October 10, 2014

Sociology, Sidewalks, and Walking

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull. (Jane Jacobs).

Have you ever noticed that your walking pace changes depending on where you’re walking, and where you’re walking to? Have you noticed that walking involves an interaction with space as you’re moving through it?

I love walking, I love walking quickly, and I love walking on sidewalks. Even though sidewalks lead to paths already known, they also provide an opportunity for one to really look at the surroundings, notice shifts within social life (boundaries between neighborhoods, class divides, etc.), and to explore and find treasures along the way.

The way I walk, however, has changed since my recent move to Galesburg, Illinois, a small, rust belt rail town. Once a booming industrial center, the town hosts an array of sidewalks, parks, walkways, and green spaces, is well lit in many places, hosts a number of storefronts (although many of these are now empty), and has a small but vibrant historic downtown district.

Yet, as I walk about the town – run errands, grab a coffee between classes, or even walk my dog around the neighborhood – I see very few people walking. As a person who has spent much of her life in cities, the town often feels desolate, and empty.  And I’ve noticed that I walk much more slowly here.  

Yet, when I travel to Chicago, New York, or San Francisco, I can feel the urban energy pulsate within me; I walk with more of a purpose and more drive. I can cover miles without noticing how far or for how long I’ve been walking. I pass through throngs of people, sidestep slow-walkers, and feel the weight of the buildings surrounding me.  And even though it takes me infinitely longer to accomplish things in a city, I don’t seem to mind.

After my last visit to Chicago, I began to wonder at this interplay between the structure of the built environment (particularly sidewalks), the vibrancy of public spaces, and how one walks. These are not new questions; urbanists and urban planners have wrestled with these ideas for well over a century.

In “The Metropolis and Mental Life”German sociologist Georg Simmel discusses the tempo, the rhythm of life, and intensification of nervous stimulation that urban environments create within the individual. In this sense, the rhythms, the tempos, of urban spaces are not only reflective of the built environment, but also reflect and (re)invent those who create, recreate, and use not only the city, but any given space.

This partially explains my shift in walking demeanor between Chicago (quick, excited) and Galesburg (slow, meandering). But how do sidewalks elicit these different responses? Is it the density of entertainment, shopping, sights and sounds? Or is there something else?

In the 1960s, Jane Jacobs, a New York based activist and journalist, viewed urban spaces as integrated ecosystems. Similar to early urbanists, Jacobs, in her now famous text The Death and Life of Great American Cities, argues that sidewalks, their layout and the people that use them all interact to create the vibrancy found in many urban sites. In response to urban design that sequestered people away from each other and imposed housing structures (often in the form of public housing projects) that did not meet residents’ needs or desires, Jacobs highlights that “healthy cities” often contain vibrant public spaces that welcome and interact with residents, and also serve residents’ needs.

As many scholars have noted, this vibrancy centers on the presence of a healthy market – of there being “plenty of ‘there’ there,” with things for people to see and do. This is one of the many highlights of walking in a city; there is generally something available for a diversity of interests or urban subcultures. This density and diversity of individuals, interests, subcultures, and market options all contribute to the vibrancy of most urban places.

At the same time, a lack of density and/or diversity can prove quite detrimental to any area (Detroit as a city is suffering the fate of many small towns, due in part to its reliance on a single industry).

Galesburg, like many other small Midwestern towns, has lost most of its manufacturing base (though not all, thanks in large part to the railway). In “The Last Refrigerator,” sociologist Chad Broughton highlights the dwindling quality of life for many Galesburg residents who once worked at the now shuttered Maytag plant. In the ten years since the factory closed, even with retraining, many of the laid-off workers earn significantly less than they did at Maytag. The closing of the plant had a ripple effect throughout the town.

Earlier this week a colleague mentioned that a decade ago many of the eating establishments downtown (a five minute walk from campus) would be crowded during lunch and dinner times with workers on their breaks. These days, outside of a few festivals and parades, this vibrancy, this life, this excitement, exists at a much smaller scale on many of the sidewalks or in many of the public spaces in town. It’s as if my pace has come to reflect the slowing of the town.

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