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Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act

By Dan Rubinstein

ECW, 283 pages, $27.95

The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times

By Peter Kavanagh

Knopf Canada, 257 pages, $29.95

In Robert Walser's The Walk, a slender, early-20th-century masterpiece of observation and whimsy, the writer-protagonist at one point delivers a gleeful five-page cri de coeur on the creative, psychological and health benefits of walking:

"Walk, I definitely must, to invigorate myself and maintain contact with the living world. … Without walking, I would be dead, and would have long since been forced to abandon my profession," he tells a city tax inspector who derides his daily walk, implying a frittering away of time. "Walking is for me not only healthy, it is also of service – not only lovely, but also useful."

Dan Rubinstein doesn't cite Walser in Born to Walk, but the Swiss author's perambulatory spirit permeates the Ottawa journalist's manifesto. Walking is healthy, creatively useful and, according to Rubinstein's deeply researched book, socially, economically, environmentally, politically, psychologically and spiritually beneficial.

"[T]wo of Parliament's most challenging issues, health care and the environment, could be addressed with a single solution: encouraging Canadians to walk," University of Regina climate-change researcher Dave Sauchyn tells Rubinstein. When he made this suggestion to the federal standing committee on environment and sustainable development he was met with a round of spontaneous laughter. Clearly, walking is either just too damn easy, or too freakin' difficult, to be considered a panacea.

From a group walk in Glasgow meant to boost mental health, and a pilgrimage in Wales, to a harsh winter trek in northern Quebec, to walking the beat with cops in North Philadelphia and with a letter carrier in Ottawa, to accompanying his children to school, Rubinstein reveals, and revels in, "the transformative powers of walking."

Born to Walk is peopled with scientists and adventurers, as well as walkers such as Matt Green, a former road and highway designer (the irony of this is nicely piquant) for whom walking is now a full-time gig.

Green is no 19th-century flâneur, that "gentleman stroller of city streets" so admired by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. Nor does Green's "walking project" (a mission to walk every street of every New York borough), writes Rubinstein, fit into the practice of psychogeography, a playful investigation of a city that incorporates cultural and architectural critiques and strategies for exploring urban landscapes.

Green looks "for those human moments that connect us to the urban web," which he does with scientific formality, meticulously mapping each day's route, noting down observations, and taking photographs. Previously, Green walked from Queens to the Oregon coast. "You can just walk across North Dakota. I've driven across places like that and it's incredibly boring," he tells Rubinstein, "But that generic field at 70 miles per hour is all individual plants at three miles per hour."

This slowed-down, shoes-on-the-ground mentality has shifted how police in North Philly interact with people on their beats, an experiment that at least preliminarily indicates progress. In 2013, there were significantly fewer shootings, aggravated assaults and burglaries in the 22nd District, where Rubinstein pounded the pavement with two foot-patrol teams.

Pounding the Cumbrian landscape was how British Tory MP Rory Stewart got elected. His is the largest and most sparsely populated riding in England and during the 2010 election campaign, his first, he trekked 300 miles on foot to discover his future constituents' concerns.

This wasn't Stewart's first grand trek, though. A former member of the British Foreign Office, he'd walked across parts of the Middle East and Central Asia to Nepal. And then, when that wasn't challenging enough, he decided to walk solo through Afghanistan, but had to settle for journeying with two escorts, well-equipped with arms, but ill-equipped otherwise.

Walking a long distance for a purpose has symbolic power, Victoria city councillor Ben Isitt, an expert on working-class and protest movements, tells Rubinstein. The author himself experiences this power on a bone-chilling trek with an aboriginal group through northern Quebec. Rubinstein details a number of other epic walks – including legendary protest marches, such as Gandhi's to the Arabian Sea, the civil-rights march from Selma, Ala., in 1965 and the 2013 Idle No More treks in Canada.

Gruelling mega-walks may be the rock stars of walking (viz., the wild success of Cheryl Strayed's Wild), but Rubinstein gives equal time to everyday walking.

After a long history of being looked down upon as a low-status activity and means of transportation (hence the negative connotation of the adjective "pedestrian"), walking is poised for a comeback. The formerly "radical" ideas pioneered by Jane Jacobs are being embraced under the rubric of "new urbanism" by big-city mayors, Rubinstein observes, from Bill de Blasio in New York to Calgary's Naheed Nenshi, and of course, those semi-utopian Scandinavians. (I frequently visit Calgary, my hometown, and Nenshi's task appears, if not Sisyphean, at least Herculean.)

