How can I not be at a turning point right now?
this sunlit creek cutting under a trafficked city
this odd synapse of an afternoon
I trip around it like a child discovering:
murky water runs clear
if you leave it alone
I am witness to wonder and woe
everything and nothing will change
from this point forward
I could be a soul content,
or content to slow, from this point forward
upper Waller Creek, 2017
As I write, my 7th grader is standing in his room in a Zoom P.E. class, following exercise directives in close, curtained confines. My other son is cooking mac and cheese before I push him out the door into as much fresh air and sun as he can drink up before his next class. The U.S. Capitol was just stormed, and the structural frame of our government appears to have survived, bruised but intact. The pandemic took its largest toll to date yesterday, and municipal facilities are shape-shifting again to respond to COVID-19 urgent care. It’s gorgeous outside, sun-bright after a cold night and recent downpour. Hawks overhead. Sculpture Falls was flowing yesterday, and Barton Springs is crystal clear. All of this, and more.
As our world makes epic and tumultuous lurches forward, backward, and sideways, we feel an overwhelm that boggles our ability to respond. It’s as if something is trying to tell us something, but the noise in our ears is too loud to hear. We know a piece of what to do, but also suspect it’s not quite the right thing and, generally, too little too late. What does change of the magnitude we’re experiencing compel us to do? Do we try and carry on with the same outlook and strategies we’re accustomed to using, or do we pull the curtain back much farther and see how we might formulate new ones? And how, exactly, can we do that if we’re still inside our own frames of reference, one foot inside the box and one foot stepping out?
Sages might tell us, in this time of disruption: First, just go home and be quiet. (Masks and distancing support this well.) Then: Listen, watch, and start to hear and see things in another way, a way that wasn’t obvious or possible before. Next: Move, instinctively and spontaneously, with little purpose and no explicit goal. Go outside and move under the canopy of the wider surround — tree, city, sky. Wisdom may start to grow from new territory: covering old ground with new eyes. In walking, we have an immensely applicable tool. We can begin to propel ourselves out of impasse by doing the simplest of things in the most complex of situations. Walking is a way to exercise and exorcise the troubled soul, both personal and communal, like a sort of kinesthetic therapy. It is found in such time-honored rituals as El Camino de Santiago de Compostela and the Buddhist circumambulation of sacred elements. All we need is our feet in a pair of shoes, our resolve, and whatever time we have to spend.
Why walk? Simply put, to know one’s self against the living canvas of place. To know your city. To know a succession of historical actions, writ in physical space (mostly built), that results in the pockets and courses we inhabit. To know the people we walk with. To know thoughts, know sensation. To know your feet as indispensable working extensions of the body, the small but important parts of you that meet the ground, do the bidding of your mind, heart, and stomach, turn on a dime, and change speed in a second. To know discomfort, introspection, hilarity, the cadence of conversation, the sound of your own voice, decision, intention, synchronicity, surprise. To know life as nothing whatsoever to do with an algorithm. To know uncurated, unplugged life, a day with the sparest of agendas.
A lifetime ago, during a short stint in Los Angeles, I was introduced to the “urban dérive” by some fellow adventure-seeking architecty types. This was their favorite city pastime, and it was easy to see why. I’m not even sure they knew the etymology of it, but we didn’t dwell on that — the idea was immediately contagious. French for “drift,” and captured as a concept by Guy Debord in the 1950s, the dérive offered an antidote to the banality of modern capitalist culture for partakers who “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” It consisted of taking great meanders around the city by car (of course, it being Los Angeles), letting whim and provocation steer us, being open to each other’s suggestions, and okay with getting lost (Google Maps, thankfully, was not a thing, then). It was a penny walk with the amplified reach of a vehicle, and the goal was to seek the unexpected. This was a fascinating way to feel the city and us in it, particularly Los Angeles with its anything-possible vibe. The dérive (the appellation no less a part of the intrigue, and a term I haven’t heard mentioned, since) always stuck with me. And while psychogeography (as the term suggests, where psychology intersects with geography) calls for a true, unfettered wandering, any kind of long walk is a good one, I would contend.
