What It Means to Walk

Images by John Hook

The most mundane of movements, walking is often simply a means of transportation. Yet the act of placing one foot in front of the other has the power to transform the world.


The women—and men, and toddlers, and teenagers—were not walking anywhere particular that day. Although they strode with purpose, soon they were back where they began, spilling off the lawn of the Hawai‘i State Capitol, having trekked less than a mile. Distance, of course, was not a metric anyone cared about that day. The presidential inauguration had taken place just 24 hours earlier, and the Women’s March in Honolulu was one of 600 similar actions around the world, with more than two million people protesting an American president they saw as a direct threat to themselves and their values.

In Honolulu, an impenetrable layer of clouds cocooned the city as an undulating column of pink shirts and hand-painted cardboard signs stretched from the Frank Fasi Building to ‘Iolani Palace. The march had swelled beyond the sidewalk and onto the rain-slicked streets, and even during the intermittent downpours, the mood was somewhere between buoyant and defiant. We were 5,000 miles from Washington, DC, and yet in our collective motion, we became part of a global protest.

Around the world, and across centuries, acts of resistance often have taken that simplest of forms: walking. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes of participating in a protest at the Nevada Test Site, where, from the 1950s to the 1990s, the U.S. military detonated nuclear bombs. Hundreds of protesters camped on the fraying landscape. She writes, “The form our demonstrations took was walking: what was, on the public-land side of the fence, a ceremonious procession became, on the off-limits side, an act of trespass resulting in arrest.”

She continues, “It was a revelation to me, the way this act of walking through a desert and across a cattle guard into the forbidden zone could articulate political meaning.”

Walking has long been a form of protest. Gandhi famously walked 240 miles from his ashram to the coastal village of Dandi in 1930, joined along the way by thousands of Indians. The walk became known as the Salt March, a three week-long act of civil disobedience that helped spark the Indian independence movement. In Hawai‘i, plantation workers regularly organized walkouts throughout the first half of the 20th century, like when, in May 1937, 2,500 Filipino plantation workers walked from Wailuku to Kahului to call for equal pay. More recently, in Australia, a 27-year-old aboriginal activist walked some 3,000 miles from Perth to Canberra, protesting the government’s treatment of aboriginal communities.

Even the languages of protest and walking are intertwined. The word “march” comes from the French marcher, which means to walk. Of course, soldiers marched before pacifists did, and so the language of nonviolent protest also borrows from war: The African-American men and women who marched in Selma and Birmingham were called foot soldiers.

One of the strangest aspects of the Women’s March was simply the sight of so many walkers in Honolulu. Outside the thrumming hive of Waikīkī, few people traverse the city on foot (besides the inevitable journey to and from their vehicles). Honolulu is not a walkable city. It lacks the density of New York City and the pedestrian scale of Paris. Its biggest growth spurts occurred in the 20th century, after the advent of the automobile, which arrived in Hawai‘i in 1899 and forever altered the future form of its capital. With the exception of historic districts like Chinatown, which remains one of Honolulu’s most walkable—and, not coincidentally, most attractive—neighborhoods, the city is dominated by streets designed for cars.

Recently, however, Honolulu-based artists, activists, and public health advocates have discovered walking as a medium for telling stories, combating gentrification, or simply promoting pedestrianism. No matter why we do it, walking tends to offer us something beyond its express purpose, an extra layer of experience and meaning that is all too often ignored. “It is the movement as well as the sights going by that seems to make things happen in the mind,” Solnit writes, “and this is what makes walking ambiguous and endlessly fertile: it is both means and end, travel and destination.”


As children, we are not taught to walk. It is innate, unlike language. Leave a healthy human child to its own devices, and it will eventually pull itself up on two legs. We walk because we are designed to walk.

And yet we spend little energy thinking about it. “Isn’t it really quite extraordinary,” Honoré de Balzac wrote in his 1833 Théorie de la Démarche, “to see that, since man took his first step, no one has asked himself why he walks, how he walks, if he has ever walked, if he could walk better, what he achieves in walking?” In the nearly 200 years since Balzac’s time, scientists have studied everything from the evolutionary benefits of bipedalism to its effect on cognition—and yet in many ways, walking remains, in Solnit’s words, the “most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world.”

We used to walk more than we do today, and not only because there were fewer ways to get around. Throughout history, people have walked for penance, for sport, to achieve enlightenment, to test the limits of the human body. Artists from Richard Long to Francis Alÿs have made art out of the act. In 2004, Alÿs walked 15 miles of Jerusalem’s so-called Green Line, the border established after World War II, all the while holding a can of leaking green paint. In Phoenix, there exists an entire institution dedicated to artful ambulation: the Museum of Walking, created by the artist Angela Ellsworth in 2014.

