In the middle of a mall-obsessed, real estate-hungry Singapore, I am rambling through a rainforest. Located within the Botanic Gardens, this unexpected jungle is, for the four million people who visit it every year, a temporary refuge, a place to listen to birdsong and the thoughts humming through your head; a place so tranquil that you can finally hear life minus its constant whirr of clicks and pings.
For as long as I can remember, I have walked. Before FitBit’s 10,000 humdrum steps, before the marketing cleverness of ‘walking guided tours’, before smartphone mapping apps and GPS chip shoes, I walked for hours, sometimes on new routes, often in familiar loops; sometimes with a friend, often alone. My walk was my time to converse with myself, sometimes on a serious note, often to just make mental lists.
The great cities of the world are built for walking. Its citizens congregating in parks and ambling through streets, its tourists sauntering by shop displays, its residents striding to work. There’s a discovery – the second-hand bookstore, the family-run bakery, the tree-shaded shrine, the moss-covered gargoyle – that is bestowed only to those who walk.
In India, walking tends to be more a necessity than a leisure activity. In the absence of cheap, reliable public transport or basic facilities like water on tap, people walk for miles to get to work or school or fetch water or fuel. Walking for exercise is the gift of privilege; only those who can afford to eat have calories to burn.
For women, many confined to the narrow routine of daily chores at home, finding freedom and a measure of privacy in public spaces is especially challenging. A 2010 survey conducted by United Nations Women and the International Centre for Research on Women found that 95 per cent women and girls in Delhi felt vulnerable in public spaces, including parks and public transport. On a recent trip to Mumbai, loafing on the streets outside Jehangir Art Gallery, I found I had an unexpected bounce to my gait. Then it hit me. There were no staring, prying eyes. For someone accustomed to avoiding eye contact in Delhi, it was exhilarating.
As a heaving, aspirational India expands its cities and towns, space for walking seems to shrink proportionately. It’s a lesson that is being learned the hard way as nature brutally reasserts its supremacy in over-built Uttarakhand and, now, Jammu and Kashmir. It’s hard to find pavements, let alone public parks where citizens of a modern nation can pound away their excesses. Yet, a stroll in Lodhi Gardens – easily one of the world’s great public parks – brings walkers into happy companionship; a nod here, a namaste there, our thread to a common bond of humanity, as we withdraw ever inwards into our virtual worlds of Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts.
Nobody understood the power of being on foot more than Gandhiji, whose Dandi March remains the defining symbol of defiance; men and women, barefoot or in chappals bringing the Empire to its knees. Bhutan’s beloved Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck is said to have walked every inch of her mountainous kingdom, trekking for miles as she reaches out to her people. It’s a connection that most modern helicopter-touring politicians would envy but one that’s not that hard to make – if they took to the road.
To walk is to reach out – to nature, to ourselves and to each other. Cities are not an aggregate of hospitals, roads and skyscrapers. When city planners incorporate parks, cycle tracks and jogging trails in their blueprints they tell people: We respect you, we want to give you space. They create a protective green canopy where people can meet or just be alone. What is the point of talking of children’s rights, if we deny them playgrounds? Where is respect for parents, if we don’t have enough parks for them to walk in? What does women’s rights mean if we deny them that brief respite of private circumambulation?
Smart cities are smart not just because they are technologically wired. They’re smart because they let their residents amble through, making connections with themselves and each other.