Much later, the impetus for what I came to call the PanAustin walk was to get some girlfriends together to celebrate a birthday in lieu of a meet-up for drinks. It blossomed into an ongoing tradition a couple times a year, during the more hospitable shoulder seasons and cut loose from birthday calendars. We made a Facebook page to circulate information among an extended group of women friends. Routes are dreamt up to traverse the city, usually in serpentine pathways, incorporating stops at favorite coffee shops, pubs, etc., for a 20-plus-mile stretch. Long enough to hurt. From dark to dark, sunrise to sundown. Since that first great traverse with my stalwart companion — from East Austin, over I-35 and Mopac, up Mt. Bonnell, through a women’s march at the Capitol, intersecting with friends for segments of the walk and with family for a beer at Easy Tiger, clambering along Bouldin Creek behind government buildings, and plodding heavily through South Austin to end at Thai Fresh, our chatter finally exhausted — we’ve done half a dozen other walks, the next one coming up soon. A new route every time. A few different people every time. New buildings, old establishments closed: the landscape of our memory overlain with the rush of Austin’s future.
Some years forward, three women — architect, landscape architect, and urban ecologist — were sitting in a bar (ok, coffee shop), engaged in our ongoing conversations focused on actions to promote nature, health, and livability in Austin in a time of accelerating growth. We struck on the notion of appropriating the Long Walk for different ends: to explore the kinds and caliber of green space in the city. Particularly interested in long green corridors, we imagined the latent possibilities for reinforcing existing — and creating new — lines of connectivity between natural spaces through the city (and extending outside its formal bounds). The idea was exciting — simple, yet big. Walking through the city not only to examine familiar terrain, but to more fully uncover it was very appealing, powerful. We would train a lens on its full range of green lands — charismatic parks and interstitial folds, known and hidden, manicured and wild, intentional and incidental, treasured and discarded — picking a path that could connect them. The social, economic, and historical dimensions of these places would be illuminated as we went, resulting in our seeing a portion of the city in a new light, challenging the viability of continuous pathways, and sharing insights among us. This dynamic way of observing while moving our bodies through the landscape would translate to a more visceral knowing of it, outside of assumptions and the usual viewports.
Our group of six set off on the first iteration of the Green Walk early last spring, starting from a far East Austin exurban landscape and winding our way south as we headed west, on a route loosely aligning with the creek system and green fields north of the Colorado River, and heading north again to finish at a central East Austin coffee shop/brewery in the midst of an intensive neighborhood transformation and stealthily vanishing green. We followed winding forested footpaths, noisy roadsides, creeks and drainages, city parks, neighborhood cut-throughs, and established urban trails; we crossed railroads, footbridges, chinks in fencing, forlorn lots, and churchyards. We experienced firsthand the planning and engineering decisions wrought in concrete and hardscape that prevented us from following the branches of Tannehill Creek, despite our willingness to scamper, scale, and climb. We sampled the places we went through, the quiet budding parts and the trashy sidelines, collecting photographs and objects of natural and artificial origin. It was one part adventure and one part field work. We walked to see what presented itself, and we walked to create new connections, perspectives, and stories.
Any of us who has taken a foot-blistering urban crossing, through San Francisco or New York for instance, knows it as a singularly individual experience, almost an act of self-preservation. The physicality of it can make us a little vulnerable. But this introverted experience occurs in the wide public domain, and thus, in a way, it’s also a radical act of extroversion. It is willful place-seeking, projecting all of our senses outward to mediate our surroundings, and a real-time translation of our personal choices and reactions to whatever we encounter. We push on the city, and the city pushes on us; we glimpse the honest behavior of both.