Like most people, I started walking when I was about one and a half years old. I didn’t give it another thought until 2008, when I was working my first post-college job, at the Honolulu Weekly. I had been assigned a piece about the state’s master plan for Diamond Head, and after a tour and interview with an official park spokesperson, I decided to explore the areas around the outside of the crater rim. I had wandered for maybe an hour, not looking for anything in particular, when, on the ocean side, I saw a trail cutting into the brush. I followed it up the slope and around several switchbacks. Without warning, I walked into a makeshift village. A dozen or so tents were scattered among haole koa trees, dirt paths spidering off to each like a planned subdivision. Near one, a stuffed Tigger doll lay in the red-brown dirt.

After a few minutes at the camp, I made my way back to the road, to the realm most of us inhabit and never leave. I learned that day that the only way to really see the world is to walk. In our cars we whoosh by, blind to much of the world, particularly its most defenseless populations and the vast inequities that create them. But to walk is to make ourselves vulnerable, a precondition for transformation.

A few months later, I moved to Chicago. I kept walking, and invited others to join me. We would meet first thing in the morning and embark on what I started calling “urban hikes,” walking as many as 15 miles through rock quarries turned public parks and partially abandoned industrial districts. I became familiar with the term “psychogeography”—the idea that the built environment affects our thoughts and behavior—as well as the eccentric French group known as the Situationist International, which coined it.

Led by a Marxist theorist named Guy Debord, the Situationists appear in nearly every written history of walking. Formed in Paris in the 1950s, they were staunch critics of capitalism and had the lofty idea that they could achieve higher consciousness by walking aimlessly through the city. They weren’t successful in overturning Western capitalism, but at least one product of their thinking has persisted: the dérive, or “drift.” A dérive, to Debord, was an amorphous form of walking in which a group of people abandons all “usual motives for movement and action, and lets themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”

It’s a pretentious notion, and yet I do walk this way sometimes, eyes open, allowing myself to be “drawn” by the character of a street, or by the promise of a path whose end I cannot see. Today, drifts are organized around the world, and there are even apps to facilitate them. They’ve been especially popular in New York City, where from 2003 to 2012, there existed a semi-annual psychogeography festival called Conflux, a weekend of themed walks and walk-themed talks. One year, attendees walked through the city guided by a map not of New York, but of Copenhagen, in order to scramble traditional notions of navigation and discover new avenues through the city.

Among the organizers of the 2010 Conflux festival was a young woman named Adele Balderston. Balderston, a geographer and artist, grew up on the windward side of O‘ahu, and moved to New York City for school in 2004. A decade later, she moved back to Hawai‘i and created 88 Block Walks, a series of walking tours that feature oral histories and photographs of Kaka‘ako—ground zero for new development in Honolulu and the controversies that accompany it. The walks, which grew out of an interest in active forms of combating gentrification, are an attempt at reclamation. “I’m trying to take back control of the narrative of this place from developers,” Balderston tells me one evening before her fifth and final Kaka‘ako walk, titled “The Living Archive.”

Balderston, who has delicately tattooed arms and a round face dwarfed by large, vintage-looking glasses, started walking regularly when she moved to New York. Mainly, it was a necessity—she didn’t have a car—but it was also a way to get her bearings, to begin piecing together the neighborhoods in which she lived. Searching for an analogy, she asks if I ever played the video game The Legend of Zelda. “This is really nerdy, but you know how in the beginning you just have those four little squares and everything else is obscured because you haven’t been there yet? It was kind of like that,” she says. “I had to walk each square for that to be part of my mental map of the place. That’s how it started.”

Balderston’s Kaka‘ako tours take place at night. At points along the walk, she projects historic photos of the neighborhood onto walls of existing warehouses. The images are accompanied by monologues performed by trained actors, adapted from essays housed in UH’s Romanzo Adams Social Research Laboratory Collection. The first stop of “The Living Archive” is on Ilaniwai Street, where a few small storefronts face the back of a large warehouse. Here, Balderston takes people back to the 1920s, when the neighborhood was on an upswing, with new housing for families. In the decades that followed, the area was rezoned, displacing many of the residents. In the high-rise development happening today, Balderston sees familiar cycles of disinvestment and dispossession. “They’re calling it a ‘new place,’ but it’s like, no, this is a hundred-year-old neighborhood,” she says. When modern developers mention the community’s history, she says it is often romanticized, limited to the life of Victoria Ward or the saltponds of a precontact Hawai‘i. There’s little mention of the everyday people who lived and worked in 20th century Kaka‘ako, or the informal settlement known as Squattersville, a community of close to 700 Native Hawaiian and hapa families that existed along the waterfront.

