See Your City Differently by Slowing Down

Anyone who has any experience with air travel is likely familiar with the strange sense of dislocation that can accompany it. Humans weren't made to cross a continent or an ocean in an afternoon, and there's something on a gut level that never gets less uncanny about it. We're wired to understand distance through our experience of time—how often do you say things like, "It's 20 minutes away from here?" High-speed travel throws those time-based intuitions for a loop: it scrambles our internal sense of place. Everywhere becomes nowhere, because everywhere might as well be close to everywhere else.

I've been flying back and forth between Florida (where I live) and Minnesota (where I grew up) more often than usual the last few months, for a variety of reasons. Every time, it messes with my head for days. I half-expect friends to know each other who, of course, don't because they live half a continent apart. I expect the sounds and smells of different places to jumble in weird ways: I feel the absence when I come home to my neighborhood in Sarasota of the church bells that chime 27 times at exactly 7:40 in the morning—why 7:40? I have no idea—on the corner of my parents' street in St. Paul.

Let me make a less obvious proposition: car travel profoundly scrambles your sense of place too. You (and I) are just less aware of it because it's so much more ingrained in the fabric of everyday life. But whizzing around your city at 30 or 45 or 60 miles per hour is absolutely going to affect how you understand it. You've got your Here, and your There, and everything in between it becomes condensed in your mind, because time = distance to our unconscious brains.

When we built freeways through urban neighborhoods, we didn't just devastate those neighborhoods' economies and housing markets and public health. We also made those neighborhoods all but invisible to many of the people who share a city or region with them. A place you never really see might as well be a world away. The first 5 miles of a 30-minute commute might be the majority of the ground you cover, but it might also take 1/6 of your total travel time. And thus, it might only occupy 1/6 of the real estate in your mental map of who, and what, comprises the place you call home.

One of my favorite "secret passages" I've found walking around Sarasota. (Photo: Daniel Herriges)

One of my favorite "secret passages" I've found walking around Sarasota. (Photo: Daniel Herriges)

For that matter, who lives in your own neighborhood? Who passes through it? Who uses its parks, shops at its stores? Do you really know? I've often wondered this when I hear discussions of "neighborhood character" come up at public meetings. Is the "character" you perceive representative of the full range of experiences people are having in your neighborhood every day? Or it is more like an optical illusion based on what takes up the most visible space (usually single-family homes)?

Traveling at high speeds causes you to miss things, or to assign things more or less importance in your mental model of a place than they may really have. One of the best ways to deeply understand the place you live is, thus, to slow down. Way down.

Take a walk around your city, without a concrete plan or destination. Go somewhere you haven't gone before. Or, even better, go somewhere you go all the time—but make the journey on foot over several hours, instead of in a vehicle in 20 minutes. Just to do it. To see all the life that really happens every day in between Here and There.

If you're really, really ambitious, make a plan to walk every part of your city. What better way to understand the pulse of a place, not through data and accumulated factual knowledge, but by feeling it in your skin and the soles of your feet? (Maybe a bit too much in the soles of your feet.)

I've been following the chronicles of Max Hailperin, who's on a mission to walk every block in Minneapolis. He stumbles upon public art and oddball architecture and places that are obviously beloved to someone, while a thousand more someones zoom by every day without ever knowing what's there. His photos and observations can be pretty delightful.

Here's someone winning the Overachiever Award by doing the same in New York City.

Photo: Sarah Kobos

Photo: Sarah Kobos

Strong Towns members are an inquisitive bunch, and I know many of you already do this kind of thing. Sarah Kobos wrote a few months ago about how leaving the car at home leads to a whole different set of interactions with your neighbors, which helps you, in turn, be a better neighbor and Strong Citizen:

One of the simplest ways to engage with your community is to physically get out in it.  When you walk or bike, the slower pace allows you to notice details you’ve never seen before. Not only that, you will hear, smell and feel the environment in a way that’s impossible to experience from inside an automobile.
I’m always amazed how many total strangers speak to me when I’m walking or biking. They ask for directions, make surprising observations, or just say howdy. Cars create barriers between people. Active transportation eliminates them. When we’re not surrounded by glass and steel, people can see our faces and we become recognizably human. Sharing a smile, which happens a lot more often when you're on foot or bike, reminds us of this fact.
Photo: Zvi Leve

Photo: Zvi Leve

Zvi Leve channels the spirit of Jane Jacobs by hosting Jane's Walks in his city of Montreal, using them to cultivate ideas for positive change:

We had approximately 10-15 people on each walk (we gained and lost a few en route!). Lots of interesting conversations, particularly with participants who brought historical knowledge of the areas being explored. One of my goals was to highlight the challenges for pedestrians in the areas which we explored, and that was very much understood and appreciated. A future goal would be working on translating that understanding into pressure to change our built environment to prioritize people over vehicle circulation (and parking).
Photo: Arian Horbovetz

Photo: Arian Horbovetz

Just this week, Strong Towns member Arian Horbovetz, who blogs from Rochester, New York at The Urban Phoenix, wrote a wonderful essay called “I Think I See The Entire City Differently," about seeing two friends have the epiphany you have when you start bicycling around your city and realize how much was under your nose all along:

“You may have to go through some places that you thought were sketchy, and we will end up in these neighborhoods and I’m like, ‘this is actually amazing and everyone’s friendly!’  And it seems like the ‘sketchier’ the neighborhood, the friendlier the people are. They’re more likely to say ‘hey’ and acknowledge you and wave. People are working in their yards, playing with their kids, grilling on their porch… everyone’s just doing their thing.”
“I don’t really have a long ride, I’m like a two minute ride to the bank.  But I always try to take a different way back. Just to see something weird.  I see the lady in my neighborhood who collects cans. She has a house. And a garden.  She not homeless, she’s actually got this life… she saw me and recognized me, waved at me… those are the things you miss the most when you’re in a car.”

All this exploration has dollars-and-cents implications too. Slowing down and really experiencing your city with all of your senses is a crucial step towards really seeing what could help make it a more productive place. As Chuck Marohn wrote a couple years ago in "The Wealth of Experiences":

"When we focus on experiences, we bind people to a place. And to each other.
When we make that park pleasant to stroll through, when we make that street safe to cross, when we make that public building impressive to look at, we’re connecting our civic improvements to the more powerful parts of our brains, the part that values experiences over material goods. And these bonds run deep, last forever and are easily transferred to others.
In short, when we build a city worth experiencing, we’re building a place that has enduring wealth."

High-speed travel, whether it's 60 miles per hour in a car or 600 miles per hour in an airplane, has its place. It has put more of the world at our fingertips than ever before, and allowed us to make and maintain connections that our grandparents couldn't have dreamed of. But building a strong town for the ages is something that has to start and end with the places where we live. Today or this weekend or next week, find an opportunity to step outside your routine, slow down and be in, truly in, a place that you love.

(Top photo credit: Johnny Sanphillippo)