City Walks

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A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to walk in and around downtown Albuquerque with Stephen Ausherman, the author of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Albuquerque. He is currently working on a new book that will feature hikes within the city limits of Albuquerque.

The timing of the walk with Stephen was perfect as I was thinking about taking a walk around my own city of Albuquerque after reading the just published Finding Los Angeles by Foot: Stairstreet, Bridge, Pathway and Lane by Bob Inman. Bob is one of the foremost experts on stairways in Los Angeles and often leads urban walks in Los Angeles. I have had the privilege to walk with him and have written about those walks in this blog. If you are a wanderer in Los Angeles, you should have his book.

The Los Angeles book and the upcoming Albuquerque book may represent the future of hiking. With the cost and time required to drive out of town, many people may find it more practical to walk closer to home. And in the right setting, a walk in a town or a city can be just as wonderful as a hike in the wilderness. I believe that the mix of posts in this blog attests to this.

Ironically, the qualities of a good walk in a town are the same qualities that Jane Jacobs identified in her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, on what makes a livable city. In her book, it starts with the sidewalk. This is where people go about on foot to conduct their business and to run errands. Where you find an active sidewalk, you’ll find a safe sidewalk and vibrant community.

After years of living in communities that catered to the needs of drivers by providing wider streets with more lanes and higher speed limits, many people are now demanding walkability where they live. They are turning to the principles that Jane Jacobs identified over fifty years ago. In many places a walkable neighborhood is now way more desirable than a non-walkable neighborhood. A house’s “walk score” has become a major factor when buying or selling real estate. (To find out your walk score, you can visit

Today over 100 communities around the world conduct a “Jane’s Walk” every May. The Jane’s Walk website clearly states, “Jane’s Walk celebrate the ideas and legacy of urbanist Jane Jacobs by getting people out exploring their neighborhoods through walking tours led by locals”. Also in many communities across the country neighborhood groups, such as “SW Trails – PDX” in Portland, have developed trails and walkways to provide safe routes to school and short-cuts to make their area more walkable.

With an active sidewalk being the starting point for a livable and walkable community, the Jacobs book identifies several factors that make a sidewalk active. An important factor is a mixture of activity:  stores, schools, libraries, services, and places of employment. This mixture gives people many reasons for being on the sidewalk at different times of the day. It also helps for these activities and other places of interest to be concentrated, as nothing says “get in the car” quicker than a long distance between each activity. To top it off, a mixture of building ages and types ensures that there will be a wide range of rental brackets to encourage an eclectic and diverse mix of businesses, people, and activities on the street. It’s boring when everything is the same.

Jane Jacobs also noted that an active sidewalk is enhanced by having narrower streets and shorter blocks. Shorter blocks provide more and quicker options for getting from a point on one street to a point on another street. For the wanderer a shorter block gives you more places to turn and explore.

Stephen Graham talked about going on Zigzag walks in his classic 1927 book, The Gentle Art of Tramping, when he visited a new city. His Zigzag walk would start by making a left hand turn at the first street he encountered and then making a right hand turn at the next street. He would then keep repeating the left – right process until it was time to conclude his walk. This gave him a good cross section of the city and opened the door to many amazing surprises along the way.

The placement of outdoor public stairways in hilly cities is very similar to having opportunities to turn. They both provide short-cuts and places to explore. Bob Inman points out in his book that in some cases it would take more than a mile of following streets to get from the bottom of a stairway to the top. A walker who climbs the stairs has a distinct advantage over someone who drives. Stairways are an amazing addition to any hilly community.

When I walk in cities I hope to find a combination of interesting streets, alleys, paths, stairs, and whatever else is available along the way to make the walk special. If you allow yourself to be right here right now while you walk you will be amazed at how much there is to see and discover.  As described in The Gentle Art of Wandering, the essence of wandering is allowing yourself to see when you walk and then let what you see determine where you go. Or in the case of cities, letting what you see determine where you turn.

A good example of using turns to make an exceptional walk is when I visited Los Angeles about a year ago. My plan was to spend the first day going on a walk with Bob Inman in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles. (You can read the blog post about that walk by clicking here.) I then intended to go to an art exhibit in Pasadena on the second day.

