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A stroll through our cities

Discussed in this essay:

Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, by Michael Sorkin. North Point Press. 272 pages. $16 (paper).

All Over the Map: Writing on Buildings and Cities, by Michael Sorkin. Verso. 320 pages. $26.95 (paper).

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, by Jeff Speck. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 320 pages. $27.

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, by Alexandra Horowitz. Scribner. 320 pages. $27.

A History of Future Cities, by Daniel Brook. W. W. Norton. 480 pages. $27.95.

Solvitur ambulando, scholars and scientists have long been advised when faced with a tricky passage from the Summa contra gentiles or one of Zeno’s mind-bending paradoxes: It is solved by walking. A stroll is handy therapy for any number of afflictions, great and small — good for the digestion, distracting of worries, refreshing of spirit, and maybe even the preferred way to do philosophy. Aristotle thought so, popular legend says, which is why we call the school he founded Peripatetic. In truth the name may be derived instead from the colonnades of the ancient Athenian Lyceum, where his followers met to argue — peripatoi rather than peripatetikos, if you’re keeping score — but let’s not ruin the image of donnish conversation carried on by a couple of ambling brainiacs. Centuries later, Heinrich Heine would gently mock Kant for the regularity of his afternoon constitutional, always taken “with his gray coat and the Spanish stick in his hand,” as a sign of intellectual rigidity — one by which the rationalist philosopher’s neighbors allegedly set their clocks. Nietzsche and the Lake School poets were driven to wilder, more romantic wanderings.

But there has also been a long-standing disdain of those who must trudge, rather than ride, from place to place. In North American life, lacking a vehicle is among the clearest markers of social deficiency, especially if it means resorting to public transit. (Loelia Lindsay, a former duchess of Westminster, memorably quipped that “Anybody seen in a bus over the age of thirty has been a failure in life.”) “Pedestrian” in its adjectival mode comes to mark the feckless, the trite, the dull of mind — thinking that shuffles when it should fly. Even jaywalkers, those dashing minor-league anarchists, came by their name via insult: jay originally meant “simpleton,” “softhead,” “rube.” (In some places, the value is reversed: New Yorkers think anybody who doesn’t jaywalk is a rube.) Jaywalking remains illegal in most places, punishable by fines and even detention. I once gave a lecture celebrating the liberatory potential of jaywalking; the town’s police commissioner, a member of the audience, gave me his card afterward. “You’ll need that to get out of jail,” he told me.

Urban walking is a special kind of activity, a modern democratic art form. On sidewalks and in public squares, across terminal concourses and through lobbies, walking is how we most commonly, and closely, encounter our fellow citizens. If you live in a large city, learning how to walk the streets is something you must master as a physical expression of belonging. “I grew up in the South,” the humorist Roy Blount Jr. notes in an essay on how to walk in New York.

I can do the traipse, I can do the gallivant, I can do the lollygag, and I can do the slow lope. I can hotfoot it, I can waltz right in and waltz right out, or I can just be poking or dragging or plowing along. As a youngster I skedaddled. I believe that if called upon, for the sake of some all-in-good-fun theatrical, I could sashay. But I know that these gaits have their places, and on the other hand there is New York walking. You think you know how to walk in New York? No you don’t, unless you know you know how to walk in New York. Otherwise you just impede the flow.

Tom Wolfe was the first to note the characteristic hip hitch of the pimp roll, that defiant sidewalk strut, but the walking signals of class and race have been with us always, from the flâneur’s saunter, an expression of aesthetic leisure, to the motions of P. G. Wodehouse’s antic London idiots, who ooze, oil, filter, trickle, shimmer, breeze, stream, and sidle. It’s a close thing, but in the Wooster lexicon there are hardly more words for drunkenness.

Neither Blount nor Wolfe nor Wodehouse is deemed worthy of mention in the array of recent books about cities and walking, but that’s no rap against them: we each have favorite literary pals, just as we each have favorite routes and destinations in the same city. Nor do any of the books sufficiently discuss today’s gravest threat to enjoyable city walking, namely all those people not looking where they’re going because they’re paying obeisance to their fucking phones.

