Last month the organisers of Super Bowl XVLIII at the MetLife Stadium in Meadowlands, New Jersey, sleepwalked into controversy by excluding pedestrian access to the biggest of all Big Matches; restricting the stadium to entry via public transport and motor vehicles. Sounds like a cautionary tale from a dystopian future.
Large areas of American cities have been built without footpaths since at least the 1960s; I can remember a story told by a friend of my late father's who, attending a scientific conference in Houston, Texas, decided to take a walk. He left his hotel on foot but within a few minutes found himself assuming the position for an armed and hostile patrolman who viewed walking (there was no sidewalk, only the shoulder) as a suspicious activity.
But the restriction of walking isn't about modernity or world-gone-madness, it's about the purposes for which we design our man-made environments. In Houston at that time only poor people walked, and they had no business cluttering up the business district of Oiltown, so nobody thought it worthwhile spending money on footpaths.
In Ireland we're not poor, but we do suffer from car park deprivation and have to walk sometimes, so urban planners have been kept on their toes. But just because pedestrian areas have been dementing motorists in town centres for several decades now, as walkers we can't assume that there's any underlying support for our activity.
Most pedestrianisation seems to be undertaken with the negative purpose of excluding cars, or forcing us to slow our rate of progress past allegedly local town-centre retailers. A real walking town looks, ironically, more like Manhattan than Dublin's Grafton Street.
City planners only really seem to value walking when it's done in the pursuit of shopping at rate-paying businesses. The less we walk, the less planners and policy-makers will assume we intend to walk. Planning is about allocation of resources; pavements and walkways that don't get used are as much wastage as unoccupied buildings – and eventually they'll feel the cold glare of the budget committee's attention.
And while we may think of ourselves as the bastions of solid, traditional values, to focused people like the MetLife Stadium owners, walking is subversive. Walkers are unpredictable and resistant to control. Somebody, somewhere in a planning office has already uttered the words "But nobody walks these days". And while he or she deserves a damn good whipping just for the thought, you can see where it comes from.
Directing the flow of walkers is next to impossible. They do crazy, things like stopping, lingering, clumping, dispersing, clumping again . . . then executing a U-turn and retracing their steps. That sort of unknowable unknown can ruin a planner's day.
And sadly, walking isn't a default amenity; it's something that has to be planned for. If you think I'm overstating my case, consider the fact that during the construction boom, countless housing estates were built on the edges of Irish towns, with no safe pedestrian link to anywhere. That puts 1960s Houston in the halfpenny place as dystopia made real.
So walk now, or lose the option.
Conor O'Hagan is editor of the bi-monthly Walking World Ireland magazine. www.walkingworldireland.com
Walk of the Week: Glen Loop Bonniconlon, Co Mayo
From Ballina on the N59 take the R294 in the direction of Bunnyconnellan and Tubbercurry. About 3k along this road there is a car park on the left.
From the trailhead follow the purple (and green) arrows out the back of the car park to join an old roadway (the green arrows are for the shorter Drumsheen Loop).
Turn right and follow the arrows to reach a junction with the R294 and join a bog road. After 200m you reach a three-way junction, for now turn right. Follow the bog road for 1k where it turns sharp right. Shortly after this bend the Foxford Way turns left – but you continue straight.