There is an urgency felt in the world right now, and no easy remedy for the confounding set of conditions we perceive at every scale, from personal to regional to global. We share the need to do something as elemental as our struggles are complicated. An interaction with the outside world stripped down to essentials is a helpful practice in many ways at once. The best part about a walk is that it is open source. No one owns the idea, and anyone can do it, any time.
A paradoxical phenomenon occurs with traveling a route on foot that is usually traveled by car. The ability to experience the breadth of a city (in this case, Austin, admittedly smaller than many) using only one’s own power has the effect of collapsing scales. Even though the time taken and spaces traveled through are stretched out, the space-time continuum seems to fold over, somehow, and the city we know feels less linear and more fibrous. We are aware of many more layers of urban life than we normally notice, or even care about; being an urban participant via walking is about depth rather than expediency. Especially when your feet are sore, it’s all about a pause (and a drink), rather than the bumper in front of you slowing you down.
The palimpsest of a city — its historical layering-up — starts to emerge with a shift in pace and mindset. Permaculture, an approach and practicum that applies to many fields, calls for the slowing of flows across a field to reclaim embodied energies and materials as resources. Slowing and capturing water, wind, soil, sun, even refuse allows a harnessing of assets and the creation of networks, of biodiversity. This analogy is an apt and useful one as we seek to solve our modern problems. The Slow Streets/Healthy Streets initiatives produce more human interaction. Slow growth forests produce stronger, more resilient trees. Slowing enables interconnections, which more effectively build strength and reserves, in the same way that more neural connections in the brain build intelligence.
The intertwining of the built and natural realms has always held my fascination, and I’m sure that’s true for many of you, as well. It underpins my view of how to occupy the world, how to admit more players, how to practice a meaningful architecture. Intertwining and nestling seem the natural state of things, and this can ground us as planners, shapers, and mediators of our planetary home that nudges its way into the future. We are, at our best, weavers of a mottled fabric. Creating networks rather than singular autonomous objects — making connections between things — is the way we’ll find the resourcefulness and resilience we need to survive.
If we can reassert the value of connection, we will have gone a long way toward reasserting the values that got lost with championing a paradigm largely based on reductive thinking. We will be better able to create modern myths and stories that align us with the natural world and a world in flux. We will be able to more effectively educate our kids and instill cross-disciplinary thinking, systems approaches, a desegregation science and art and mystery. Illuminating the ways in which we are connected — people to people, people to place, and place to place — will lead to rehumanizing ourselves and the “other,” to healing and reinhabiting the world.
What would a growing Austin (or any city) look like through the lens of connection and a value system that puts the health of humans and natural systems at the top? Can we envision urban density in both gray and green terms? Can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we find multi-prong solutions through creating robust interlinked green networks and corridors? Shouldn’t urbanism necessarily be green urbanism to work well, and shouldn’t we include the disparate green spaces along with the celebrated ones? Even incorporate some areas for rewilding? Recognizing the intrinsic value of interconnected green space as a free-moving zone for humans, critters, microorganisms, vegetation, and hydrology could be the key to adapting and flourishing in a growing metropolis, environmentally, culturally, equitably, and economically. Creating vitality could be the common cause.
In taking these extended walks, we are metabolizing the city and activating an altered vision and version of it. We are, in effect, reinscribing the commons. As we purposefully trace un-straight paths, we are testing the elasticity and hospitality of the urban fabric. How feasible or painful was it to make the physical linkages mapped out on Google? How human-scaled are mobility and city services; how humane is this landscape? Can we identify and follow a continuous green transect, however easily or awkwardly stitched together? What have we learned about what we want to see? We are engaging in a kinetic knowing that can be repeated again and again, with endless variation. The knowing, the “here,” is not static but evolving. Moving makes seeing and appreciating the dynamic thing it needs to be to find better questions and to foster a love of place that precedes right place-making. Walking keeps the city living.
Lauren Woodward Stanley, AIA, is co-owner of Stanley Studio in Austin.