SOME TIME OVER THREE MILLION YEARS AGO, our early hominid ancestors began to walk upright. As a result, writes Mary Soderstrom, the bodies of modern humans are engineered for this activity. We are, quite literally, made to walk.
In her ambitious new book, The Walkable City, Soderstrom attempts to define the elements — cultural, social, and economic — that are needed to create cities where walking is both a practical method of transportation and a pleasure. Driving her quest for the walkable city is Soderstrom’s belief that it is an endangered entity we can ill afford to lose. With the rising price of fossil fuels, the threat of climate change, and increasing rates of obesity in North America, Soderstrom suggests that walking and walkable cities may be essential to our future.
Soderstrom begins her exploration with Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the 19th century French civic planner who tore down parts of Paris to create wider streets, parks, and new buildings; and Jane Jacobs, the popular urban thinker best known for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Soderstrom uses the two thinkers as her guides through the history of urban planning as she takes the reader on walks through a diverse selection of the world’s metropolises. “Together, their words, taken from their writings and interviews, may help us make sense of things,” she writes. Her invocation of Haussmann and Jacobs allows Soderstrom to compare her own observations to their quite different theories, and she maintains this occasionally elaborate conceit throughout the book.
As on a good walk, Soderstrom allows herself to follow enticing sidetracks, and some of her most evocative writing is in these asides, as in her description of a 1954 photograph taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson of a boy carrying two bottles of wine down the rue Mouffetard in Paris: “As it is, he is frozen in time with his scabby knees showing below his shorts, his feet sockless in his sandals and his undershirt sticking out where his nearly-outgrown sweater is too short to cover his belly.” But some of the digressions are distracting. I did not need to know, for example, that Jane Jacobs once modelled maternity clothes for the Russian edition of Amerika, or that Robert Redford, mentioned in passing for his role in Barefoot in the Park, was once named one of Time magazine’s environmental heroes. These references only serve to clutter a text already crowded with information.
The more I read, the more I wanted to hear of Soderstrom’s own theories and discoveries as she roamed the suburbs of Toronto or admired Singapore’s housing developments, and less of the real or imagined thoughts of Jane Jacobs. Soderstrom obviously admires Jacobs, but in her admiration she occasionally gets lost in explications and repetitions of Jacobs’ ideas instead of building on or critiquing them. Fortunately, Soderstrom plans to keep on walking so there is hope that this is not her last word on the subject.
Maria Schamis Turner is the editor of carte blanche (www.carte-blanche.org).