It probably says something about me that, while I retain no memory of the first time I successfully walked the 15 miles from central London to my childhood home in Essex, I remember my first failure in excruciating detail. It was late October, the week before I started my first proper job and, not then being in the habit of gainful employment, I got up late and accidentally didn’t set out until the afternoon. Then I stopped for a lengthy coffee at Mile End, a district whose very name should have been a useful clue that I’d barely got started. I eventually gave up, freezing and damp, in Ilford, a suburb that borders Romford, which, I reasoned, meant I’d nearly made it. I hadn’t.
I didn’t know it then, but that walk was an early symptom of a mania that was to gradually swallow up my free time. I’ve since done that route so often that I’ve grown bored with it – there’s only so much joy to be had from a long march through Chadwell Heath – but I’ve branched out, walking the Thames and the Lea rivers, various tube lines and completing the assorted routes recommended by Transport for London. Once I’d exhausted those, I took to getting trains out to far-flung stations and then simply walking back. I’ve done the same in other cities, too, walking aimlessly around the streets of Montreal and Manchester, Chicago and Coventry. I even tried walking in Doha, though I fear I may be the only person in the whole of human history to have attempted it, and I regretted it exactly as swiftly as you’d think I would.
Taking long, pointless walks is not an unusual hobby among the British. It’s a good way of clearing your head, of taking all the pieces of yourself and shuffling them back into the right order; and, in the age of the smartphone, a good way of mainlining audiobooks to assuage the guilt about the way the internet has demolished your attention span, too. The government even recommends it as the easiest way to get some exercise (although a recent report from Public Health Englandwarned that if you want to stay properly fit you should supplement your walking by lifting weights or ballroom dancing. I’m sorry, but no).
The received wisdom, though, is that the best walking is done in the countryside, where the air is clean and the views are dramatic. Walking in cities – especially the suburban or industrial quarters where I often end up, even if I don’t intend to – is less fashionable. Well: the received wisdom is wrong. Urban walking is better, and I’m willing to go head to head with anyone who says otherwise.
One reason is that, with the best will in the world, the countryside is boring. One field is very like another, and many of them are filled with cows which, though nobody likes to talk about it, have a nasty habit of killing people they take against. In a city, there’s more to see, and you’re less likely to get stamped on by a cow.
Walking is the best way of getting to know a place, too. There’s only so much you can learn from behind the wheel of a car or the window of a train, zooming past things before you even notice them, and anyway, in those vehicles, you need a destination. On foot, though, you can wander: serendipity kicks in, and you find things you never even knew you were looking for. On one long walk, I discovered the world’s first municipal park in Birkenhead, the model for Central Park in New York. On another, I learned of the existence of St Volodymyr, whose Christianisation of Kievan Rus is commemorated by a statue in Holland Park. This is not the sort of thing that you learn in a field.
There’s another argument in favour of walking in cities, one that’s more about the city than the walker: cities that encourage walking are nicer. Not just less polluted, though that’s often true, but more interesting, too: a street with heavy footfall is a street that’s likely to attract the bars and cafes and other things that make a city worth living in, in exactly the way a dual carriageway won’t.
There are many differences between Birmingham and Barcelona, at least some of which you can almost certainly guess – but one which becomes blindingly obvious if you’ve spent any time walking the two is the scale on which they are built. Birmingham is built around the car, an industry from which it once made its living, and has a vaguely American tendency towards multi-lane highways and sprawl. Barcelona is tightly squeezed between mountains and coast, and its growth has been up rather than out. The weather is not the only reason why it’s the latter whose suburbs have the more interesting street life.
I’ve wondered sometimes if the trend to favour walking in rural areas over urban ones is another element of that broader tendency to treat the world outside its cities as somehow more “real”. I doubt this was ever true, but with more than half the planet today living in urban areas, it’s actively ridiculous now. And, as more of the world’s population migrates to its cities, they’ll account for an ever-growing share of problems such as inequality and carbon emissions, too.
But the flipside to this is that more and more of humanity’s problems will be solvable by making our cities work better. And the first step towards doing that is to understand how they work.
I’m not saying walking 15 miles out into Essex is enough to magically achieve that. But it’s a damn sight more use than a hike across the Chilterns.
• Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman’s cities site, CityMetric