Later, Balderston and I retire to a table at Bevy. It’s early, but the bar is filled with the noise of overlapping conversations. Balderston has lived in some of the world’s most walkable cities—New York, Paris, Seattle—and when she was in those places, she says, walking “was like breathing.” Honolulu is different, she says. The city, with its mess of streets and absent sidewalks, can be punishing for pedestrians, even deadly. In both 2014 and 2016, according to reports by Smart Growth America, Hawai‘i had the highest fatality rate for pedestrians aged 65 or older in the country. For one of her walks, which partly followed a busy street, Balderston made attendees wear reflective vests and bike lights, so that no one would be maimed.

Honolulu’s general lack of walkability creates a negative feedback loop that exacerbates the problem. Walkers tend to feel safer around other walkers, which means that the less people walk, the more dangerous it feels. “Strange places are always more frightening than known ones,” Solnit writes, “so the less one wanders the city the more alarming it seems, while the fewer the wanderers the more lonely and dangerous it really becomes.”


Not long ago, I attended a very different kind of walk. The route was undefined, as was the distance, which was fine because, like the Women’s March, this walk wasn’t about reaching some predetermined destination. It was about simply encouraging people to walk—and understanding why they don’t.

The walk took place in Pearl City and was organized by Colby Takeda, a young, clean-cut O‘ahu native who works for The Plaza Assisted Living, a group of senior housing facilities on O‘ahu. It was one-part art project, one-part public health initiative. Students from the Center for Tomorrow’s Leaders, a leadership program for high school juniors and seniors, accompanied Plaza residents on short walks through their communities, documenting the experience with digital cameras. After, the residents talked about what they photographed, and discussed whether or not they considered the neighborhood “walkable.” Takeda hoped the walks would put the youth in the kūpuna’s shoes, and also generate ideas for how to make O‘ahu’s streets safer for pedestrians.

The project was also part of Jane’s Walk, a global movement of “citizen-led walking tours” inspired by Jane Jacobs, the bespectacled urban thinker who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs believed that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Jane’s Walk got its start in Toronto in 2007. Since then, it has expanded to more than 200 cities. Thousands of Jane’s Walks take place every year, exploring everything from the rich cinematic history of Santos, Brazil, to the unique roji (alleys) of Tokyo.

Honolulu’s first Jane’s Walk took place in May 2014. It was organized by Matthew Gonser, a co-founder of the community advocacy group Better Block Hawaii, who is now with the Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resiliency. Gonser has been advocating for a safer, more walkable Honolulu since he moved to the city in 2012. Two years ago, he organized a Jane’s Walk to raise awareness about pedestrian safety. Participants—a mix of designers, planners, interested residents, and city employees, including the deputy director of Honolulu’s Department of Transportation Services—walked from Alapaʻi Street to University Avenue, intentionally crossing King Street at each un-signalized, mid-block crosswalk (which is striped, but does not have a stoplight). The aim was to demonstrate how treacherous these types of crossings are, and encourage the city to take action.

Honolulu has a mandate to make the city safer for pedestrians. Amended in 2006, the city’s charter states: “It shall be one of the priorities of the department of transportation services to make Honolulu a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly city.” And yet, according to Hawai‘i Department of Transportation reports, pedestrian deaths have continued to rise in Hawai‘i, by as much as eight percent between 2014 and 2016. This year, the city banned looking at a cell phone while crossing the street, a law most experts agree unduly punishes pedestrians. “You, as a person walking, are such an easier target for enforcement,” Gonser says.

The people most affected by Honolulu’s poor walkability are the homeless and the elderly. According to one study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which looked at Clark County, Nevada, homeless people were killed in pedestrian deaths at more than 20 times the rate of residents and visitors. In Hawai‘i, seniors who walk are at nearly three times the risk of being killed in a traffic accident compared with the rest of the country, according to national statistics.

At Takeda’s walk in Pearl City, the deficiency of Hawai‘i’s built environment was apparent. Watching residents like Carl, a small, mostly silent gentleman who shuffled down the street using a walker, it was clear how unwelcoming the built environment can be for the elderly. For instance, the crosswalk nearest the Plaza was almost 700 feet away at the bottom of a hill. If a person wanted to walk to the shopping center across the street, he or she would have to walk down to the crosswalk, cross, and walk back uphill. At an average pace, it would take about 10 minutes, an annoyingly long time to get somewhere right across the street, but doable. If you’re Carl, it’s out of the question. It would take him roughly half an hour just to reach the crosswalk, and longer to complete the opposite leg. That’s an hour’s walk to get from his home to the Sam’s Club across the street.

