Perambulate to Paradise

We may be driving, literally driving, ourselves crazy by not attending to the fundamental human need of walking

| March-April 2000

From archaic times through antiquity and the Renaissance and right into the early 20th century, basic human postures—lying, sitting, standing, running—have remained the same. Body movements, such as bending, reaching, holding, leaning, and dancing, more or less go on through the ages, differently, but with continuity. Today we may sit more and stand less, or sit more than squat. But basic human movements have changed radically only in walking. We not only walk less than did our ancestors, we have almost eliminated the need to walk. It has become obsolete. Locomotion has become mechanized, from remote-control devices to, of course, automobiles.

Automobiles do more than locomote us. Dutch psychologist Bernd Jager has observed the differences in facial expressions in the newer western and southern cities of the United States, which depend on cars, and the older northern and eastern cities, where there is still jostling in the streets, subways, buses, and pavements. Jager concludes that the more uniform, bland ad-like faces of people in the Sun Belt result from increased use of the automobile and the fact that one does not need “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,” as T.S. Eliot says.

As humans become faceless under their blown-dry hair and cosmetics, cars pick up more distinctive names and fronts, those personalized expressions by which even small children can at once discern the make and model. But the face of the driver within the car is generally vacant, glazed behind the windshield. Strapped in, door locked, listening to a tape, staring ahead, passively registering motions of objects out there or subjective emotions in here, worries and desires, it is not an interpersonal face, but an isolated face—its expression does not matter.

The face of the city block, bazaar, market, and alley is wily, vivid, canny, and as expressive as the gestures and language of those engaged from morning till night with other people. So the absence of meeting faces by walking among the crowd absents us from our own faces; it also absents us from the city as it was originally imagined: a congregating crowd of human faces from all “walks” of life.

Views from designers’ boards and developers’ plans rarely show a crowd. Instead, couples stroll under trees, persons emerge one at a time from cars under canopies. It is as if there were a polyphobia, a fear of the many, of facing and being faced by others. I believe that the fear of violence in city streets correlates psychologically with the sense of oneself as a depersonalized, defaced object—a sitting duck or victim—placed in an empty, abstract street like a little figure in a designer’s plan.

I have found in my psychological work that during periods of acute psychological turmoil, walking is an activity to which people naturally turn. Walking can be meditative therapy—not an idyllic hike by the ocean, but simply around the city for hours in early morning or late at night. Walking calms turmoil. Prisoners circumambulate the yard, the anxious pace the floor—waiting for the baby to be born or to hear news from the boardroom. Heidegger recommended the path through the woods for philosophizing; Aristotle’s school was called “Peripatetic” —thinking and discoursing while walking up and down; monks walk round their closed

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