Using his home base of Berlin, Paul Sullivan on why walking is the only real way to understand a city.
“A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.” – Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust
Like writing someone a letter by hand, visiting a friend across town spontaneously or just sitting on a bench and watching the world go by, the act of meandering slowly through the city streets with no particular destination in mind is one of life’s simple pleasures – and an almost entirely lost art. While most of us would argue that we do stroll through the city to some extent – to the post office, through the park, around the block – a combination of factors, chief among them a general deficit of leisure time and an abundance of convenient public transport options, conspire to ensure we usually don’t get very far on foot.
Even when we do indulge in longer walks, our ‘culture of distraction’ – a term coined by Siegfried Kracauer in 1920s Berlin and epitomised today by the constant nagifications of our smartphones – usually prevents us from engaging fully with what surrounds us. If we’re not checking our e-mail or calling a friend to say we’re running late (we’re never early), we’re checking Googlemaps for directions or blocking out the city’s natural soundtrack with headphones. All of which is a shame, because walking is by far the best way – arguably the only real way – to get to know the city.
Other forms of transport are too fast, too enclosed. Drive a car and not only is your worldview restricted to the shape of the windscreen, but you’ll be (one hopes) way too focused on driving to drink in any detail. The city disappears for large chunks of time when you take the U-Bahn while trams and S-Bahn trains remix the blurred landscape into a flickering, stuttering collage; funky, perhaps, but hardly a recipe for intimacy.
Our minds are well-attuned to travelling at these speeds now but 150 years ago, when the first trains arrived in Berlin, people were shell-shocked. Cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch – a native Berliner – describes in his snappily-titled tome The Railway Journey: Industrialisation Of Time & Space In The 19th Century how trains were initially perceived as terrifying “projectiles” that “shot” passengers through the landscape, making them “lose control of their senses”. One can only imagine the psychological distress had they been forced to travel on a plane at 630 mph (let alone made to watch a George Clooney movie while doing so).
“The speed and mathematical directness with which the railroad proceeds through the terrain destroys the close relativity between traveller and travelled space,” claims Schivelbusch, adding that “…speed does not make travelling interesting, but duller…” John Ruskin, notorious for his dislike of the railways, made a similar point: “It matters not whether you have eyes or are asleep or blind, intelligent or dull…all that you can know, at best, of the country you pass is its geological structure and general clothing.” Put simply, to use public transport is to almost entirely miss the city.
Walking, on the other hand (or foot), re-connects us to it, especially if done in a mindful way. Berlin, like all large metropolises, is both accretive and secretive, comprised of historical layers and hidden details that are only really visible if we slow down enough to see them. The intellectual centre of Europe’s post-Enlightenment revolutions in everything from philosophy and science to industry and the arts during the 18th and 19th centuries – as well as the dark heart of the continent’s ruination and division during the 20th century – the fragments of the city around us are not only a portal to its own endlessly fascinating past, but to that of the broader history of modern Europe.
Walking the city reveals itself to us at a macro level that even cycling can’t quite access. When our shoes strike the Straßen, our surroundings seep more deeply into our psyches, allowing questions to bubble up into our brains:
“What did that faded signage once read?”
“Why did the city stop building in red and yellow brick?”
“Is that guy over there old enough to remember the war?”
Only in this way can we piece together the city’s disparate fragments and make it whole again, if only in our imaginations.
Such is the intensity of history in Berlin that in any given square kilometer you are likely to find diverse traces of multiple epochs, events and individuals. A recent hour-long stroll through a lesser-trodden part of Mitte took me past a statue of Rudolf Virchow, a large chunk of former City Wall built by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, a WW2 bunker transformed into acontemporary art gallery, one of the oldest hospitals in Europe, a 19th century canal that flows all the way to Spandau, and a GDR watchtower turned into a memorial by the brother of one of the Berlin Wall’s first victims.
But walking is not just for history nerds. A more rigorous stroll from one side of the city to the other – whether aleatory or outlined in advance – is also the best way to get a feel for its urban topographies and the human communities we share the city with. Berlin lends itself wonderfully to walking, too. It’s as safe as häuser (relatively speaking), as flach as aPfannkuchen and has broad, well-maintained pavements that, though decidedly emptier than those of New York or London, teem with interactions, frictions, moments.
A recent conceptual meander around the city’s Ring Bahn introduced me to many parts of the city – industrial zones and peripheral neighbourhoods alike – that I had never set eyes on before, while a recent hike around the 160km Mauerweg (Berlin Wall Trail) lent me a much sharper understanding of the city’s most infamous piece of architecture – especially as I was able to talk to many locals who had grown up in its shadow.
Even walking a single street can yield multiple surprises: I once sauntered along the entire length of Friedrichstrasse and back again, noting with irony how all the glamorous, high-end boutiques and department stores lie in the formerly “socialist” eastern section of the street and gradually give way – right after the Disneyfied tourism circus known as Checkpoint Charlie – to the working-class residential estates and immigrant-run shops of the “affluent west” (Kreuzberg).
The possibility of reading the city in this way is just one significant reason to choose leg-power over public transport.