Of the writers and thinkers who dwell on city walking, the architect and urban theorist Michael Sorkin acknowledges this threat most directly. Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, his recently rereleased tour de force of pedestrian appreciation, is a detailed defense of why walking in cities is not only a pleasant pastime and a fine form of low-impact exercise but also an essential feature of democracy — an enactment of citizenship that contrasts vividly with the isolation of driving.

As Sorkin’s title suggests, his book is structured around the daily walk he takes from home, a rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village, to his firm’s office in TriBeCa. He takes a long time to get out the door, what with detailing the building’s stairwells and corridors, plus the tussles with neighbors over noise and garbage, but once off the stoop and away, it’s an exhilarating journey, delivered in montage and digression, mirroring on the page the experience of navigating the sidewalk in a great, busy, diverse modern city. We pass through Washington Square Park, down LaGuardia Place, and across Houston and Canal, then end up playing sly elevator games at the office, betting on how clusters of three, four, or five riders will arrange themselves in the car. Sorkin digresses frequently into history, philosophy, and politics, making reference to everyone from Plato and Baudelaire to Téa Leoni and Will Smith. He is the ultimate cicerone — opinionated, well informed, committed, and sometimes funny.

The book’s best chapter, “The Block,” is a graceful survey of thinkers who understand and celebrate the public good of public space: Walter Benjamin, Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau, Guy Debord, and of course Jane Jacobs. “The key to a democratic urban citizenship is that cooperative behavior is elective,” Sorkin writes — which is why even small defections from the implicit norms of shared space (I’m looking at you not looking at me, phone guy) are significant.

By the time we reach our destination in Sorkin’s walk to work, the larger defections of the modern city — runaway property values and rents, corporate retail districts — are revealed as enemies of a functioning urban democracy. This is a walk with a purpose, one of the finest meditations on the politics of the built environment since, yes, Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

At one point in Twenty Minutes, after Sorkin is bumped by two yakking moms in SoHo, he resorts to calling them assholes, albeit under his breath. It is the only discreditable note in the book — provided one disregards an off-key sentence in which Sorkin, seeking to demonstrate the growing annexation of SoHo by showbiz darlings, mentions that he once sat on a toilet seat “still warm from the impress of Calista Flockhart’s bum.” (I mean, really.) Sorkin can be, in general, a trifle red-faced in his denunciations, hating equally on Trumped-up towers and film-crew production assistants who shoo him off his route. You begin to worry about him. “My bile rises when I pass the unshaded sidewalks of the corporate skyscrapers of midtown because even these entities — worth billions of dollars — are as indifferent as my landlord to the public realm,” he snarls. “I feel my blood pressure rise as I pass the ranks of mobile dressing rooms and supply trucks, all with their exhausts belching and their noisy generators running to keep overpaid stars cool or warm,” he splutters. “I was now screaming with rage,” he says of the height of one battle with his landlord. For the initiatives known as “public-private partnerships,” which routinely devolve the former into the latter, Sorkin harbors Nazi-inflected hostility: “Whenever I hear the phrase, I reach for my revolver.” Later on, contemplating a Subaru SUV inanely named the Tribeca, he reports, “I look forward to spitting on the first one I see and yelling ‘asshole’ at the driver.”

In addition to general animus toward whole categories of people — yuppies and bobos (remember them?) — Sorkin nurses some personal grievances. His gallery of rogues includes the cynical billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg, the craven apostle of power Herbert Muschamp, the fey Nazi poseur Philip Johnson, the sadly trendy Daniel Libeskind, the slippery hypocrite Rem Koolhaas, and the bullying city-hater Robert Moses. On the other hand, Jane Jacobs was a genius. Sorkin’s recent collection of essays, All Over the Map, is indeed that, an album of loosely connected short pieces that are fired by these various dislikes but that, in the absence of their original context, mostly shrivel on the page. This is especially apparent in his commentary on the World Trade Center reconstruction, which has just about exhausted its interest even for dedicated urbanists. More successful are longer essays about the ends of urbanism and the value of utopianism in architectural thought, as well as some flights of writerly fancy that are both entertaining and informative: a Philip Roth–style counterfactual essay entitled “The Plot Against Architecture,” a “Last Philippic” that condemns Philip Johnson alongside the notorious B-movie sexploitationist Russ Meyer, and a tongue-in-cheek piece called “How I Invented Asia.” These, along with perhaps half a dozen others, form the short book that is trapped inside this one, struggling to get out.

