Walking against the economic stream

Wanting a different city long before the car took over it

It seems walkability has become a design movement in city planning an almost architectural period of short city blocks and buildings with entrances off the sidewalk. Real estate agents and developers use it in their marketing strategies. You can walk-score your community. It’s the mantra of planners. Some see it as a war on the automobile as though wanting to walk is anti-car and being anti-car is being anti-suburbs despite the fact some suburban developers are beginning to brand their new communities as walkable even if the term itself is rather nebulous.

Walkability is now associated with carbon footprint. Parking the car and walking instead will reduce carbon emissions thus slowing our march towards climate change. But the calls for walkability came into fashion long before the word sustainability became mainstream. The scale of walkability the pedestrian scale made for good communities. This was the argument used in 1960s Manhattan to remove freeway planning from the business of incising communities with asphalt to uninhibit the flow of cars.

In my previous column I introduced the flâneur — a type of walking to slow down from a city imploring a faster pace. The tactic of the flâneur was employed before freeway planning before the automobile became a brainchild of a tinkerer dreaming of a different way to transport humans. The flâneur arose in the period of the steam engine: both literally and figuratively a herald of efficiency.

To flâner was to avoid the societal effects of the steam engine: maximizing production efficiency. With new efficiencies in the manufacturing system resources could be more quickly exploited. Human labour was a resource. The social system was becoming aligned with the economic system and this relationship was being advanced through city planning projects.

To flâner became a tactic to avoid the system associated with profit maximization. To slow down to wander to negate the social product of the steam engine meant a thumbing to that type of logic. The flâneur preferred to observe rather than consume to detach from the system rather than seek profit from it.

Long before our asphalt-laid sprawling suburbs of cul-de-sacs and two cars in every garage ring roads and clover-leafs and electronic billboards catching our gaze as we whiz by at 80km/h the force behind this type of city was being critiqued. Sprawl was simply an outcome of the economic model characterized by the steam engine. The forces that built the suburbs were being critiqued long before planners employed the rhetoric of walkability to reduce human entrapment in traffic. The dandies believed the issue wasn’t simply an inability to walk but rather economics. The economic system that now builds our cities was alienating. The city became a place of consumption consumerism. City building came to perpetuate the search for profit rather than for everything that makes us human.

Where the flâneur failed was the passive disregard of any sort of space. The flâneur was so enamoured with avoiding modernity’s turn towards the efficiency of the production line — the city produced not dissimilar to a commodity — that engagement in its entirety was detoured to the extent that experience itself was removed. To end alienation requires acting against it. Changing spaces to accord with your desires ultimately requires doing something about it.

With the sort of walking where anything goes well nothing goes. A do-nothing disposition doesn’t improve the economic system that builds cities. Wandering — or in the contemporary city the inability to wander — merely depicts that in the economic system the automobile won in moving us about. Choosing the next winner will require change physical change of how the city functions.

Walkability of course is a noble objective or nobler than the auto-oriented design agenda we’re accustomed too. But the flâneur would argue that walkable design strategies fall short of the changes that are needed. Design can help pretty a city and it can make physical exercise more convenient but it can also shadow other objectives. At least a turtle walker might argue that — and more on that in my next column.

Steven Snell is a professional city planner with a master’s in urban planning. His series of columns will focus on spatial justice and the city. Follow him on Twitter @stevenpsnel l.