Do we have a genetic preference for where we walk?
Cars are the primary predators of the modern urban ecosystem. They roam at will, and kill some 400,000 pedestrians worldwide every year — about 4,500 annually in the United States.
Where and if the Times found enlightenment is unknown, but they did continue to wonder about human evolution in a car-dominant world: “Will the pedestrian come to be limber and semi-vertebrate like the reptile and arise from the shock of collision with an unnoticed vehicle to crawl away unbroken and unhurt?” the editors wrote. “Will his legs and arms, which are the most easily breakable parts of him, shrivel up and disappear, and will he be able to roll across the street as a sort of rubber sphere that may be dented and run over and driven across without mutilation or injury?”
None of these adaptations have yet occurred. Still, we’ve had scarcely the span of a single human lifetime since the car began to stalk its prey. And there is another adaptive approach: pedestrians can migrate to a more inviting habitat. Survival is all about finding and occupying open ecological niches, and walkers might do well to seek one that can offer sanctuary from aggressive invaders further up the food chain.
What’s the landscape that best fulfills human needs? Some have postulated that the ideal landscape for unarmored, unmotorized humans has long been a mix of forest and savannah. This has been characterized as the “prospect and refuge” landscape. The thought is that we’re consistently drawn to environments that have a combination of both distant views (to spot prey and as well as potential predators) and shelter or protection (to hide swiftly in the event that we find ourselves suddenly vulnerable).
The theory suggests that humans are drawn to this sort of mixed environment — more than, say, to dense jungle or exposed buttes — because we all share the same basic genome, the basics of which were established when our ancestors were still living in the plains of central Africa, and we were fine-tuning the mechanics of walking upright.
Evidence of this is spotty but intriguing. For instance, a 2003 study of art appearing on calendars around the world showed that people everywhere tend to prefer similar landscapes. In particular, we’re drawn to open meadows dotted with scattered trees. Indeed, cross-cultural studies suggest there’s even a widespread human preference for a certain kind of tree: one with a dense canopy, and a trunk that bifurcates close to the ground. In other words, a tree that’s easy to ascend and take cover.
Two artists arrived at a similar finding in the late 1990s: Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid commissioned survey takers to find what qualities people in eleven countries preferred in their paintings. Then, like police sketch artists, they created paintings from those stated preferences. Most landscapes, in fact, looked like European calendar art. This project was meant as a sly commentary on market-driven creativity, but inadvertently demonstrated what appears to be an innate attraction toward vistas of meadows and trees.
Some, including the art critic Arthur Danto, have expressed doubt that this reflects a genetic inclination. Danto suggested that these general preferences might more accurately reflect a demonstration of the pop-art industry’s influence over global tastes. The art on calendars, in other words, doesn’t suggest any innate drive for a particularly landscape, but actually create a longing for the savannah.
But we don’t gravitate to this sort of landscape only in art and calendars, it turns out, but also in the real world. The savannah-and-tree landscape hit its apogee in popularity in the 18th century under famed British gardener Capability Brown (1716-1783), who was renown for designing grassy, open fields studded with randomly placed clumps of wide-crowned trees. He designed some 170 parks in Great Britain, and is essentially the patron saint of the suburban backyard. Credit (or blame) him for the omnipresence of tidy lawns edged with small stands of Japanese maples or crepe myrtles, a sort of bonsai version of the African savannah.
So the savannah may be the static landscape we prefer to gaze upon. But what about when we’re in motion? Is there an archetypal walkway that we’re hardwired to be drawn toward when in motion?
I haven’t turned up any studies claiming a universal preference in linear routing. But if a preference does exist, I’d hazard a guess that it’s the linear equivalent of the savannah, or what’s been called a “keyhole pathway.” These are straight or slightly curving routes overarched thickly with tree limbs and creating a tunnel effect, offer protection from light rain (and harsh sun) along with a distant view (if slightly obstructed). It’s also permeable along the sides, allowing those on foot to quickly duck and cover if a threat arises.
