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Walking the Un-Walkable: Final Thoughts

This blog post provides a summary of the concluding thoughts from the "Walking the Un-Walkable" project series.

Flâneur is a French word that loosely translates to “stroller”. Back in the day, a flâneur was a modern intellectual, typically male, who was able to place himself in the city while remaining somewhat detached from it. A flâneur lies at the intersection of curiosity and laziness, intelligence and mindlessness. A person who walks aimlessly but learns so much from his walks. It sounds like something only male westerns are able to do, I know!

In my colleague Matts’s last visit to Lusaka, where he delivered a lecture series on Rethinking African Cities to local government officials and NGOs, he gave me a book called Wanderers: A History of Women Walking. It’s an interesting book about mostly Western women walking and wandering to find a sense of self, seek adventure, and achieve personal fulfillment. The book also goes into how wandering helped lots of women overcome grief. The book also touched on the common woman’s walking challenges as the burden of motherhood, and menstrual pains.

In William J. Wilson book’s There Goes the Neighborhood he talks about how walking “differently” can get you in trouble. He examines the phenomenon of black kids being discriminated against when walking in white suburbs. He looks at what makes their existence seem so suspicious to white folk. Here, he leans on his theory of the neighborhood effect and explains the following. In what is known as the “hood” or “projects” that have a black majority, kids often walk with their heads down, trying to avoid any eye contact with any possible “gang member” who might see it as a sign of disrespect. In white neighborhoods or suburbs, people tend to greet and smile at each other in the street. So, when a black kid walks head down, avoiding eye contact (as he always walks, he doesn’t even think twice), it raises suspicions for everyone. Coupled with already racist sentiments and tensions between the two communities in the US, it often results in the police being called on black kids.

A million miles away
Your signal in the distance
To whom it may concern
I think I lost my way
Getting good at starting over
Every time that I return
Learning to walk again
I believe I’ve waited long enough
Where do I begin?
Learning to talk again
Can’t you see I’ve waited long enough?
Where do I begin?”
The Foo Fighters, Walk, 2011

In an old tweet, I wrote about the difference in how I walk in different cities. In Egypt, I avoid making eye contact with male Egyptians. In Lusaka, I have to look down to avoid tripping over on an unpaved sidewalk. In Europe, I am expected to make eye contact. It often takes a minute when I move to a different region to get back to the appropriate walking habits. Looking down while I am walking in Egypt with perfectly paved sidewalks or over-smiling and making eye contact with strangers in the street is definitely weird.

In a New York Times piece titled “The Beauty of a Silent Walk,” Christina Caron goes into what sounds like a Gen Z Tik-Toker promoting something called a silent walk and how it helped lift brain fog. The silent walk is about just walking without headphones, phones, or anything else. A reel I saw once while I was doom-scrolling on Instagram was about a girl explaining how she uses walking to get to places in New York. We “Don’t Stroll We Walk” she says in a very Manhattan accent and attitude. American women yet again inventing something as innovative as walking and teaching the rest of the world about it.

In the United Nations Environmental Program report of 2022, “Walking and Cycling in Africa”, mentions that 78% of Africans walk or cycle every day. Over half a billion people walk in Africa. Half a billion!!

The previous paragraphs are different views on different purposes of walking. Everyone walks, so for everyone, it’s a part of everyday conversations and reflections. From a leading urban sociology scholar on neighborhoods and race to a girl on TikTok who is convinced she invented walking. Walking is also very personal, so everyone writes about it. From UNEP to Steven Tyler screaming at us to “Walk This Way”.

In our continuous belief that walking is both personal and universal, the Lusaka Urban Lab (LUL) designed Walking the Un-Walkable to capture both those personal stories and those overarching experiences. In Walking the Un-Walkable, we utilized participatory approaches to map both the infrastructure and the everyday experiences of pedestrians in Lusaka. Then, we used co-creation methods to co-produce policy briefs to guide advancing walkability in Lusaka. You can find reflections on each walk as well as the policy outcomes on the website. This blog post is to reflect on my main three outcomes of the study.

We are not Flâneur

While our methodology was rooted in strolling and observing the city, we weren’t really flâneur. We didn’t roam the city aimlessly. Well, I did a bit to inform the early stages of the project. I would say very few people in Lusaka roam the city aimlessly. Yes, people walk, but they walk for a purpose. To get to work, to access services, or even transportation. So the routes we chose simulated those experiences of walking with a purpose. While we started off as flâneurs, every step we took had a goal.

Walking is fundamental

Rose, 29, a cleaner, walks to work for two hours every day. This means she walks 4 hours every day… every single day. If she doesn’t walk, she doesn’t get to work… if she doesn’t get to work, she doesn’t get money to eat. She walks when it’s raining, when it’s hot, and when it’s cold. She doesn’t choose to walk, she has no other choice.

There is almost a consensus that the act of walking is good, environmentally friendly, and healthy. Researchers and governments both believe so. But there’s less consensus on how essential walking is. Rose walks to eat. She doesn’t have any other choice. In her case, walking is not fun, not healthy, and not a choice. Both research and politicians tend to forget about Rose. Both forget about the four hours Rose has to walk every day and her lack of choice.  

What is the road forward?

Most people in Lusaka would own a car before owning a house. A symbol of “making it”, as many of the participants have indicated. Rose won’t be able to afford a car anytime soon. But if she can afford a bus, she probably will walk an hour a day instead of four. Another solution for Rose is to live somewhere close to work if the built environment is dense enough for her to choose a job closer to home or relocate. Densification of the built environment and an affordable public transportation system is essential to any walkability improvement measures.

I will close this post with a photo of us on the rooftop of the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development. We walked there from our offices, which are 20 minutes away. We presented the outcomes of the research and the policy brief to the permanent secretary. All of the main stakeholders were there. We got promises of better walkable streets, denser built environments, and a more accessible public transportation system. If you enjoyed my many walkability rants…. Wait for 2024! We might have a sequel in the making.


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