Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The decline of walking

I finally finished reading Wanderlust: A History of Walking last night. The final few chapters, in which author Rebecca Solnit traces the decline of walking as a mainstream activity, were particularly insightful.

According to Solnit, the golden age of walking "as a conscious cultural act rather than as a means to an end", an activity that "arose from a desire to travel through the open spaces of the world unarmored by vehicles, unafraid to mingle with different kinds of people", began in the late-18th century "in a time when cities and countryside grew safer and desire to experience that world was high" and ended "some decades ago". Today, "walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around, is fading".

The decline of walking has coincided with the rise of the automobile and the growth of the suburbs, which "are built car-scale, with a diffuseness the unenhanced human body is inadequate to cope with". In the suburbs, places of entertainment and amenities such as schools, libraries and supermarkets are often out of walking range, and as they become more accustomed to traveling by car, people become less inclined to walk even short distances.

Today in the United States and elsewhere suburbs are being built without footpaths. Urban planners increasingly regard pedestrians as an obstacle to free traffic movement. In suburbs where the automobile is widely accepted as the only viable means of getting around, lone walkers are often regarded with suspicion.

Deprived of a living environment conducive to walking and in many cases lacking the desire to venture outside, people look to gyms to satisfy their need for exercise. "The gym," writes Solnit, "is the interior space that compensates for the disappearance of outside and a stopgap measure in the erosion of bodies."

Solnit expresses skepticism and alarm at the use of machines to provide the kind of exercise the body used to get through physical labour and more traditional forms of outdoor activity. "The body that used to have the status of a work animal now has the status of a pet: it does not provide real transport, as a horse might have; instead, the body is exercised as one might walk a dog."
What exactly is the nature of the transformation in which machines now pump our water but we go to other machines to engage in the act of pumping, not for the sake of water but for the sake of our bodies, bodies theoretically liberated by machine technology? Has something been lost when the relationship between our muscles and our world vanishes, when the water is managed by one machine and the muscles by another in two unconnected processes?
Solnit is particularly scornful of the treadmill:
The most perverse of all devices in the gym is the treadmill (and its steeper cousin, the Stairmaster). Perverse, because I can understand simulating farm labor, since the activities of rural life are not often available - but simulating walking suggests that space itself has disappeared....
The treadmill is a corollary to the suburb and the autotropolis: a device with which to go nowhere in places where there is now nowhere to go. Or no desire to go: the treadmill also accommodates the automobilized and suburbanized mind more comfortable in climate-controlled indoor space that outdoors, more comfortable with quantifiable and clearly defined activity than with the seamless engagement of mind, body, and terrain to be found walking out-of-doors.

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