Alexandra Horowitz has no large political agenda, and her name-dropping tends toward Thoreau and Santayana rather than Debord and Benjamin, but her book On Looking belongs with Sorkin’s anyway, as a sort of creamy dessert course with an emphasis on the aesthetic pleasures of walking. Written in the breezy, accessible style Horowitz brought to her last effort, a study of her dog’s perceptual universe, it focuses on eleven walks that the author, a cognitive psychologist, took in New York, Philadelphia, and Springfield, Massachusetts. In each case, she has a companion able to illuminate some aspect of the urban condition: an architect and sociologist of sidewalk behavior, but also a geologist and a graphic designer (finally, someone who defends the almost-obscured distinction between font and typeface). A sound engineer teaches her to hear the subtle gradations of the soundscape; a blind woman shows her how to appreciate walking without all the senses in play. Horowitz is a connoisseur of detail. Of the first walk, taken with her nineteen-month-old son, she writes:

A walk is exploring surfaces and textures with finger, toe, and — yuck — tongue; standing still and seeing who or what comes by; trying out different forms of locomotion (among them running, marching, high-kicking, galloping, scooting, projectile falling, spinning, and noisy shuffling). It is archeology: exploring the bits of discarded candy wrapper; collecting a fistful of pebbles and a twig and a torn corner of a paperback; swishing dirt back and forth along the ground.

It strikes the reader, traipsing through this chatty, charming work, that Horowitz may be the New World reverse of the Oulipo eminence Georges Perec, who sat for days in a Paris café observing the same unremarkable streetscape and recording everything that happened — which wasn’t much. (The resulting book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, published in 1975, is itself exhausting in a manner that only Perec, author of a novel entirely devoid of the letter e, could manage. “Buses pass by,” he notes at one point. “I’ve lost all interest in them.”) Horowitz’s most enjoyable chapter describes the journey she shares with the illustrator Maira Kalman. Being around Kalman sounds a bit like living within the pages of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing twenty-four hours a day. Even sidewalk detritus instantly transports her to glee. “The subject of Kalman’s excitement,” Horowitz tells us, “was a long wooden couch set ungloriously near a mound of trash in front of an apartment building.” Kalman “loved it for the boldness of its naked arrival on the curb.”

If Rousseau is the more obvious source for the modernist fixation on the restoration of an Edenic environment,” Michael Sorkin remarks in Twenty Minutes, “Hobbes functions as its thinly concealed unconscious.” We may dream of a shared urban paradise, in other words, but the real rules of interaction are governed by self-interest and competition. Hobbesian games are everywhere afoot in Jeff Speck’s Walkable City, which might be conceived of as the return of the reality principle in urban affairs; or one might say that, like Machiavelli, Speck chooses to take people as they are and laws — or policy levers — as they might be. His general premise is that people won’t give up cars for walking unless and until the price is right; it is the business of good urban planning and municipal politics to find the right mix of carrots and sticks to draw people onto the sidewalk. Walking is of course good for you, enjoyable, and sustainable; but just saying so won’t make people do it. For that, you need behavior-altering tricks like “congestion pricing” (raising the opportunity costs of driving downtown, whether with actual fees or heightened frustration) and “road diets” (avoiding induced traffic demand by removing, rather than adding, lanes).

Speck likes walking as much as do Horowitz and Sorkin, in short, but he also knows that Manhattanites are the blessed and few. In his professional practice, Speck advises mayors and planners on how to make existing cities more pedestrian-friendly. Much of his advice, collected and framed in Walkable City, runs counter to received ideas, a fact that gives Speck endless pleasure. Some of the background here is psychological, as in the notion of “risk homeostasis,” which dictates that humans will act recklessly just to the level of their comfort. This means, for example, that widening roads in an attempt to make them safer has the unintended effect of making it easier for people to drive faster — and so returns the road to its previous level of danger. “Widening a city’s streets in the name of safety,” Speck writes, “is like distributing handguns to deter crime.”

