In Praise of Walking Tours

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When I taught Urban Geography at the University of Washington (Seattle) in the early 1970’s, the dress code for the typical undergraduate included jeans, hiking shoes, and a backpack. This was a testament to the variety of park, forest, and wilderness trailheads that could be reached within an hour or two from the city. But when my courses included field trips that involved walking in the city, it was a peculiarly novel experience for many.

Seattle youth garb gradually spread throughout America where it served more as a fashion statement than as outfitting. But during these years, along with the gentrification of many older urban neighborhoods and the growing emphasis on light exercise for adults, came a growing consciousness that the city was indeed a place in which to walk. It only needed interpretation!

New Yorkers have known this for years. The incongruity of automobiles and high density has made walking a sensible mode of transportation in Manhattan and parts of the outer boroughs—if only by default. The walking tour has existed in quaint (Greenwich Village), chic (Central Park West), and ethnic (Lower East Side) provinces of Manhattan for decades. But even in the late 1970’s, when I returned to my native Queens, that was the geographic extent of walking tours. The prevailing wisdom among tour sponsoring cognoscente was that Manhattanites wouldn’t leave their Island for walking—except in Brooklyn Heights.

The 1980’s showed this perceived wisdom to be outdated. Borough historical societies and civic groups took the lead along with Manhattan-based but borough-aware organizations like the 92nd St Y and the Municipal Art Society. Walking tours proliferated in all boroughs, in New Jersey, and even (for the Seattle style) in the parks! They became broadly attended with participation from every borough, the suburbs, and even foreign tourists. Walkers now have a choice of commentary that might emphasize architecture, civic problems, ethnic history, transportation, views, anecdotes of the rich and famous, or even what weeds to eat.

Each experienced tour leader has a style and specialized knowledge that the prospective walker should inquire about. My own tours are done from the perspective of historical urban geography. I stress the varying response to our different natural settings (bays, rivers, plains, highlands, glacial moraine) as transportation technology, culture and migrations change our skills, habits, and economic status. I like to walk about two miles in the course of a two hour tour so as to encompass good views and contrasts between differently situated communities. I also like to lead longer walks and sometimes spend entire days leading a series of short walks in conjunction with a subway line.

A good walking tour encourages appreciation of the city in some way. It is rich in visual experiences, stressing perspectives not seen from a vehicle. Concise commentary is given at uncongested vantage points with low noise levels. (This is often a challenge!) In-depth questions from individuals can be addressed while walking. The starting and finishing points should be accessible by public transportation. Those planning to come by automobile may inquire where best to park, particularly if the route is not circular. A thoughtful leader will try to arrange for pleasant weather, and a snack and restroom stop en route! In the event of thoughtless leadership or, more likely, uncooperative nature and cityscapes, backpacks are encouraged.

For more praise of walking go to   http://www.quotegarden.com/walking.html

Jack Eichenbaum