even better than having a rest. Dr Hans Selye said that: ‘voluntary change of activity is as good as a rest’. So when you are feeling tense or anxious, get out of your home or office and walk the tensions away.” “Walking recharges our batteries after tension and stress have drained them of power and energy. Walking is as natural as breathing, and it is the regular rhythmical action of walking that drains away tension from our muscles and leaves us with a feeling of pleasant tiredness and a calm, clear mind. Walking works, because as we hit our natural stride, we become unconscious of our body and its movement – we are aware only of the rhythm. We are borne along in a total body-mind experience which makes us
whole. Birds fly; fish swim; man walks.” (http://www.walking.org/walking-forfitness/stress/reduce-stress/) Feel stressed? Take a walk around your home or office and discover what you may have missed when you would just drive by; a certain point of interest, a historical site, or perhaps a newfound local café or bakery. Discover your neighborhood or city from a new, up-close perspective, and live a better and healthier lifestyle, physically and mentally. Walking is certainly not New Age by any means, but this feature may help you to take a step back in order to look at your lifestyle from an older perspective. What will you discover on your next walk? Check out the story, “The Crisis in American Walking” off of Slate.com.