Risk homeostasis also accounts for the fact that adding bike lanes to streets, unless the lanes are separated from the roadway by a curb, can make biking more hazardous. Speck, like both Sorkin and Horowitz, cites the experiments of the Dutch urban planner Hans Monderman, who designed so-called naked streets: road interchanges almost entirely devoid of signage. These proved demonstrably safer than signed interchanges, because drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians had to slow down and think in order to assess the risk and then negotiate it. In Monderman’s terms, “Chaos equals cooperation.”

Speck’s analyses are diverting in the counterintuitive manner we have come to expect from a certain sort of popular non-fiction. They are delivered with certainty, bad pun-driven jokes, and a penchant for grandiose labels for commonsense ideas: “The General Theory of Walkability explains how, to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting.” The general thesis of Speck’s books is that walking is civic, as we all know it to be, and that it saves money by, among other things, offsetting health-care costs and increasing productivity (by reducing commute times and traffic-induced stress).

Unfortunately, Speck seems to have ingested with enthusiasm the almost instantly dated “creative class” rhetoric that crept into urban theory a decade ago. He talks excitedly of the “millennials” and “creatives,” raised on Friends rather than The Brady Bunch, who will inhabit the pedestrian-welcoming hipster downtowns of the future, if only we plan it right. These people will be the ones to reinvigorate the moribund city centers with such features as tree-lined sidewalks, buskers, and food trucks. Though he shows, with compelling statistical evidence, that walkable districts typically become more expensive, he doesn’t seem to notice the obvious irony that the very same desire for walkability that attracts these younger residents is just what drives the property values past the level they can afford. This is what happened in Jane Jacobs’s beloved West Village, which beginning in the 1960s morphed from a rough-and-tumble neighborhood into a theme park for actors and bankers. That the same thing did not happen in her other model district, Boston’s North End, owes to the fact that it was already a theme park, offering cannoli and gelato alongside manufactured street parades for the Virgin Mary.

Like so many people who place faith in market mechanisms to generate good results, Speck is at times blithe to the point of insult about uneven distribution of urban amenities. “In most American cities, everyone still drives, traffic is relatively light, and parking is cheap. What is the role of transit in these places?” he wonders.

In some of these locations, the bus is destined to remain the “loser cruiser,” the mode of choice for those who have no choice: the elderly, poor, and infirm. As such, it will always be underfunded and struggling for survival, like any social service.

Well, sure — so long as we continue to regard the disadvantaged and disabled as losers. “If it is to become widely used, transit has to be ruthlessly reconceptualized as a convenience, not just a rescue vehicle,” he adds. Do not tarry for rescue, O ye poor and infirm, for ye shall be left waiting at the bus stop!

Though he mentions Europe, Australia, and Canada now and then, Speck’s theory of walkability really applies only to those American cities that experienced urban flight in the twentieth century. But wealthy suburbs surrounding defunct downtowns are not necessarily the norm. Many North American near suburbs offer the only place where lower- to middle-income families can even imagine owning a house, meaning that many of these places increasingly accommodate recent arrivals to the country. The cultural identities of these suburbs are shifting and, sometimes, in conflict, leading to violent gang activity. Modern suburban life is often defined by just the sort of implicit exclusions — and the explicit vertical gated communities of downtown condo towers — that Michael Sorkin feared would result from gentrification. Research by my University of Toronto colleague David Hulchansky has shown that there are three distinct socioeconomic “cities” within the Greater Toronto Area. The smallest, wealthiest city is concentrated downtown and in traditionally upper-class neighborhoods; it is clustered around the main subway lines, the financial core, and many prominent sites of entertainment and shopping. The poorest city is in near suburbs on the northwest and northeast edges of the city area, often far from subway access. A middle-income city is squeezed between the two.

This is a pattern likely to exist elsewhere in Canada and the United States. And yet even by Speck’s own analysis, Toronto ranks high as a walkable city. I can walk or bike to work nearly every day and have never owned a car (though, in common with Speck, I like to drive). I enjoy this luxury because I live in what Hulchansky calls City 1, rather than 2 or 3 — in the same neighborhood, not coincidentally, that includes the last residence of Jane Jacobs. The trend of stratification within the city has developed over the past four decades, almost precisely paralleling the growing income disparities of North American society during the same period. It would be no exaggeration to say that the three-cities condition — growing outer-city slums and privileged walkable downtowns — is the physical embodiment of wealth concentration.

