Monday, March 30, 2015
Q&A: DAN RUBINSTEIN
A day doesn’t stroll by where I don’t trip over a pile of books touting the transformative power of something. Diets, revolutionary technologies, environmental fixes, economic or fashion makeovers stack up on the monetized horizon of Big Change. Grand revisions certainly do stir the abstract volumes of this idealist’s stockpiling heart, but I’m always happiest to find a book that maps the progressive directions we can saunter if we fully explore what we’re already good at. Then in walks journalist Dan Rubinstein’s Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act (ECW Press) with its tour of the possibilities, impasses, and, ultimate benefits, of putting one foot ahead of the other in our automated and ecologically fragile trudge. Shadowing the likes of doctors, politicians, academics, inventors, activists, police officers, urban explorers as they stride, Rubenstein covers a varied, person-paced landscape. Studies and stories mount to confirm that walking steadily reduces violent crime, alienation, distractibility, depression, and other public health problems, while putting urban planning, political awareness, and (social, perceptual, and ecological) connectivity on firmer footing. By outlining some of the many everyday approaches to what used to be way we mostly got around, Rubenstein makes a moving case for getting off our ideal asses and getting more done.
Brad de Roo – who, before he got a big stereo to popularly channel his teenage suburban rage, used to take three-hour walks along the drained creek-beds, earmarked woodlots, and forest-branded strip malls to see what was going on
What about walkers moves you? Do you have favourites?
One of the people I spent time with for the book was a man in New York City named Matt Green, who is walking every block of every borough. He started on New Year’s Day, 2012, and he’s about a year away from finishing. Matt blogs about his walks (imjustwalkin.com), but that’s not the point of his project. He’s doing this, in his words, to submit to a “constant, wide-ranging, uncurated flow of stimulation and information that overwhelms our innate tendency to try to fit everything into a neat and tidy set of preconceptions.” I love that! He’s walking to demonstrate that every place can be interesting and engaging, if you explore its fine-grained textures on foot. That it's hard to really know if you’re going to like something unless you give yourself a chance to experience it. But really, all of the people I walked with and write about in the book, from Innu surgeon Dr. Stanley Vollant to British MP Rory Stewart, from members of the health walk group in Glasgow to the beat cops in Philadelphia, were inspiring. They’re demonstrating that even — or especially — in places where people face significant obstacles, walking can help swing the pendulum back toward healing.
What about walking authors? Is there a fictional or poetical expression of walking that epiphanically gets under your feet or which sets you on track?
As much as I respect and admire (and am humbled by) authors such as Rebecca Solnit and Bruce Chatwin, and other iconic figures in walking literature going back hundreds of years, as a lifelong journalist, I often find that when I read writing about walking that takes a philosophical or poetic approach, I want something different — something more pragmatic, more directly related to the overarching social challenges we are facing today. Rory Stewart’s book about walking across Afghanistan, The Places in Between, is a step in this direction — his experiences give him tremendous insight, for instance, when speaking about the pros and cons of international intervention in foreign conflict. I’m also drawn to the work of city planners such as Jeff Speck (Walkable City), and Canadian writers like Charles Montgomery (The Happy City) and Trevor Herriot (The Road is How), because their books address specific aspects of walking — the ability of urban walkability to make our cities more functional, and the spiritual properties of a good long walk, respectively. What I tried to do in Born to Walk was connect a lot of disparate dots — ideas that doctors, scientists, urban planners, politicians, economists, artists, historians, pilgrims and other writers have explored, but ideas that have not necessarily been linked together in a logical narrative. And the foundation beneath this was the work of other writers.
Your book clips along at steady pace, interweaving the various narratives of walkers into a single path. Does this form have any parallels in the way you walk? The way your mind walks?
There’s no conscious link between walking and the way I write, but every story is like a journey, whether it’s an entire book or the chapters that comprise a book, so there is a definite parallel. When walking or writing, you have a starting point and an end point, and you don’t necessarily take a linear route from one to the other. The best narratives, and the best journeys, meander. It’s fun to wander down tangential side paths, even if you have a specific destination in mind; you’re going to get there ultimately, and will be richer for the experiences you have along the way. The people who populate my book, no matter how different they are, I saw them all as part of the same whole — an interest in walking was the narrative through-line that connected them, but they each represented a spur trail, and most of these side routes eventually linked back to the main path (or argument). I do get ideas when I’m out walking. Concepts crystallize when I’m heading somewhere on foot. If I’m struggling with a particular passage, walking can provide the creative energy I need to break through. But because I’ve been writing about walking, sometimes going for a walk only made the writer’s block worse. I’d be thinking so much about one particular aspect of walking meant that getting out for some air wasn’t a mental break at all. But even if there was no breakthrough during a walk, the answer or idea would often come to me later; the effort would pay off.
