Pedestrians of the World, Unite!

By Ooi Kee Beng

August 2021 EDITORIAL
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WE SAY THAT birds fly and fish swim. We think of reptiles as crawlers and monkeys as climbers. But what about us? What about man?

What is our default physical activity as a species? Sleeping doesn't count. We sleep in order to be able to do other things. In fact, have you noticed how difficult it is to find a good surface to sleep on out in nature, or even a good posture to sleep in if you don't have a soft bed or a sofa to lie on?

Sitting is also hardly an activity. It's just rest more than anything else.

Activities that come in bursts, like a sprint, are clearly exceptions to what is normal. They don't last. Jumping, wrestling, throwing... sex? They all come in bursts, and they don't last long either. Talking? Hearing? Feeling? Smelling? Tasting? Thinking? Breathing? Seeing? Yes, yes, yes; but these are specialised sensory abilities we exercise without using much of our body. And they are not what I am getting at anyway.

Did someone say Texting? That's a good contender, just like Driving, but I have to say No to them. Shopping? No to that as well.

What we are left with is... Walking (which was where I was heading all along of course). Walking, I believe, is our default physical activity; it is what we are designed to do. Running or jogging is but an extreme – and therefore temporary – form of it.

Walking uses the whole body, and we seem able to do it all day. But even here, there is a caveat. The ease with which we can change the level of physical exertion when walking is probably key here. We can suddenly powerwalk, or we can slow to a halt, almost instantaneously.

To be more precise then, I will claim that our default physical activity is a process of "Taking a Walk and Taking a Rest". That's like breathing in and breathing out. The one requires the other.

Where am I going with all this? Well, there are many reasons, but here, I shall focus on one. Seeing humans this way is interesting and very relevant, or should be, to how we relate to public spaces and how we plan our urban centres.

Cities are human creations, and it is only reasonable that we create them to suit our basic physical activity, presently identified as Walk-Rest-Walk. And when you rest between walks, you tend to want a drink, or you just want a breeze to cool your body down and provide some fresh air. This, I think, is what decides if a city is welcoming or not. For a place to be worth visiting and worth living in, it must be enjoyable and safe to walk in and to rest in between walk stretches. We want to see people as well, while we do our default activity, being social creatures.

But there is a limit to this. Some balance between crowdedness and space is needed. A middle path between claustrophobia and agoraphobia is what you want. Needless to say, popular urban spaces, be it a square or a street, tend to manage exactly that. They are broad enough, they have people in them, they have comfortable sitting places, and they have cafes and pubs and what-not. And they dot stretches where people walk happily and safely. Pedestrianism is the name of the game in a good city.

Was It Better in the Old Days?

So, what about George Town? Well, it is not really a walking city anymore. Too many cars. The backstreet walkway project and the bicycle infrastructure that the City Council has been investing in over the last few years are hugely commendable efforts; but they are more like damage control than anything else, given how much cars have taken over the streets, be they being driven or being parked. The same goes for the "Pedestrian is King" initiative.

In my youth, what George Town meant was meeting places like the cinemas, most notable Cathay, Capitol and Odeon, all along Jalan Penang, now all gone. Jalan Penang was exciting because to my young mind it had what I just mentioned above. Lebuh Campbell was right up there alongside it, stretching adventurously all the way down to Lebuh Carnarvon and to Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. There was always a coffee shop along the way where one could rest.

But when I compare to other cities I have been to since then and which I have liked being in, George Town never seems to have cared for green open spaces. Maybe there are land ownership issues in play, maybe there are archaic regulations still at play. But it is clearly a city that would benefit hugely from a focused investment in green spaces (the Lebuh Armenian Park is a case in point, but so sorry, even that feels like damage control to me), and from making full use of its waterfronts. Gurney Drive and The Esplanade used to be that once, but one was far outside of town and the other always seemed seedy.

So, to summarise my amateur ponderings on city planning, Pedestrianism is the ideology to embrace for any city today that wants to consider itself liveable. You have to give the people what they want – whether they know what that is or not. I am saying that what they really want, and what is good for them, is to walk-rest-walk – and in half-crowded and fully-safe places.

Where town planning fails in providing this, automobiles take over; leaving no one really feeling safe or at home. The proxy is shopping malls, in which pedestrians walk as if in a cocoon or a prison yard.

Pedestrians of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your car. You have the city to gain.

Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: wikibeng.com