Alissa Walker — a case of nominative determinism if there ever was one — is on Jocelyn Glei’s Hurry Slowly podcast this week, talking about, yes, walking. If you’ve read much of this blog, you know I’m a huge proponent of walking, so I found lots of good stuff in there, especially this little tool you can use to draw a mileage radius on a Google Map to determine your “walkshed.” (A “walkshed” is a walkable area around a point of interest.) Alissa, who lives in Los Angeles, recommends drawing a 2-mile radius around your house to discover your own walkshed and things in your neighborhood you might not have thought walkable.
I had a few thoughts while listening to Alissa, most of them influenced by my recent adventures living in the SW suburbs of Austin, which, like Los Angeles, is not known as the most walkable city on earth:
1. Walking is a way to be present. Not just present as in mindful, or in the moment, but present as in presenting yourself — being seen in a particular place. My wife and I live in push our boys in a huge red stroller around our neighborhood every morning, and almost every time we meet someone who lives in another section of our neighborhood they’ll say, “Oh! You have the big red stroller. I see you out walking.” One time I passed some people participating in a neighborhood 5k, and a guy said, “I see y’all on my way to work—you do a 5k every day!” There is, in E.B. White’s words, a bit of “the indignity of being observed,” but there’s also a sense of identity that comes from being “those people.”
2. Even crummy suburban spaces can be interesting on foot. This is something I learned while reading John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic. There are all kinds of bizarre spaces in the suburbs that you don’t come across because you’re in your car. I find a good deal of SW suburban Austin visually repulsive when driving, but I have a favorite six-mile walk I take from my SW Austin neighborhood to the central library, where I had to sort of weave my way behind our neighborhood in a strange suburban no man’s land, past a La Quinta, over the highway, then across the pedestrian bridge, and through the greenbelt to downtown. I see all kinds of weird stuff. (Also: When Alissa said that she likes to “infiltrate as many structures as possible” on her walks, I remembered how much I’d like to also make a case for the weirdness of walking a shopping mall.)
3. You can park with a walkshed in mind. Even when I have to drive on errands, I’ll try to park somewhere that I can do everything I want to do on foot. This, in its own way, can be a kind of exploration. Even a suburban parking lot has bizarre zones in between box stores where you can find bits of weirdness. Sometimes I come across stores that I’ve driven by literally dozens of times but never noticed.