‘The Art of the Walk’: My Love Letter to Walking

I have a vivid memory from a few years ago, taking a walk in the busy city centre of Dar es Salaam, vehicles old and new somehow co-existing with the throng of people, each going about their own lives. I remember stopping for a moment in the hot afternoon sun, deciding to seek solace in the shade on the side of the road, and I watched. I watched the movement of the people around me, how repetitive, yet so unique, the gait of each individual was. You had the straight-backed, business-like, efficient walk of the young professionals on their lunch break; you had the relaxed, smooth gait of the older professionals who could afford to pop back in to work a few minutes late; and you had the happy, almost jubilant, spring-in-the-step walk of the primary school students heading home early that day. This is just a snapshot, a microcosm of an alive, ever-evolving city, and a microcosm too, of how we interact with space on a global scale. The young professionals, for example, seem to glide through space – singularly focused on where they are going, seemingly oblivious to the built environment around them. The primary school students, on the other hand, have a more tactile experience of walking – touching the walls of the buildings that border the street, picking up little things from the ground – as if, in their own way, taking a piece of the environment with them. Parallels can be drawn here of the difference between the brisk walk you take on a Monday morning – heading to work, slightly annoyed that the weekend is over, and the walk you take heading out of work on a Friday evening, slightly more relaxed, and where you get a sudden urge to take a leaf out of a nearby tree – as if wanting, in a subtle way, to enhance the sensory experience.

I have had the privilege of visiting a variety of places in my life so far, and I have always found it fascinating to notice the similarities, the differences, and the general idiosyncrasies of walking in urban cities around the world. Venice, as my first example, is almost the quintessential walking city. The stately, yet understated style of the Venetian Gothic dominates the architectural landscape, leading a visitor to the city to take a relaxed, almost leisurely stroll on their travels. It is quite a conflicting experience in terms of what one should focus on — your gaze is drawn up to the elegant facades and the bell towers of Venice’s impressive churches, but your gaze is simultaneously also drawn downwards, at eye level, to the chatter of locals and tourists alike in the large open spaces, with the Piazza San Marco providing an experience unlike any other, an eclectic atmosphere of movement and relaxation, somehow at the same time. You are constantly reminded of the presence of water wherever you walk, and the consistent appearance of Venice’s lagoon in the midst of all its architectural excellence, is, I think, a reminder by Mother Nature that ‘if you do build, build in harmony with me, and not against me’. 

If the ideal pace of walking in Venice is a leisurely stroll, walking in Stone Town, Zanzibar, is, by all accounts, even more relaxed. To have the quick, efficient walk of the young professional here would be out of place, almost blasphemous, a walking style unsuited to a place whose urban character mimics the soothing, relaxing waves of the Indian Ocean which gives it its worldwide fame. The narrow streets limit the number of paths available to vehicles, encouraging one to walk to where they intend to go — at the unhurried pace of an island city — no matter if you are a first-time visitor, the owner of a roadside shop, or the old man sitting on the steps of the old, run-down building, one does not feel like an individual cog in a machine, but rather like an individual cell working in tandem with other cells, giving the city life. 

It would seem fitting, then, for my final example of urban city walking to be somewhere fast-paced, somewhere where life seems to move at a breakneck speed. And, that for me, is London. The leisurely relaxed stroll applied here would create a similar disorienting feeling to a person suddenly transported to our present from a distant past, overwhelmed by the new technology around them. Overwhelming is the keyword here, as walking in London’s city centre has left me with a mixture of awe, breathlessness, and, to be honest, exhaustion. The straight-backed, efficient walk of Dar es Salaam’s young professionals are somehow turned up a level, with seemingly everyone moving through the urban landscape at mind-bending speed, light years ahead of my pedestrian pace. Walking in London is to be sucked into the textbook example of a modern urban city, where one can experience the strangely comforting feeling of being invisible as life moves around you, oblivious to your presence. When visiting London, I found myself unknowingly adapting to this intensity, as if trying to prove, to no one in particular, that I ‘fit in’ without a problem. About an hour into my visit I consciously slowed myself down, and it made the visit that much more worthwhile. I noticed the large amount of green space that coexists with London’s towering skyline. I noticed the dazzling and dizzying lights of the city as the sun went down, and most of all, I noticed the people, young and old, hurried and unhurried, living their lives.  

Our present reality – with the ongoing pandemic – has meant that the space on our streets has become limited. Narrow streets in the vein of Venice and Stone Town no longer have the movement of people close together, sharing a collaborative space. Instead, due to having to be a certain distance from everyone else – everything is a bit more cautious – and the collaborative space can turn a bit claustrophobic, an individual barrier preventing people from interacting with urban spaces the way they would want to. Do we enjoy our walks more nowadays, now that we are confined to a certain segment of the street? Or do we see it as a hindrance, our walks blighted by wanting to get to our destinations without colliding with other people?

I think I am definitely in the former camp – my experiences with walking in the aforementioned cities have shown me that indeed — the slow, leisurely stroll, wherever you are, is the way to go in immersing yourself in the urban fabric of a city. Socially distant streets have meant that I have felt more alone, but funnily enough, alone in the best sense of the word. Relaxed, not isolated. Recharged, not withdrawn. Not a solitary figure surrounded by other solitary figures, but rather a part of a community – a community that has had to adapt to exceptional circumstances, grounded in mutual respect for the other ‘walkers’.

That walk, that moving through space at your own, leisurely pace, taking in every single, inconsequential thing around you, is a thing of beauty. 

Take that walk.

Matthew Maganga is a third-year Part 1 Architecture student at the University of Kent