Opinion

The steps we can all take towards a deeper understanding

At a time when we are increasingly closed and atomised, setting out to see the world will bring a better understanding of how others live, writes Big Issue editor Paul McNamee.

I get a little obsessed by the 10,000. If I don’t get the steps in, I feel jittery. If it’s close to the end of the day, I’ll take the dog out, again, or find some other reason to walk round and round. Talking to others about your stepcount, I’ve been reminded more than once, is like sharing your dreams. Not your hopes and aspirations, but the actual details of what you dream about. It’s of little interest to others. And yet, here I am.

The 10,000 step thing is a confection. It’s a marketing ploy, dreamed up in the early 1960s by a Japanese corporation to sell their new pedometer. Scientists have since calculated that around 7,000 steps a day is enough to aid early death avoidance. The NHS estimates that Britons average around 3,000 – 4,000 steps a day. There are clear gaps.

There are about 6000 streets in Glasgow. During lockdown a teacher called Michael Shanks set about running them all. He’s done it.

It was an incredible undertaking. For one, there is the map element. If you like maps – and, frankly, if you don’t, what’s wrong with you – you’ll understand that one of the real joys of map reading and understanding comes from a sense of physically following the route after having done it in 2D or while you’re doing it in 2D. That’s not the only reason. Reading the map of a place you’ve never been to can make it come immediately to life.

It’s why satnavs, though in many ways hugely helpful and practical, are ultimately unfulfilling. You are always at the centre of the image and the roads and paths move around you. There is no sense of place. They crush wider comprehension. They also kill the joy in getting a little lost.

But there is another reason why Shanks’ quest is such a satisfying one. It takes him into the world. Nothing brings a sense of place and people better than being there. And at a time when we are increasingly closed and atomised, judging others and getting angry at their view from our own limited perspective, setting out to see the world, particularly that which is close at hand, will bring a better understanding of how others live.

“You realise individual communities make up a city – it is not one unified place,” Shanks’ said recently. 

If we understand how other communities live, the buildings they’re in, even the topography of the ground around them, knowledge will grow and empathy will follow. 

Being a city flaneur is nothing new. Centuries of words and images have been recorded by people striding and recording what they learned. But while great walkers like Samuel Johnson, Dickens and Gladstone used it as material for gathering knowledge of people around them, frequently the great city perambulations have been about recording modernity and what architecture says about how we exist now. It lacks a human heart.

Shanks’ great project has made it altogether more human again. And that feels very important.

You could argue that it’s fine for me, a man, to make the case for walking everywhere within a town or city without worry. I recognise that it’s just not so straightforward for a woman to head out on her own. But, said Shanks of Glasgow, “there wasn’t anywhere that I wasn’t comfortable spending some time chatting to people.”

It may take some time for free walking in the city to be more normalised and comfortable and safe for women, but that has to be something to work towards, isn’t it?

The world, and increased stepcounts, awaits. Do you want to hear about the dream I had the other night…

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big IssueRead more of his columns here.

@PauldMcNamee

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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