Later, when the group shared their photos, it was one of Carl’s that struck me as the most profound. Taken from about chest height, the slightly blurry photo was almost certainly an accident. In it, you see his walker, his laminated nametag affixed to the plastic handlebar, and his slippered feet on the sidewalk. What stood out to me, however, were the walker’s wheels, one of which was in the grass. It turns out that the sidewalk in front of the Plaza isn’t even wide enough for two people to walk abreast, certainly not when one person uses a walker or a wheelchair.

Most experts agree that the best way to reduce pedestrian deaths is to rethink our streets. Wide streets with infrequent intersections naturally encourage drivers to go fast, regardless of the posted speed limit. The faster the traffic along a particular roadway, the less pleasant and safe it is for pedestrians. A human body has a 93 percent chance of surviving an encounter with a motor vehicle traveling 20 miles per hour. But if that car is going 45 miles per hour—not uncommon on a wide street like Ala Moana Boulevard—the survival rate drops to just 40 percent, or 17 percent for the elderly.

To slow traffic speeds, cities around the world are implementing “road diets,” adding traffic-calming measures like speed humps, narrower lanes, traffic circles, raised crosswalks, and trees planted along the street. Coincidentally, elements like these also often improve the pedestrian experience, and not only by increasing the chances of surviving a walk to the grocery store.

Recently, walking advocates got another arrow in their quiver. In December 2016, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that cities, and not just drivers, can be liable for vehicular incidents. The decision, in which New York City was found 40 percent liable for an accident involving a speedy driver and a bicyclist, and was ordered to pay $8 million to the defendant, is one of the first to recognize that a city’s physical form directly affects the behavior of its drivers.

A city’s form also affects whether and where we walk. Pedestrians naturally gravitate to the shady sides of streets, as well as to areas with other pedestrians. If Honolulu wants to encourage walking—and it should, given that walking has been shown to reduce stress, improve sleep, lower a person’s
risk for Alzheimer’s, and generate economic activity—it will have to rethink its streets and public spaces. “I don’t think you can just poke at people and say, ‘I’m encouraging you to walk more,’” Gonser says. “We have to work on the physical environment. We have to make it appealing.”


Solnit says you never really know a place until it surprises you. One of the most surprising places I’ve discovered while walking in Honolulu is a hidden stairway off Magellan Avenue above the H-1 freeway. It’s at the edge of a small, bowl-shaped park almost completely enclosed by tall rock walls, with a boarded-up field house and solitary, plastic playground. Like the park, the stairway feels leftover. No path leads to it. It simply starts at the edge of the grass, its stone steps curling around a massive banyan tree whose roots form rooms littered with trash and broken bottles. Near the top, the stairway narrows to a dark channel as it cuts into the cliff. Then it opens, suddenly, onto a large, graffitied basketball court.

I’ve walked the stairway multiple times, and each time, going from the dark, enclosed cavern of the tree canopy to the exposed expanse of asphalt, feels like stepping through a portal. Such distinct shifts in the city’s urban fabric often happen between neighborhoods, or between streets. These two spaces, on the other hand, create a sort of friction in their adjacency.

Henry David Thoreau, America’s most famous literary walker, wrote, “Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see.” I suffer from the same mild wanderlust. While I feel only the smallest compulsion to book flights to foreign countries, I feel a strong pull to walk the places I call home, and have a toddler’s tendency to wander off.

It has, I think, something to do with freedom. In modern society, even walking down a street that isn’t yours can feel like trespassing. But there’s something rewarding about exploring the world on foot and realizing so much of it is, in fact, open to you. You can linger at streams and loiter in public plazas. You can walk to the edge of the city, and simply keep going. Without engines, gears, axles, we discover that more is possible, not less—there is a sense of empowerment in recognizing that we are freer than our departments of transportation would have us believe. Sidewalks become dirt paths, which become wilderness, and still we can walk, constrained by nothing but our own physical capacity.

This freedom is what is being enacted when we march. To walk in a place is to reclaim it, even for a moment. These small reclamations have set in motion entire reorderings of nations. At some point, a long time ago, human beings figured out that by simply walking, they could change the world. One foot in front of the other, until nothing is as it was.

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