Speck has smart and useful things to say in favor of working public spaces such as small parks and greenbelts (“only as good as their edges”) and in favor of inclusionary zoning, which allows for affordable-housing renovations within formerly single-family structures. And he has sharp words for those quietly destructive civil engineers who mistakenly think that facilitating traffic flow is the ne plus ultra of urban intervention, and for the bombast of celebrity architects like Frank Gehry who wave away criticism of user-unfriendly buildings with the haughty disdain of demigods. “Evidence would suggest that, among the leading starchitects, creating street life still ranks low on the list of priorities, somewhere down there with staying on budget and keeping the rain out.” If Speck seems a little too accommodating of the automobile, that is because he knows it is not going anywhere soon. “Most American cities are driving cities and will remain so for years to come,” he concedes. “And that’s OK.”

That probably seems a bit too sanguine to some, but Speck’s conciliatory attitude might have an upside: if many city dwellers are willing to spend for the privilege of driving, we can tax driving and use the funds to promote walking. On just one aspect of this dynamic, he notes: “Parking is a public good, and it must be managed for the public good.” Given his assessment of parking as the “single largest land use in every American city” — on its own an astonishing fact — it “is very much that city’s business” to ensure that parking costs generate benefits (transit, public housing, walkable downtowns) for the entire city.

Walking occupies a curious double place in the modern world: it can mark a declension on the social scale — remember the “loser cruiser” — or it can be a sign of luxury, an activity enjoyed by those who can walk to work or a restaurant. One of the saddest things to observe about our urbanized landscape is how little thought has gone into its creation, especially relative to the amount of speculation and argument put out by urbanists, architects, and philosophers. Most of the planet’s largest cities can now be found in Asia, Africa, and South America. Commuters in these cities daily witness traffic jams that would gladden the hearts of congestion pricers everywhere. At the same time, these places support massive nondriving populations who manage to thrive, despite sometimes lacking access to basic amenities such as water and electricity. From this global urban perspective, it is itself a luxury to worry about whether your city can indulge the luxury of walking.

In at least some parts of Asia the urban future really has arrived: in addition to poverty and crowding that would shock the residents of Dallas or Vancouver, there is also citywide Wi-Fi, eco-friendly infrastructure, and architecture on an ambitious scale. As Daniel Brook shows in A History of Future Cities, his inspired tour of the postmodern city, the East is deeply entwined with Western money, history, and ambition. The Art Deco buildings that adorn the Bund, a stretch of waterfront on the Puxi side of Shanghai, were constructed by the buccaneering English and French capitalists who created the basis, almost without thinking, of one of the most eclectic architectural clusters in the world. The city of Dubai was, by contrast, planned and executed as a series of design experiments; but because the emirs’ money drew submissions from the world’s leading architects and planners, it seems to transcend region.

“Where are we?” Brook asks in his book’s opening line.

Walking through the cityscapes of St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai provokes this same question. Built to look as if they were not where they are — in Russia, China, India, and the Arab world, respectively — each metropolis conjures the same captivating yet discomfiting sense of disorientation.

The oceanfront of Mumbai displays evidence of the Portuguese and the British even as the city — the fourth most populous in the world — remains distinctly Indian in culture. St. Petersburg’s proposed modernist skyscrapers are set against a bulbous skyline of Russian Orthodox Church architecture, just as the post-Soviet culture still retains vestiges of the French style that influenced elite social and intellectual circles of centuries past.

Architecturally and culturally, these cities are richly postmodern in a way that even New York, let alone other American cities, simply is not. Strolling the sidewalks of these jangly urban landscapes, measuring on foot the shifting contours of the future city, demands a constant review of settled ideas. As Brook suggests throughout his invigorating survey of the future by way of the past, this is a journey that can only really take place on foot.

is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His most recent book is the essay collection Unruly Voices (Biblioasis).

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