Growing up in a house sandwiched between two corn fields, I had a narrow view of what it means to spend time outdoors. Living on a road without a sidewalk, I was discouraged from walking anywhere - not because of distance but from a lack of protection from drivers speeding around turns. Hiking meant following blazes down unpaved paths, searching for crawfish in a creek, and climbing every large rock along the way (sweet freedom). Since getting my driver’s license and moving into the urban Baltimore area for college, I admittedly started taking for granted the amount of access I gained to everything.
I think the same realization happened en masse among urban planners years ago, right before new urbanism truly became a thing. In urban planning, you hear a lot of terms like placemaking, built environment, resilience, walkability, bike-ped infrastructure, and so on and so forth. What are planners getting at? City residents may actually want to experience something other than eat, work, commute, sleep, and repeat. There’s more to it than this, but let’s start here.
When you take a walk along a mountain trail, you call it hiking. When you take a walk around your neighborhood, you call it walking. The idea of walking in an urban environment seems focused on reaching a destination, as opposed to walking for recreation. Walk Score was created to rank the walkability of neighborhoods based on proximity to desired amenities, not based on the ease of the walk but on the preferably short distance. While the grocery store may be two blocks over, if you have to cross a busy, six-lane road with a ten second limit for pedestrian crossing and cars turning left without yielding to you, is this walkable? The McKeldin area of Patapsco State Park has a walk score of eleven, zero being car-dependent and 100 being a “walker’s paradise,” despite miles of uninterrupted hiking trails. Hmm…
National Geographic’s list of the “Best U.S. Hiking Cities” focused on areas near cities, not within cities. The traditional view of walking in cities changed in 2004 when backpacker Dan Koeppel wrote of his decision to hike in Los Angeles proper instead of driving twenty miles to a mountain trail. The urban hike can-I-call-it-a-movement has since blossomed as Koeppel and others began leading “epic urban hike,” linked through over 100 public staircases in L.A. I read about this and thought it might be worth trying in Baltimore, and charm city did not disappoint with its art murals, historic landmarks, harbor views, and plenty of staircases. I’m happy to report crossing the street was never a major burden, though I’m sure the city has its pedestrian choke points.
Urban hiking has an existing presence in Baltimore. One meetup group mixes urban and non-urban hikes as social events. The Gwynn Falls Trail takes you several miles through the city, and guided historic walks are available for a fee. A recent pub crawl felt like an urban hike since every bar had stairs to climb before you actually reached the bar. Of all the routes considered, I stuck with one that started before noon and got me back in time for an evening Orioles game. I mapped my route here.
If you try my route or create your own, will you share your experience with us here at The Grid?
Credits: Images and maps by Jade Clayton. Data linked to sources.