Thursday, March 10, 2005


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The most basic form of locomotion by humans, walking, has been the subject of much discussion on the U of I campus in recent weeks. As someone who loves to walk, I find this both gratifying and disconcerting: gratifying, because it reaffirms that others are interested in making room for walking in daily life, and disconcerting, because it suggests that walking has fallen so far as to need boosters.

A group from the School of Art and Design has organized a four-part symposium in order to explore the connections between walking and knowing and the creation of art associated with specific places. On a recent Friday morning, I joined up with participants from the first session of the symposium for a walk that began in Sadorus, a town of about thousand people, just southwest of Champaign.

At the edge of the Sadorus Community Park, where we gathered, a stone marker with a bronze plaque designates the location as a stop on the Potawatomi Trail of Death--the forced march of some 800 people by U.S. and Indiana officials from Plymouth, Indiana to eastern Kansas in 1838. One purpose of our walk was to commemorate the thirty-nine people who died along the way, and the suffering of those who survived.

From the park we walked out and back about a mile west on River Road, crossing and re-crossing the Kaskaskia as we went, and paralleling a high-traffic rail line. As we walked, the larger assemblage divided and regrouped the way migrating geese do, and members of the party gave impromptu lessons in the natural history of the region, or spoke of their experience walking elsewhere. The sun on our faces, the warm breeze from the southwest, and the natural lift that goes with walking outdoors promoted among us a pleasant feeling of connectedness.

Back on campus last week walking was also a prominent topic at a two-day institute hosted by the Department of Urban and Regional Planning. There keynote speaker Richard Killingworth from the Active Living by Design Program exhorted tomorrow’s planners to become public health practitioners by creating built spaces that foster physical activity: streets that are friendly to pedestrians and bicycles, neighborhoods where short trips can be made without cars.

Killingworth and others argue that as a society, we have become less healthy as we have become less active, and that we have become less active as a result of the car-oriented environments we have built for ourselves. By this logic one of the most significant things we can do to promote public health is to redesign where we live.

We have a lot to gain by going from place to place on foot when we can. Of course in walking we do our part as citizens of the world by leaving behind the need for fossil fuel and helping to keep the air clean. But we also benefit ourselves directly, both physically and psychologically, in ways that are perhaps by now well known enough not to need reciting here.

Given all of the reasons for walking, I’m tempted to appropriate a line from a commercial promoting seat belt use to end this piece, and so I do: what’s holding you back?