Human Writes: Build cities that encourage walking

  • Fitness
  • Monday, 12 Feb 2018

My little niece is taking her first steps. What a thrill for her, and for anyone who watches her walking – that awkward stagger, almost like a drunk, as she totters clumsily from one foot to the other.

Those first few steps signify her stride into her own life. They define her humanness: we humans walk on two feet. And how gracefully we do it too. We even dance and twirl and skate and do ballet. Chimps, by comparison, still walk with their backs horizontal to the ground.

There’s still controversy over the subject, but the evidence indicates that walking is far better for us than running. Sorry Bruce, our bodies weren’t quite Born To Run. Born to walk, at least for the last six million years, is more like it.

It is astonishing, really, that I should have to labour this point to anyone. I mean, of course we’re meant to walk! What do you think, those prehistoric cavemen lounged around in chairs? Only in The Flintstones!

Walking has probably helped our survival as a species. Early humans started to stand upright and move on their feet because it freed their hands to explore the environment and forage for food. They probably walked for miles every day.

A study on the Hadza, the last remaining true hunter-gatherer tribe in Tanzania, found that the men walked more than 10km a day. Their way of life required them to walk. And that’s the way it was for most people until recently.

My great-grandmother, who lived in Sri Lanka, walked for miles every day. When she was in her 90s, the family, worried she might fall, tried to keep her indoors, but she riled bitterly against the restriction. My grandfather too loved to walk around some of the streets of Petaling Jaya, sometimes stubbornly choosing to walk rather than go by car or take a bus.

These days, there are many of us who grumble about having to walk an extra five feet because we can’t find a parking place right next to our destination. Since I’ve got my fitness tracker, I happily park further away. I need to make my daily quota of steps!

I actually love to walk anyway but do so regularly now with my tracker. I’ve realised that it’s best to make walking a requirement rather than something you do for leisure after reaching home. Because invariably, you won’t have time for the latter option. But if, for example, walking is part of your commute, you will.

When I know traffic is bad in Kuala Lumpur, I prefer to jump on an LRT and make my way to my destination on foot at the other end. I’m too impatient and hate the frustration of sitting in a jam for ages. It also drives me nuts having to circle an area looking for car parks. At least if I’m physically moving, my body is benefiting.

Unfortunately, walking in Malaysian cities isn’t always easy. For one, you become a target for snatch thieves. Secondly, the pavements may be hazardous, as all too often, they’re blighted with potholes and loose bricks. You find that you’re looking down to watch your step which makes you vulnerable. And then of course, there is the heat and the rain.

I’m glad there’s now a covered walkway in part of the city. We need more such things. We should also throw in CCTVs to stop crime. Increasing the walkability of our capital is a good investment in the interest of tourism.

It’s also in the interest of our health. Making cities pedestrian-friendly could help us fight our obesity epidemic and the diseases related to it. We should make it easier and more convenient to walk rather than drive downtown.

Indeed, when cities become more walkable, people lose weight. In 2012, the American city of Oklahoma launched a health programme which invested in sidewalks and built bike and walking paths. The city went from being one of the country’s fattest cities to one of the fitter ones.

This month, a new study of 22 British cities found significant links between the walkability of cities and blood pressure.

Isn’t it crazy that we spend millions of ringgit to treat chronic diseases that can be improved with exercise but we don’t design or encourage walking in our cities? We’d rather have people have bypass surgery or take strong medication rather than walk in the city?

It’s time we do some urban redesign in our cities.

Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human in her fortnightly column, Human Writes. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at

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