When I first arrived in Saint Louis as a new inhabitant, I laced up my Colorado hiking boots, stocked my backpack with peanuts, filled my water bottle with Red Gatorade, and walked out my front door for a "city hike." Using a map I had printed from Google, I meandered for ten miles and five hours around the city.
If Lewis and Clark were still around, they'd have laughed at me. They started from Saint Louis in 1804 and traveled 8,000 miles in just over two years. Although my city excursion is not the stuff of legend, it still gave me a small sense of exploration as I stumbled upon old courthouses, museums, pubs, libraries, and monuments. Being without a car in a city with a limited transit system, I simply found my way on foot.
Making cities "walkable" again has become an imperative for urban planners seeking to lure populations back from the sprawling suburbs. Consultants such as Walkable Communities Inc. encourage city officials and developers to literally "think on your feet." An increasing number of websites are also devoted to helping residents find homes with restaurants, parks, and other amenities within walking distance. Walkscore.com allows users to type in their address and instantly receive a "walkability score."
I recently moved away from what PBS Television called one of the "Most Walkable Communities in America": Boston. Cities hoping to empower pedestrians could learn much from the birthplace of the Revolution. In addition to spending billions of dollars to hide its highway underground, Boston spent almost nothing to make the "Freedom Trail" -- a red line painted on three miles of cobblestone sidewalks and streets. I came across this line by accident one day and followed it like a kitten trailing a string of yarn. Boston's Freedom Trail is almost as charming as the Yellow Brick Road of Oz. It led me to Paul Revere's House, Park Street Church, Fanueil Hall, and eventually Bunker Hill.
Although other cities lack these particular landmarks, they could still benefit by directing tourists with a painted line, rather than confusing maps, to their own historic sites. A colorful line delights the eye and compels the feet forward.
Perhaps the finest models for "walkable cities" are European ones. In the summer of 2009, I worked as a video producer for Let's Go Publications and toured 11 major cities. Traveling on a tight budget, I quickly realized that the best way to become oriented was to take "free" walking tours offered in many cities by a company called New Europe. Unlike bus tours crowded with old people and screaming children, the walking tours were filled with fascinating young travelers who were just as interesting as the guides. In well-worn shoes, I discovered the accessibility of the ancient cities.
Back in Saint Louis, I had lower expectations. Friends warned me that the city had suffered greatly from almost five decades of "white flight" to more affluent suburbs. Highways now cut through its heart and many neighborhoods remain in disrepair. Yet as I wandered through its streets, I discovered a history and culture rivaling that of the older cities I had seen. I saw the site from which Mark Twain had disembarked as a riverboat pilot, the old courthouse where Dred Scott was tried, remnants of the 1904 World Fair, and a sculpture garden. I also foraged for food and drink at neighborhood pubs and delis. Although not nearly as rugged as hiking in Colorado, "city hiking" has its own appeal, including warm coffee breaks in the morning and happy hours in the afternoon.
By offering free walking tours or painting colorful lines on sidewalks, American cities should do everything they can to encourage exercise, showcase history, and foster a sense of adventure for pedestrians.