May 18, 2011

Toward a Pedestrian New York: The Future of a City on Two Feet

The physical health benefits of walking have been firmly established. We know that walking is a safe form of exercise that increases overall fitness levels and doesn't require special clothes or elaborate equipment. Combined with controlled eating habits, a walking routine can help with weight loss, elevate good cholesterol and lower the bad kind. The idea of interval walking - alternating high speed bursts with slower strolls - has been touted by many fitness experts as a way to rev up metabolism and burn calories. Walking fast for several blocks does help the body warm up, and walking slow for a few blocks affords the occasion to look around and appreciate the scenes of the city. The good news is that almost all walking in New York is interval walking - running to beat the stop sign at the crosswalks, racing ahead to catch a train, and slowing down to look at store windows.

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What's even more fascinating are the studies that show a link between walking and improved mental health. A study in California of women 65 and older found that mental decline was lower in those who walked 2.5 miles a day than in those who walked much less. A study in Virginia showed walking lowered the incidence of dementia. A British study of depressed patients found that walking 30 minutes a day worked faster than antidepressants.* A health provider in Minnesota now gives pedometers to patients screened for depression and anxiety disorders.

In terms of urban planning, it seems logical that a pedestrian-friendly city would elevate the mood of the city. The former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, made waves in his city by equating the construction of friendly streets and public spaces with civic happiness.** So it is fair to ask - with the construction of more pedestrian plazas and pathways, a core strategy of the new urbanism, will perambulating New Yorkers be carried away with happiness?

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The studies cited at the outset typically addressed individuals, not the city. Walking as an activity seemed to heighten a person's sense of well-being, both physically and mentally, but the studies did not describe the context or environment where the people walked. Surely that makes a difference. In theory, a city that gives priority to walkers would then seem to encourage an activity that has been proved to enhance personal happiness. In many cities, it's sadly uncommon to walk, and walking carries the stigma of shame. These are typically American cities that were either robbed of viable public transportation and/or developed after the rise of the oil and car companies. Creating new pedestrian areas in these cities will not instantly create the desire of individuals to walk there. New York City, developed in a pre-car era, is better for walkers, but it's not immune to safety issues or complications of the auto industry, thanks to the transportation infrastructure from the Robert Moses days. Try walking the East River Park next to the FDR at rush hour, for example. As a group, cyclists have been better advocates for their needs than the walkers.

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Much has been made of the new pedestrian plazas in New York, such as the areas around Broadway and Times Square that are now off limits to vehicles. The irony of these spaces, as I can see, is that pedestrians enjoy these special places to sit, not walk, to rest and take in the surroundings and the company of fellow wanderers. Our New York parks have mostly provided this function historically, originally conceived as providing citizens a necessary green space to experience the benefits of Nature.

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Walking may provide tangible exhilarations, especially while walking the human-scaled streets and the bigger avenues with inspiring architecture, but contentment - call it happiness - may be found when private burdens and joys can silently, or not, be recognized in others in the busier parks, streets, and public spaces. Urban planners have studied what makes these spaces work - food, moveable chairs, water features, multiple choices of activities, etc. - with the hope that the community bonds within the city are strengthened. Now, of course, many of the users of these spaces seem to want digital pedometers, location apps, and social media in order to enhance their experiences. People who go to public spaces and then stay on their mobile devices need to better understand what they are missing.

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The best beginning of a great walk takes place alone - or in special company - on the sidewalk of a fascinating street, at an individually comfortable pace. The best ending, in an elevated mood after walking in fast and slow intervals, concludes in a bustling public square. To wander in joy to where others have gathered is so laughingly basic it's a wonder we've even bothered to study it. Yet, it beats the hassle of finding a parking place. The future city of pedestrians still requires access to mass transportation, just as the city also needs to provide for those who cannot walk. To commute to work or for long distances, of course, it's wise to take the train. The way to happiness is finding your own pace in the city and to connect with other people. As a goal of public policy, you should be able to walk there.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from May 17, 2011.

* See the article "Mental Benefits of Walking" from Arthritis Today for a summary of the studies cited here.

** To read more about Enrique Peñalosa, read the article "Can We Design Cities for Happiness?" from Shareable: Cities.

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