Exploring on foot doesn't just burn calories — it builds connections and makes your neighborhood truly feel like yours.
Deep in the armpit of a day spent at my computer screen, I tug my sneakers on. Lace them up. Grab earbuds and my phone with a downloaded audiobook. Head for the door. Step outside. The sun hits me full in the face, and for the next 30 minutes or so, as I take a walk around my town, I shrug off the afternoon doldrums and feel pretty darn happy.
That walking has a preternatural, beta-blocker-like ability to produce contentment, creativity, and calm has been well documented. A loyal walker myself, I’ve seen it all up close. Caught in the Interweb’s rabbit hole? I walk. Too stressed to think straight? I walk. Trying to solve a thorny writing problem? I walk (and sometimes dictate stories into my phone’s Voice Memo app).
But there’s another, lesser known benefit of walking, which is that it helps you fall in love with where you live. First, for someone who’s new in their town, walking at the speed of human helps you draw up mental maps. You learn your way around; you divine shortcuts; you locate signposts that help you find your way, like the plastic flamingos circled in a nearby yard. Step by step you plot your “You are hereâ€ point. As you figure out how the geography of your place fits together, you start building place attachment.
Second, walking helps you really experience your place in a way you simply can’t from behind closed doors or from inside a car. Today’s walk brought me a tulip magnolia to inhale; flowering trees and spring daffodils to admire; under-construction houses to analyze; the smell of fresh-mown grass to enjoy. There were humans and dogs to meet too – no conversation, but enough smiling and waving to make me feel human.
A couple weeks ago, my family moved into a newly built house that we helped design, on a vacant infill lot that we used to drive past and eventually cajoled the owner into selling us. Summing it up like that in a single sentence makes the process sound far easier than it actually was. My husband and I used to spend every date night meandering around Blacksburg in his beat-up Honda Accord, jotting down the locations of empty lots in our favorite neighborhoods, then getting our real estate agent to write letters to the property owners asking if they would consider selling.
The key wasn’t just finding an empty lot. It was finding an empty lot in the right place. How did we pick our favorite neighborhoods? They were all walkable.
In fact, we came close to buying an existing house but eventually pulled out, for a few reasons, among which was that the neighborhood wasn’t walkable. I know because I did a test run (well, a test walk, to be specific). When 15 minutes only got me as far as the windy freeway overpass, I knew we were making a mistake.
This new house, on the other hand, gives me a 0.9-mile walk to one of my favorite spots in this or any town, the public library. While I’m slightly farther from the movie theater, I’m closer to downtown with its plethora of restaurants, shops and other people exploring on foot.
Walkable communities are also vibrant communities. That’s precisely because walking builds place attachment; walkers are just happier to be in their towns. According to a 2014 American Planning Association report, “When asked what would strengthen their local economy, two-thirds believe that investing in schools, transportation choice, walkability, and key community features is the best way.â€ Walkability is one of the factors that both Millennials and Baby Boomers want in their neighborhoods. It’s the thing that unites us.
And it’s easy. And cheap. And health- and happiness-inducing. Here’s how to get started where you live:
That’s really it. You don’t need instructions. You don’t even need special shoes (though I advise against stilettos). Just do it. But if you’d like to dig deeper or expand your existing walking practice, try this:
Replace a car trip with a walking trip once a week.
Figure out which businesses are within a one-mile radius of your house, then walk to them (and patronize them).
Lobby your city council for better walking and biking paths near your home. (For fodder, remind them that walkability typically increases property values.)
Explore your neighborhood on foot. You may be surprised to discover houses, fields, flower beds, and beauty spots you’ve never noticed before.
Walking is so basic I can’t believe I’m even advising it. But it really is the secret sauce to loving a neighborhood or a community. When you walk there, you own the place.