While discussing long-distance pilgrimages you suggest that you are less about grand walks and more keen on incorporating walking culture into your everyday. Having said this, are there any celebrated walks you'd just love to take on?
I would love to walk on gorgeous trails through distant landscapes, and on ancient routes through distant cultures. Anywhere. Patagonia comes to mind, thanks to Bruce Chatwin. New Zealand is spectacular, I’ve been told by many people. And there are routes in Asia and Africa, of course, that people have been walking for centuries. Going on a trek along one of these trails would be an immersion into a culture or landscape I do not know; it would be challenging and fascinating and I would learn a hell of a lot. But shorter walks close to home, or longer walks elsewhere in Canada, can also be extremely powerful. They impact your relationship to the people and places where you are, and you see yourself as part of one contiguous community, one contiguous ecosystem. I believe in trying to make change in your own backyard. That whole “think global, act local” thing. And to me, there’s no better way to gain a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the city or country where you live than by walking through it.
What are the greatest current impediments to walking culture in Canada? Do different provinces have different challenges?
The greatest impediments are our fixation on speed and instant gratification, our thirst for big returns on small investments, our obsession with technology (and technological solutionism), media-fuelled fear of the unknown — and plain old-fashioned greed and laziness. And our obsession with cars. Basically, we want results now, we think mostly about ourselves and our own families and friends, and we don’t pause to consider the broader environmental impacts of how we’re living, and the dangers of growing economic inequality. These impediments are fairly consist across Canada. They differ slightly from region to region, from city to city (i.e., Toronto has more of a pedestrian culture than, say, Moncton — two cities I have lived in). The differences are more pronounced between American cities: car-centric Houston compared to, say, progressive Portland, Oregon.
Did your research give examples of places or cultures with better relationships to walking than North America? Who walks the most? What can we learn from their approaches?
The Scandinavians are pretty good at walking (as they are at many things). Plans for a pedestrian mall in Copenhagen were criticized before it was built because it’s a cold, northern city, but when it opened people thronged there, year round. New York and San Francisco are great cities for walkers; they’re dense and lively and are regarded as two of the continent’s walking Meccas. And they’re reaping the economic and social benefits of having a vibrant walking culture. In much of the world, especially in developing countries in Africa and Asia, walking is not a matter of choice but a challenging necessity for millions of people — that’s a different ballgame than the Anglosphere that I write about. But there are examples we can learn from throughout North America and Western Europe. Impose a levy on cars entering the downtown core, as in London. Invest is urban mass transit, like Washington, D.C., did during the freeway-building era in the U.S. Or do what New York City did to encourage cycling: it took one percent of roadway space a year for 10 years and built bike lanes, so the changes were incremental, but at the end of the decade, it had a great system for cyclists.
Many of the walkers you shadow throughout your book seem to be trying to find a more present or embodying world to supplement, or even, replace an abstract, technologically mediated one. Books like End of Absence by Michael Harris or The Glass Cage by Nicolas Carr explore alienation in our time of omnipresent digital connection and automation. Is Born to Walk akin to these explorations?
I don’t have a cellphone. I like to be where I am. My wife and I have an idea we call “the outernet.” It’s like the internet: you can ask questions and learn things, be entertained, “like” things and have “friends,” only it’s all tangible and real. Walking is an ideal way to explore the outernet. A lot of people have lost touch with the physical world in which they live. They’re not outdoors and active, which is why they’re overweight and don’t know their neighbours. They’re glued to screens, which is why they’re hooked on news about celebrity and lurid crimes on the other side of the planet, not tuned in to what’s happening down the street. Unplugged walking connects you to the sights, sounds, smells and rhythms of the places where you spend time. Absolutely, I see Born to Walk as part of a continuum that include books such as The End of Absence.
What was the most affecting fact you unearthed about walking? Why did it affect you so?
Walking makes you healthier and happier, and will help you live longer. Lots of the smaller facts and details and anecdotes I encountered were very striking, but basic life advice doesn’t get much more clear than that.
What advice would you offer a new urban ambler?
My manifesto is three words long. Walk more, anywhere. Whether you’re in the suburbs or have to pass through an industrial park, whether it’s raining or -30 C, walk — you never know what you’ll discover along the way. About the places you pass through, the people you meet — and, of course, about yourself.
Has writing this book put you on the path to any new projects?
I’d love to help make a documentary film about walking, and I’m collaborating with an organization that’s hoping to mount a visual arts exhibition with a walking theme, and still I’m writing some magazine stories about walking that pick up some of the threads I started to unravel in the book. So I’m still very much immersed in walking, though I imagine that I will soon tire of this subject and want to write about entirely different. Born to Sit, perhaps?