In most of our cities, you find areas you don’t know much about, even if you live there. When you travel through them in your car or on public transport, you don’t pay much attention to them. They just don’t look all that interesting or attractive. Maybe they’re not entirely safe. Walking there may be unpleasant and difficult because of intense traffic, missing sidewalks, freeways and rail lines cutting off access, or a lack of intersections where pedestrians can cross safely.
At home and when we travel, we should pay more attention to these places. We surround ourselves with exquisite, complex environments and infrastructures, but we don’t always know what’s there. The people working or living in these overlooked areas don’t always like it there, either. They may be too poor or uninterested to take pride in their neighborhoods, and let properties fall down and streets be strewn with refuse. If their work takes them there, they probably know exactly how to get in and out while paying minimal attention to what they don’t want to see. As a consequence, many cities include neglected and forgotten districts with large populations.
I think the best way to learn about these areas is to walk through them. It gives you a chance to see the faces, breathe the air, see the sights, without escaping the moment. You never know what you might find. In many years of exploring cities in different countries, I have always found the forgotten districts to be worth the time, risk, and effort it takes to get to know them. Sure, by all means, visit the historic centers, parks, waterfronts, and lovely neighborhoods. But take time out to walk through the no-man’s lands.
If you have a good map of the city you’re in, take a look—how much of it do you actually know or come through with any frequency? How much of it is undiscovered country? Does that make you a little curious? Are you wondering how people live in certain parts, where they go shopping, what their houses, markets, and community bulletin boards look like?
I find what often works well is taking public transport to the last station and walking back from there toward the center of town or a neighborhood I know. I recommend this especially for cities that have a roughly circular layout, such as Paris or Cologne. Elsewhere, maybe you need to ask somebody to drop you off with a car. Or, if there’s enough unknown territory to get to know, pick a district and traverse it in a number of directions.
What did I find by doing this kind of hiking? Lots of things tourists don’t see. Niche neighborhoods where people never expect to see an outsider and therefore don’t treat you like a tourist, but like a real person. I will never forget the friendly faces and small interactions in a horribly poor and unhealthy neighborhood at the fringe of Mexico City. There are cemeteries that give you insight into histories and mind sets. Green areas where nature reclaims the territory and settles it with a surprising variety of plants and animals. Fantastic views of city landmarks from new angles. In some older, industrial cities, an amazing wealth of lovely bridges. Post-industrial landscapes, some rotten, some lovely. Commercial buildings, factories, port facilities, train yards, and pocket parks with powerful esthetic appeal.
What do you need for this? Good shoes and comfortable clothing. A sense of adventure and curiosity. An open mind that lets you set your expectations and limitations aside for a few hours. A good map, honestly—not one of those hotel-issued travesties that just show you the downtown core. ID. Some cash to pay for a snack or transportation, but not too much. Your camera, but use it respectfully if you take pictures of people or their private property—get permission when you can. Some paper and a pen, or a recording device, to take notes. This kind of adventure doesn’t cost much except time and attention. Of course, it is also very sustainable as long as your body holds up: Your environmental impact will be minimal.
And, what can you get out of it? That depends on who you are. You might make a new friend. You might fall in love with a forgotten waterfront, a building, or an old bridge. You can tell stories. You might want to take action on a social or environmental situation you become aware of.
However, what I think is best about urban hiking is that it gives us a chance to re-soul districts that are part of our world, but we have numbed ourselves to their existence. Expanding consciousness is always preferable to shrinking it or keeping it the same. Attention is a marvelous, powerful force. If enough people give attention to something, it can change and grow. And so can we, the walkers.
In another posting, I might make some suggestions for walks in cities here and there. Please tell me if you have any you would like to share.