Last year, we spoke to an urban planner about Barcelona’s superillas concept, the city’s network of three-block by three-block sections, where car traffic is all but banned. “Superblocks create space for people,” Jackson Chabot said, invoking American grid cities like New York City, Chicago, Salt Lake City and Savannah, GA, where the design could theoretically be repeated. “The superblocks concept embodies the future all cities should aspire to, and precisely the type of city where I want to live.
It does sound idyllic: cleaner and quieter streets, where neighbors can socialize and children can play. Coffee runs where you don’t have to dodge Uber drivers and Amazon trucks. Linear parks with lanes for last-mile commuters.
In 2016, the sustainable engineers at ARUP dedicated an entire report to this idea, entitled “Cities Alive,” and imparted dozens of clear-headed reasons why cities need to be more walkable — walkable cities mitigate the urban heat island effect, walkable cities invite investment and development, walkable cities foster intergenerational interaction, for example. Another of the group’s conclusions, though, was particularly memorable: walkable cities literally feel like falling in love.
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Love Is in the Air
What on earth does that mean? Well, ARUP cited a study conducted by economists at the University of Zurich, which found, “A person with a one-hour commute to work has to earn 40% more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. At the same time, shifting from a long commute to a short walk would make a single person as happy as if he or she had found a new love.”
A morning walker isn’t just cashing in on the good vibes of their new habit (the sunlight exposure, the green exercise, the steps that boost blood flow and mood). They’re also buzzing about what they no longer have to put up with — an isolating/frustrating morning spent behind the wheel of a car. You could call it their ex.
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Putting It Into Practice
If walking to work is so potent that it could put us into a permanent honeymoon phase, should we perhaps consider reorienting our entire professional lives around the concept? It’s certainly an idea. That sort of proactivity would make sure you’re not waiting for some future version of your home city to maybe implement an urban design reminiscent of the superblocks.
You could take matters into your own hands and hunt for a job that’s (a) walkable from your home and, ideally, (b) in a community that’s inherently walkable. (After all, a lot of highways qualify “walkable from one’s home.”) At the same time, not everyone has the same level of professional opportunity or flexibility in their chosen neighborhood. And there are a variety of ways to channel the spirit of that Zurich study (and the larger ARUP report).
Don’t Sweat the Definition
For instance: prioritize public transportation over car dependency wherever possible, and invest in a surefire last-mile solution (like an electric scooter or a folding bike) to make sure some stage of the journey is outside and within your control. If your workplace is hybrid or even remote, start frequenting a nearby coffee shop or shared workspace to “simulate” a morning walking commute and reap the lovey-dovey benefits.
And remember, you can make changes outside of your commuting hours, too. Go on lunch walks, sunset walks, park walks. Make these trips an indelible part of your routine. That way, if you can’t avoid a long slog in the car or on the train each morning, you can still feel like you’ve got something to look forward to.
At first, I can attest, implementing these walks will feel like falling in love (exciting, different, sudden). But keeping them in the routine will eventually feel like being in love (dependable, supportive, oxygenating). And that’s the love you want for the long run, anyway.