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The pace of the urbanite

June 26, 2011

I just finished listening to a fascinating Radiolab on cities. One of the ideas that was investigated on the program was the speed with which urbanites live their daily lives. Psychologist Robert Levine has done a study on walking speed in urban environments, and found that Japan and Dublin are two of the world’s “fastest” places. Reports have shown that people on average are now walking 10% faster than a decade ago. So what does this mean exactly?

city street in Dublin where urban walking speeds are among the highest in the world / flickr

It could be said that people with a quick pace feel an urgency to whatever it is they are doing, and that the fastest walkers should be accomplishing a lot in a day. But is it actually efficiency? In the age of iphones, twitter, email, it seems like almost everything is instant and should be saving us time, so why are we in such a hurry?

Another idea on the program is that the bigger the city is, the less you need per capita. This idea has long been disputed — is it actually better for the environment for humans to be living clustered together in urban environments? Or does the fact that they live in cities are constantly wanting more (resources, opportunities, time, etc.) negate the potential environmental savings? Perhaps therein lies our answer to why we are speeding up. We have more to gain, more to obtain, more to experience  . . .  so wasted time is something we just can’t afford.

In an unprecedented age when more than half the world’s population lives in urban environments, these are interesting studies and questions. The rise of the city has been swift and enduring and will have repercussions on how we as a social society progress.

Just today I was out in the metropolis of Boston (or, more accurately, Cambridge) and was strolling along a street that is closed Sundays for bikers, pedestrians, and any other activities. I took a second to notice how slow everything seemed. Residents were picnicing, lounging on the grass and biking (for fun rather than transport). It seemed almost at odds with the surrounding environment, like, don’t you have something to be doing . . . you’re in the city??

Perhaps we need that one weekend day to take it all in.

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