Loneliness is an epidemic. We need the daily, in-person interactions walkability provides.
This essay is reprinted from the History News Network via George Washington University. A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom — One Step at a Time is available wherever books are sold.
Until the 1920s to mid-1930s, public roads were for everyone. Cars had no greater claim to the space than cyclists, horses, wagons, or pedestrians. The fact that we no longer see walking or walkability as integral to human life is a huge shift in human history. The most recent anthropological research into early human life has shown the importance of walking in the formation and strength of human communities. By designing walking out of our lives, humanity loses something essential.
Our bipedal walking, unique among mammals, took millions of years to evolve and refine, yet nobody from evolutionary biologists to paleoanthropologists knows exactly why we do it. It’s unsteady and unsafe, yet somehow it lies at the core of what it means to be human. “There’s nothing necessary about walking on two legs,” wrote anatomist and anthropologist Alice Roberts in her book The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being. “Not many animals do it. It’s a stupid thing to do; you’re much more stable on four.”
From a biological and physiological perspective, this statement is true, but it seems clear from anthropological evidence that human societies developed in part through the unique vulnerability bipedal walking encourages. Walking on two legs allowed human beings to use tools with their hands and run across the savannah, but it also made them physically unstable and very possibly contributed to the formation of tribes through trust and cooperation — because surviving alone was impossible.
“Community” is often presented as an abstract concept or a handy political slogan like “Main Street businesses” or “real American,” but true community rich in social capital and interpersonal interactions has always been essential to human survival and the evolution of human society. John Cacioppo, the director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience until his death in 2018, studied loneliness for over twenty years before publishing his book Loneliness.