Skip to main content

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.

Walking


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?

Walking


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.

Walking


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.

Walking


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.

Walking


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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Editorial for Blog Action Day

I was so scared when I saw An Inconvenient Truth that I changed my prodigal ways. Today, Walking Off the Big Apple is participating in Blog Action Day, an event that challenges 15,000 or more people who are in a similar line of work to write posts about the environment. New York City will be in enormous trouble should the prevailing tide of climate change continue. I mean that literally. With the rise in sea levels, a strong storm surge would devastate many of the low-lying residential areas. Lower Manhattan would suffer enormous consequences but also parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island would be affected. The warmer weather we've experienced here over the past few years is also likely to continue. Warm weather leads to more smog, pollution, and the likelihood of disease and asthma. I could get really sick just walking around. The economic impact of climate change would be serious. All the plans for new uses of the waterfront for housing and recreation would be a no-start

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

25 Things to Do Near the American Museum of Natural History

After visiting the American Museum of Natural History, explore attractions on the Upper West Side or in Central Park. Visitors to New York often run around from one major tourist site to the next, sometimes from one side of the city to the other, and in the process, exhaust themselves thoroughly. Ambitious itineraries often include something like coffee in the Village in the morning, lunch near MoMA, a couple of hours in the museum, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry in the afternoon, cocktails at the midtown hotel, a quick dinner, and then a Broadway show. It's a wonder people don't pass out at the theater. While sitting on the steps of the American Museum of History, consider exploring the Upper West Side and nearby sites of interest in Central Park. There's a better way to plan a New York trip. Consider grouping attractions together geographically. Several posts on this site address this recommended approach. The Wild West of the Tecumseh Playground Groupin

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

Taking a Constitutional Walk

A long time ago individuals going out for a walk, especially to get fresh air and exercise, often referred to the activity as "taking a constitutional walk." The word "constitutional" refers to one's constitution or physical makeup, so a constitutional walk was considered beneficial to one's overall wellbeing. (Or, as some would prefer to call it, "wellness.") The phrase is more common in British literature than in American letters. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, many American commentators expressed concern that their countrymen were falling into lazy and unhealthy habits. Newspaper columnists and editorial writers urged their readers to take up the practice of the "constitutional" walk. One such essay, " Walking as an Exercise," originally printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and reprinted in New England Farmer , Volume 11, 1859, urges the people of farm areas to take up walking. City dwellers seemed to have the

Museums in New York Open on Tuesdays

American Folk Art Museum , 45 W. 53rd St. Asia Society and Museum , 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street) Guggenheim Museum , 1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th St.) Pictured left International Center of Photography , 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street The Metropolitan Museum of Art , 1000 Fifth Avenue NEW: Beginning May 1, 2013 MoMA will be open seven days a week. 11 W. 53rd St. The Morgan Library & Museum , 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street Museum of the City of New York , 1220 Fifth Avenue New York University, Grey Art Gallery , 100 Washington Square East Mondays and Tuesdays are the hardest days to remember which museums are open. See the list for NY museums open on Mondays here .

14 Useful Mobile Apps for Walking New York City

Texting and walking at the same time is wrong. Talking on the phone while strolling down the street is wrong. Leaving the sidewalk to stop and consult the information on a cellphone, preferably while alone, is OK. What's on Walking Off the Big Apple's iPhone: A List Walkmeter GPS Walking Stopwatch for Fitness and Weight Loss . While out walking, Walkmeter tracks routes, time, speed, and elevation. This is an excellent app for recording improvised or impromptu strolls, especially with many unplanned detours. The GPS function maps out the actual route. The app keeps a running tally of calories burned while walking, useful for weight loss goals. Another welcome feature is the ability to switch over to other modes of activity, including cycling. An indispensable app for city walkers. $4.99  New York City Compass , designed by Francesco Bertelli, is an elegant compass calibrated for Manhattan, with indications for Uptown, East Side, Downtown, and West Side. While facing a cert

From Penn Station to New York Landmarks: Measuring Walking Distance and Time in Manhattan

(revised 2017) How long does it take to walk from Penn Station/Madison Square Garden to well-known destinations in Manhattan? What are the best walking routes ? What if I don't want to see anything in particular but just want to walk around? In addition to the thousands of working commuters from the surrounding area, especially from New Jersey and Long Island who arrive at Penn Station via New Jersey Transit or the Long Island Rail Road, many people arrive at the station just to spend time in The City. Some have questions. Furthermore, a sporting event may have brought you to Madison Square Garden (above Penn Station), and you want to check out what the city offers near the event. This post if for you.  The map below should help you measure walking distances and times from the station to well-known destinations in Manhattan - Bryant Park , the Metropolitan Museum of Art , the Empire State Building , Times Square , Rockefeller Center , Washington Square Park , the High Line

The High Line and Chelsea Market: A Good Pairing for a Walk

(revised 2017) The advent of spring, with its signs of growth and rebirth, is apparent both on the High Line , where volunteers are cutting away the old growth to reveal fresh blooms, and inside the Chelsea Market, where new tenants are revitalizing the space. A walk to take in both can become an exploration of bounty and surprise, a sensual walk of adventure and sustenance. A good pairing for a walk: The High Line and Chelsea Market Walking the High Line for a round trip from Gansevoort to W. 30th and then back again adds up to a healthy 2-mile walk. Regular walkers of the elevated park look for an excuse to go there. Especially delightful is showing off the park, a model of its kind, to visitors from out of town. A stroll through Chelsea Market. Time check. If you haven't stopped into Chelsea Market lately, you may want to take a detour from the High Line at the stairs on W. 16th St. and walk through the market for a quick assessment or a sampling. Among the sampli