One person who understood this sort of landscape was, curiously, Lucy Maude Montgomery, who grew up on Canada’s Prince Edward Island and was the author of the immensely popular novel Ann of Green Gables, first published in 1908. Overarched pathways were common features in her stories, and at times served as a powerful metaphor — in Lover’s Lane, in the forest of Idlewild. They were places of both transit and transition. Montgomery was also an accomplished amateur photographer, and many of her best prints featured, in the words of one biographer, “bends in roads, distant circles or keyholes of light, and archways made by curving branches, all carefully framed to capture a way of seeing as well as a sight.” She felt at home in these places. “I always feel better after a stroll under those green arches where nature reveals herself in all her beauty,” she once wrote.
Striding along a keyhole pathway, a walker feels pulled along, often captivated by what lies ahead, curious about how that fragment of the view ahead fits into the whole. As the writer N.S. Shaler put it in the Atlantic Monthly in 1898: “In general, the more the scene has to give, the narrower the range of vision which can profitably be applied to it.”
A keyhole pathway also meshes with our innate desire for a story: there’s a beginning, a middle and an end, a gradual unfolding of episodes along the way. Compare that with crossing a plain or desert, where one knows the whole story before a single step. A keyhole view edits and condenses while establishing a mystery. On a forested pathway, we keep walking to see what the vista around the next bend or over the next rise will bring. In an old European city, one is drawn down a narrow street to see what stories it tells.
Architectural historians have noted that the stout columns lining the naves of great cathedrals aren’t simply structural, keeping the roof off the earth. They also mimic the trunks of mighty trees and lend the aspect of a path through a still, ancient forest. The central cities of early European and Latin American cities were often lined with long arcades, which could feel like a forested pathway cut in stone. Bologna, Italy, has about twenty miles of covered walkways. Paris had shopping and dining arcades that bisected stout buildings, like shortcuts through a grove. Taking a less formalized approach, 19th century urban walkways in the United States were often partially covered by balconies or galleries, or by retractable awnings in dense streetcar suburbs in the early 20th century.
The pathways on which we walk also influence our perception of distance. Urbanist Steve Mouzan has proposed a measure called “Walk Appeal,” which is sort of a WalkScore mashed up with landscape assessment. It’s built upon what might be called Mouzon’s Law, which states that the average person might walk two miles in Rome but maybe only a quarter-mile in an exposed, sunburnt area through suburban strip malls. “Europeans are reputed to walk much further than Americans,” Mouzan notes on his blog (www.originalgeen.org), “and for this reason: their streets have much better Walk Appeal.” Among other things, European cities have shorter blocks, and more to look at. “Narrow storefronts change the walkers' view frequently, which is more entertaining than long blank walls or long stretches of the same building,” Mouzan writes.
Proof of his point: just look at all the drivers circling and waiting for parking at a supermarket or mall to avoid having to convey themselves an additional 75 feet or so from the nearest available slot. Part of this is laziness, to be sure, but, as Mouzan notes, it’s also that “the walking experience is too dreadful.”
Still, crossing a parking lot doesn’t earn his lowest Walk Appeal score: “The worst sidewalk you could possibly choose to walk on is one with an arterial thoroughfare on one side and a parking lot on the other.” Here, he estimates, people are willing to walk a grand total of 25 feet, although no one actually does this unless their car quits on them.
Of course, retreating to the ideal walker’s habitat is increasingly problematic, because the automobile is also a voracious consumer of walkable landscapes. The car carves its own space as it extends its range: eight lane highways, on-ramps, frontage roads, left-hand turn lands — all of which are often disagreeable and fatal to pedestrians, and are best avoided on foot.
The long and short of it: After five million years of perfecting the art of walking upright, we’ve lost the battle in maintaining the spaces that welcome us on foot. And this feeds the cycle of our walking less, and thus rendering it less important. “Landscape design” has the sound of something effete and precious, an art practiced by the overeducated for the overcompensated. But it’s not. In fact, creating the right landscape may be central to our survival.
If we want to get people walking and experiencing their environment and community and avoiding the chronic diseases that are the burgeoning byproducts of sedentariness, it’s not enough to hector and cajole people. Landscaper designers must be teamed up with urban planners to create inviting habitat to lure people from their cocoons of steel.
In short, in working the land, we need to also pay attention to genetics, lest we evolve into limbless rubber balls. Or perhaps we’ll regress to a quadrupedal species, unable to move about without four limbs: Two feet on pedals and two hands on a wheel.
Wayne Curtis is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails. He's currently working on a book about the history of walking in America. Find him at his website or follow him @waynecurtis.