Demographic migration is also pushing the agenda of the walkable city. Down-sizing boomers and educated millennials are revitalizing urban cores. Rubinstein cites research from American planner Jeff Speck's Walkable City, a primer on how to make communities more pedestrian-friendly. There's evidence, Speck writes, indicating those born in the 1980s and 90s have soured on the decades-old love affair with the automobile. For example, since the 1970s, the number of American 19-year-olds who opt out of getting a driver's licence has increased to almost 25 per cent, from 8 per cent.

Oh, I hear you, brothers Ford, it's that pesky war on the car! But why not? In Mexico City, for example, they're plowing down pedestrians at a fatality rate of almost 10 out of every 100,000 residents. Not to mention a little byproduct called carbon dioxide. Even in my neck of the woods, with its Greenest City Action Plan and bicycling mayor, the car still rules. The aggressive three-point turns I'd formerly associated with Toronto cabbies have spread fungus-like throughout Vancouver, and, like everywhere across the continent, some of the most egregious anti-pedestrian behaviour occurs around schools.

Near the end of Born to Walk, Rubinstein tells the story of an ordinary excursion that could have ended catastrophically. He was walking his young daughters to school, the girls cycling, Dad trotting along. In a clearly marked intersection, four blocks from home, the light green, a car turned right – and straight into them. The SUV driver struck one girl's bike and ran over Rubinstein's shins. No one broke any bones – a kind of miracle. The driver had just dropped her son off at school.

A child's first time walking solo to school is as epic a journey and as excruciating (for the parents, anyway) as Strayed's tackling the Pacific Crest Trail.

For Peter Kavanagh, an epic walk at various times in his life meant getting up out of a chair and walking across the room without crutches.

In his memoir, The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times, the former CBC producer recounts, with grace, precision and a strong dose of candour, his life-long struggle to put one foot in front of another. The time a toddler spends learning to walk can range from 1,000 to 10,000 hours, with some experts suggesting, Kavanagh writes, that "the average baby spends as much time learning to walk as an Olympic athlete does preparing for the Games." Kavanagh, born with polio, or "infantile paralysis," in 1953, during an epidemic that took place just as Jonas Salk was performing his vaccine trials, was not an average baby. He was 15 months old when he finally came home from the hospital, with a cast on his left leg.

He did learn to walk, largely teaching himself as babies do. But walking for young Peter was awkward and painful, and the brace and accompanying black chunky shoes, the left one built-up for the shorter leg, a source of physical and psychological pain. He clearly recalls the first time he wore sneakers, a day clouded in bittersweet memory. "I may be somewhat more sophisticated now than when I was a six-year-old," Kavanagh writes, "but it is still true that when I see sneakers, I see freedom."

Medical procedures took place around the country, as his family moved due to his father's work: an experimental leg-lengthening procedure in Calgary at age nine; follow-up surgery in Montreal when he was 12. Shortly after that, Kavanagh was diagnosed with hip dysplasia, unrelated to the polio, and underwent hip surgery in Fredericton, an operation experimental for adults at the time, let alone adolescent boys.

After a year in an almost full-body cast, Kavanagh had to learn to walk again, his left leg now three-inches shorter than the right. And he did. Then decades later, in his late-50s, hip deteriorated and "a connoisseur of pain," he underwent hip replacement again, this time with the surgeon lengthening his left leg. And he learned to walk. Again.

Kavanagh asks whether walking for us bipeds is an innate skill or a learned behaviour. His experience indicates it's both, and for some, this so-called pedestrian activity involves an extraordinary expenditure of willpower.

Walking, as Robert Walser knew, is an IV drip to writers. Halfway through this review, running low on mental fuel, I took my dog for a walk. Pre-dog, I always felt a bit guilty walking around in the middle of the day, seemingly without purpose. "Walk" is Banda's favourite word – he can recognize it when it's spelled out or even silently mouthed (or, it sometimes seems, merely thought). He intuitively knows, as does Peter Kavanagh, what myriad studies still can't convince those in the fast lane – to drive may be human, but to walk is divine.

Zsuzsi Gartner walks and writes in East Vancouver. She is the author of Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, which was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.