When I woke up the second day, I had a few hours until the Pasadena museum opened and decided to take a walk. The purpose of describing this walk is not to encourage you to follow my route but to show you what can happen when you start to wander and turning when something catches your attention. A city is a perfect place to wander because there are so many directions to choose from.

The walk began from my motel in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles just north of downtown. I headed up the main road (Broadway) toward Pasadena. Along the way I turned into several little streets to explore them and even found a Buddhist temple with a huge statue of Buddha. I’m not sure what was being celebrated, but there were two huge roasted pigs sitting on banquet table right next to the statue.

After sitting on a cushion in front of the statue to meditate for a few minutes, I continued on my way. I eventually came to street that said Solano Canyon and turned down that street. As I walked along I noticed an orange tree with a teeny tiny orange no bigger than a golf ball growing out of the base of the tree. These are the type of amazing details you can spot and enjoy when you allow yourself to see them.

This oranges in the main part of the tree were normal size. This one was about the size of golf ball.

This oranges in the main part of the tree were normal size. This one was about the size of golf ball.

As I continued along and went under a freeway, I came upon an old stairway now buried in debris and no longer usable. I then made a couple of turns and saw a church (San Conrado Mission Church) with an amazing display of flowers, murals, statues, and shrines set in the base of the hill just beyond its parking lot. I then went down an alley that became a dirt path that led to a set of hand dug stairs. The stairs led to an entrance roadway to Dodger Stadium.

I wonder where these stairs went.

I wonder where these stairs went?

You could spend a good part of the day checking out this collection.

The backyard behind the church was very cool.

I wonder if the neighbors use these stairs as a short cut to Dodger Stadium.

I wonder if the neighbors use these stairs as a short cut to Dodger Stadium?

After walking to a gate that blocked access to Dodger Stadium, I changed directions. I passed several pretty houses and made another turn to climb a usable stairway on Jarvis Street. The stairs connected to a path that led to a road running on the top of the hill.

There were many pretty houses all along the walk.

There were many pretty houses all along the walk.

These are the Jarvis Street stairs.

These are the Jarvis Street stairs.

With another turn I found myself on a route that wound around an amazing garden. The route continued to an underpass that took me to a walkway inside a freeway. I followed the walkway over the Los Angeles River and went down a set of stairs where the walkway ended.

This garden was spectacular.

This garden was spectacular.

This the Los Angeles River from the walk inside the freeway.

This is the Los Angeles River from the walk inside the freeway.

The next turn was toward the hills. There I meandered through streets looking for stairways. I didn’t find any stairs that connected to other streets, but I did find a stairway that went up the side of a hill to a dead end. There were several houses on either side of that stairway. Their only access to the road was by the stairway. I also found a sidewalk several feet above street level that could only be accessed by stairs.

There were several houses facing this dead end stairway.

There were several houses facing this dead end stairway.

When I looked out across the valley from the sidewalk, I could see the Mount Washington neighborhood where I had walked the day before. With it now getting close to the museum’s opening time, I followed streets down the hill to the light rail line (Gold Line) that connects both Pasadena and Chinatown to downtown Los Angeles. Ironically, my walk ended at the same Gold Line station (Southwest Museum) that I got off the day before to walk with Bob Inman.

That's the Mount Washington neighborhood on the other side of the valley. The tall white building near the center is the Southwest Museum.

That’s the Mount Washington neighborhood on the other side of the valley. The tall white building near the center is the Southwest Museum.

Had I wanted, I could have skipped the walk and taken the light rail from Chinatown to Pasadena. Had I done that, I would have missed out on an incredible walk that was made possible by letting what I saw determine where I turned.

With so much to discover when walking in a city, I can’t wait for the new Stephen Ausherman book of city walks in Albuquerque to come out. Not so much to follow his exact routes but to get ideas on where I might want to start a walk and begin making turns. And that’s what a guide book does best; it provides a catalog of ideas and places that you might want to wander around and explore.

One Comment

  1. Outstanding Blog post.

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