The world's best 10 cities for walking?
"There are cities where cars reign supreme, others where a bicycle or public transportation will suffice, and a select few that remain a paradise for two feet," says Charis Atlas Heelan in introducing a selection of "10 best cities for walking" from Frommer's, the travel service.
Regrettably, I have been to only five of them. And two of those — Edinburgh and Munich — I visited a long, long time ago. Nonetheless, I have to wonder at such a contradictory list.
According to Heelan's compilation, available here, the 10 best cities for walking are Dubrovnik, Florence, Paris, New York, Vancouver, Munich, Edinburgh, Boston, Melbourne, and Sydney.
The European cities are easy enough to credit. Of those, Dubrovnik is the most obscure. Not many Americans have been to that old Croatian city on the Adriatic, but Frommer's photo of the Placa (its main street) and of its Franciscan Monastery is evidence enough that Dubrovnik shares the traits that make many European cities a walker's delight: pedestrian passages adeptly enclosed by the facades of buildings; generous architectural detail to keep the pedestrian interested; appealing natural materials (especially masonry); and structures that connect present-day visitors to centuries past. All of Frommer's European picks look appealing to walk in.
Then there are the others.
Vancouver, British Columbia? As modern cities go, Vancouver is pretty good. It has walkable, close-in neighborhoods like Kitsilano (perceptively examined in Patrick Condon's recent book, Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities, reviewed here) where principal streets are lined by four-story buildings with restaurants and shops at ground-level and apartments above. It has mixed-use downtown neighborhoods where the sidewalks are lined by retail or by doorways (and sometimes tiny patios) of houses and apartments. It has enough density to support a lively public realm.
Vancouver also has the attractions that Frommer's specifically cites: among them, the False Creek shoreline promenade, the Sea Village houseboat community, a 1.5-mile walking route through Ambleside Park, and a 6-mile walk through Stanley Park that "lets you experience breathtaking views, inner city beaches, public art, lighthouses, and other city landmarks as you make your way around the peninsula shore."
But those, for the most part, are designed for a different kind of walking — "hiking" would be a more apt word. And that's true of a number of the photographs of cities that Frommer's includes in its slide show — photos of big scenes, distant vistas, large bodies of water, impressive skylines. To my mind, those scenes have relatively little to do with the joy of walking, as opposed to hiking. Urban walking is an activity that depends upon relatively intimate surroundings — upon experiencing "outdoor rooms" and a continual sequence of things close at hand.
Boston, one of Frommer's two choices in the United States, and one where I've spent a lot of time, qualifies by that standard. There are parts of Boston, such as the Italian North End and Beacon Hill, that envelope a pedestrian in an atmosphere of narrow streets, old brick, and abundant, eye-pleasing detail. It's odd, then, that Frommer's displays a chilly photo of downtown high-rises as seen from across the harbor; that's the least walkable (though reasonably hikable) part of Boston. In between, as a category of urban environment, would lie the Back Bay, where spaces are relatively open but with strong street-walls on certain thoroughfares.
The New York City of Frommer's leans heavily toward Central Park, Battery Park, the Hudson River, the Cloisters, and Fort Tryon Park — still more hiking terrain. To be sure, other, more walkable parts of the Big Apple are mentioned as well, including Chinatown, the East Village, the West Village, and SoHo. On the whole, I don't see New York as satisfying Heelan's explicit criterion: "a paradise for two feet." New York is a good city for functional walking; its blocks, on their north-south dimension, are short, so you feel you're making rapid progress when you walk there. When I was in New York last month, I walked (with a couple of stops) from the southern tip of Battery Park City to Grand Central Station, and enjoyed it, as I always do.
New York invites that volume of walking because so much is happening on so many of its blocks. Pedestrians abound. Stores, restaurants, and cafes are plentiful. There are sidewalk vendors selling aromatic food, and offering merchandise at amazingly low prices (I always wonder how much of it was purloined; New York keeps the mind occupied). Though there are some exceptions, the street-walls are intact and continuous. There are few wide-open spaces. For walkers, wide-open spaces are something you can quickly get too much of. Enclosure is a signal virtue.
I don't know why Frommer's is oblivious to this. Perhaps the travel company felt it had to cover a broad range of the world's attributes — sweeping vistas, bodies of water, stands of woodland along with the qualities that are distinctly attractive for urban walking. Whatever the reason, Frommer's short guide betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between walking and hiking.
For those of us involved in planning, designing, building, or trying to comprehend cities, it's important to know which kinds of environments constitute a "paradise for two feet" and which don't. You'd think that a travel source so dedicated to the pleasures of the world would know, and highlight, the difference.