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Robert Kwolek Headshot

I Choose To Walk

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I've always found that walking is the best way to truly understand a city.

Unencumbered by the need to keep moving as in a car, one is free to pause when they please and really take in all the city's detail. You see a lot more at 5mph than you do at 50. For that reason I choose to walk. Having this choice is a hallmark of well-designed cities, even for little things like choosing a busy or quiet route between destinations. Living in London for three years, I always loved having the option to get off a busy main road and instead walk through the city's beautiful garden squares and marvel at the Victorian architecture. It was almost surreal how quickly the noise evaporated, with just a faint hint of the buses' diesel engines and the hordes of tourists on their pilgrimages from one museum to the next. It would be difficult to otherwise appreciate the city's neighborhoods if not for the relative tranquility of many of its streets through the eyes of a pedestrian, an experience which would be completely impossible in a car. Walking allowed me to truly get to know the city and its unique neighborhoods.

Diversity of neighborhoods was always among my favorite aspects of London, from the full-on urbanism of areas like the City to the village atmosphere of Hampstead. Some areas have wide almost grid-like streets, some are chock full of gardens or right next to one of the city's many parks, while others have narrow winding roads that really take you back to a different era. In all instances the illusion is strongest when neighborhoods retain their historic character, because let's face it, especially for someone from abroad, we want to experience ye olde England, we want to be surrounded by history and feel like we've stepped back in time. It's the historical bits that make the UK so immediately different from the rest of Europe, and for the most part the British are better at preserving their past than any other nation. Thank goodness for that, because the postwar stuff often leaves a lot to be desired.

London was lucky not to be excessively destroyed in the war and managed to escape the worst of postwar urban "renewal" projects. There are definitely cities in the US which are on a great path to recovery, but the same can't be said for many others, which threw themselves into such projects with wild abandon and within a matter of a few years had decimated their cores, razed historic neighborhoods, built elevated highways, and shifted jobs and shopping out of downtowns, all because of a misguided belief that moving around by automobile was the only acceptable form of transport, millions of years of evolution be damned. It's really heartbreaking to see old photos of our cities, because they were almost universally magnificent. If there's anything that cities like London, NYC, and San Francisco teach us, it's that the best cities are ones which are still best explored on foot, walking upright like humans have always done, and that this doesn't preclude a peaceful coexistence with cars. A city which is good for pedestrians is a good city for humans, it's really as simple as that.

I've never understood the notion that excessively pro-car zoning and planning policies are somehow innately American, and that being anti-car or rather not pandering to cars is anti-American. Surely the Founding Fathers and the original American cities they built like Boston and Philadelphia were no less American for their lack of cars? If anything, those city's historic neighborhoods are among the most beautiful in the nation precisely because they've resisted changing them for the sake of cars. The car after all isn't an American invention and neither are highways, so I think it's about time we dropped this America = cars belief and just accept them as one of many forms of transport and get on with fixing our once great cities. Whether that means undoing the destruction of the past or finding new forms needs to be decided on a city by city basis and hopefully each city knows best how to forge its path going forward, but I strongly believe what was once done by man can be done again. It's paramount that our cities be explorable on foot so that Americans once again truly know and live in their cities, and that means designing streets that look good not just at 50 but at 5mph too.

There's no reason American cities can't once again be the envy of the world not just economically but for their beauty as well. The American people are some of the most creative and driven in the world and there's no reason solutions can't be found if we lay aside our differences and understand that we all want essentially the same thing: strong, safe, beautiful cities which we're proud to call home and pass on to the next generation better than we ourselves found them. That, if anything, is the true American way, the tireless pursuit of betterment for all.