Today I discovered that you can use a stretch of the Shoal Creek Greenbelt trail to walk between Bookpeople and the Central Library. That means if I added less than a mile to one of my epic Greenbelt walks to the Central Library I could almost walk from my house to Bookpeople without using a city street…
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.
We finally got to visit the new central library here in Austin and it’s better than I had even hoped for. A stunning building full of spectacular views and wonderful spaces. We had to bribe the kids with lollipops to get them to leave.
The atmosphere was different from that in other public buildings. Unlike a museum, it had no price of admission, and the security guards were unobtrusive; the stacks were open, and the books were there to be picked up and leafed through. There was also a more mixed crowd than one finds in a museum or a concert hall: groups of teenagers, elderly men and women, college students, street people. In a period where even art museums are beginning to resemble shopping malls, this library stands apart. It didn’t make me feel like a consumer, or a spectator, or an onlooker; it made me feel like a citizen.
Feeling like a citizen. That’s it. Walking around this building might be the first time in a decade of living here that I’ve actually felt real civic pride. In his opening remarks, Mayor Adler called it “our cathedral… nothing less than a holy place for your imagination and collaboration.” I love that.
In a garbage year full of so many losses for democracy, this feels like a win.
I’m teaching a visual thinking for writers workshop here in Austin next month. (View a few slides from my previous class.)
As visual thinkers, we concentrate a lot on pictures, but rarely on words. Join us at the next Vizthink Austin, where we’ll learn visual thinking techniques that can help us become better writers. Using simple school supplies that can be found at any corner drugstore, we’ll step away from the computer and make writing with our hands, using index cards, scissors, and even old comic books. Whether you’re trying to write an office e-mail, a grant application, or even The Great American Novel, this session will help!
LOCATION: Leadership Austin, 1609 Shoal Creek Blvd, Suite 202, Austin, TX 78701 (Map)
DATE: Wednesday, February 3rd
TIME: 6 – 8 pm