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June 7, 2011 / Leo Hollis

the walking city

London was recently voted the most walkable city in the world, and in the recent heat wave it is difficult to disagree with the poll. But making a city a place for walkers is a hugely underrated quality. Politicians, planners and architects should take note that a number of studies in the burgeoning discipline of ‘walkonomics’  have trumpeted the advantages of the pedestrian-friendly city.

Thus a walkable neighbourhood has been proven to be richer and more creative – and can even make your home £30,000 more valuable; a shopping street without cars attracts between 20-40% more customers. Walking is also the reason, reported in a recent study on Atlanta, that men who live in the inner city are fitter than their suburban cousins. Happiness, it seems, can be found strolling down the High Street – no wonder Tescos and Sainsbury’s are abandoning out of town centre and promoting ‘local’ stores.

Walking is also the origin of my fascination in London and why I find myself writing the city’s history. I was born in the capital and remember being able to venture out by myself at a scarily young age, sitting on the top of the bus, working out how everything fitted together. Returning to the capital after school and university, I spent all my free time reacquainting myself with the home city, charting out the metropolis, its neighbourhoods and villages.

Tramping the streets, one soon finds that the telling of the city’s past is actually a story of the living city. In my latest book, The Stones of London, I tell a 2,000 year old narrative that stretches from the first arrival of the Romans to a marshy Thames riverbank in AD43 to the present day world city of glistening steel and glass.

Yet as I tell the story through the narrative of 12 buildings, each one can still be seen and visited today. Thus one can find a fragment of the Roman Forum in the basement of a barber shop in Leadenhall Market, a private club that was once the location for a controversial salon, in the 1770s presided over by a woman nicknamed the ‘Queen of Hell’  or a forgotten modernist masterpiece in Bethnal Green.

It is only by walking through London, finding my way in every sense of the word, that the metropolis has revealed its treasures to me. Events like Open House has been a huge success in encouraging people to explore the city. It is a shame therefore that Boris Johnson – who should be congratulated on completing Ken Livingstone’s Bike Scheme – in February this year, he dropped an initiative to make 2011 ‘The Year of Walking’. This is a shame, as it would have offered a great opportunity for people not only to get to know their own city but also to get fit doing it.

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