The Art of City Walking

San Francisco from atop Alamo Square Park – a great place to conclude a City Walk

City walks rock.

Parks, mountain trails, beaches, all those other walks — wonderful. But city walks are in a class by themselves. It’s just a small matter of mastering the art. It helps (IMHO) to live in San Francisco, but I suspect anyone who loves his or her city might agree: walk with your eyes and mind open, listen for the life behind the sounds, look up and down and all around, and there you have: COVID-free (masks, distancing, no problem) exercise, unique entertainment, an educational and uplifting activity of however many hours you can spare. Totally free. Nighttime walks can be times of wonder, but given the weirdness of today’s pandemic realities, this addresses the joy of daytime city walking.

Creative tent-dwelling

Cities everywhere have, tragically, people with no home, forced to confront the virus and the cold in whatever ways they can. Some, like the above San Franciscan reduced to tent life, stake out kingdoms of their own. Walking by people on the street — many struggling with addiction or mental health issues — is the saddest part of City Walking, sending you home (hopefully) with a renewed commitment to working harder to find solutions. But if you look, you find homeless citizens are really just fellow Americans with problems, bad luck, and often a good measure of ingenuity.

And then there are the trees. Even in the most urban of urban areas, trees survive. Sometimes on their own (look into corner parks or corner lots that have been abandoned.) You can find trees that are trying to save us from ourselves by storing carbon, preventing flooding & erosion, staving off climate change — or just standing there being beautiful.

A cypress on Sacramento Street

The good people of occasionally go around chalking the sidewalks with little Look! signs that point to trees like the one pictured at right and generously ID them for you.

Some of the most interesting sights of City Walks are down the alleyways. Granted you may find strange and unpleasant surprises, but you may often find the products of graffiti artists’ most elegant endeavors. Alleyways offer other surprises: hidden houses and back entries and flower boxes on third-floor fire escapes you’re delighted to have noticed, plus a few ground-level sights you’re happy to pass by as quickly as possible. It’s a city, after all.

Most City Walks — thanks often to the work of the Trust for Public Land, which has a goal of every urban dweller living within a 10-minute walk of a park — pass an urban park or two. Some are so small as to go unnoticed. But if you can work your city-walking paths by a park, possibly the happiest faces of the day will be found there. Where there are basketball nets you can watch the action but rarely get any interchange.

Kids in a TPL-sponsored City Park

But kids on jungle gyms will smile for the camera at the slightest invitation. Search for urban parks in your city and you might be surprised to find tiny treasures. In San Francisco, also, almost anywhere you’re willing to climb upward will lead to another kind of park — glorious spaces with views and dogs and picnickers and more views. An unbeatable way to conclude a City Walk. Which brings us back to the vista from Alamo Square at the top of this essay.

This essay appeared earlier on

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