5 steps to a more refreshing urban walk

Updated: Jul 11, 2019

Find happiness amid the crush and clamor of a busy city sidewalk.

Photo: YakobchukOlena/iStock

Imagine yourself taking a walk to recharge your focus and revive your energy. If you’re like many people, the first image that comes to mind is a walk through a park, on a wooded trail, or in some other natural environment. But what if the reality outside your door is more concrete gray than vegetation green?

The mentally restorative benefits of walking may not be as automatic in the city as when you’re surrounded by nature. But you can still enjoy a refreshing walk amid the hustle and bustle of an urban sidewalk. These strategies, employed singly or in combination, can help.

Approach the experience mindfully.

Rather than trying to look past the crowd or shut out the clamor with earbuds, be mindful of the buzz of activity around you. Make an intentional decision to observe and accept your experience as it unfolds. Take in all the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings you encounter as you walk along — even ones you consider unpleasant. Notice your immediate response to these sensations. Then move on, allowing your mind to follow your feet down the sidewalk.

Breathe through sensory overload.

If the onslaught of sensory stimulation starts to feel overwhelming, take a breather. Redirect some of your awareness inward by focusing on the sensation of your breath as it moves in and out. Don’t try to completely block out the world — it wouldn’t be safe to do that even if you could. But do allow the soothing rhythm of your breathing to calm your jangled nerves.

“In the commotion of a big city, you can still walk with peace, happiness, and an inner smile.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Walk

Walk like a news cameraperson.

For a simple-sounding concept, mindfulness can sometimes be frustratingly difficult to achieve. That’s when an apt metaphor may come in handy: Imagine yourself as a news cameraperson whose job it is to capture the events transpiring around you. Your assignment is to record these events as faithfully and objectively as possible. If you get too wrapped up in any one thing, you might miss something else that’s important. Your best bet is to keep moving and “shooting video” — in other words, observing whatever happens.

Reframe your response to noise.

Busy streets are filled with sound: vehicles driving, sirens blaring, construction crews working. There’s no denying that many of these sounds are loud and grating. But you may be able to accept them with greater equanimity by mentally relabeling street noise (negative) as the soundtrack of the city (neutral).

“The relativity of noise is reassuring to me. It seems more likely I could find something charming in the soundscape of the city if its noisiness depends as much on my psychology as on the sounds themselves.” — Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking

Choose your walking route wisely.

Numerous studies have shown that walking in a natural environment is generally more restorative than walking in a built environment. The urban settings chosen for most of these studies featured mainly modern buildings and medium- to high-density traffic.

However, one study compared walking through a wooded area versus a city district with lovely, historic buildings and quiet streets. Unlike several prior studies, this one showed no difference in the physiological impact of the two walks. When it came to psychological benefits, the woodland stroll still had an edge over the city walk, but the advantage was less pronounced than in the earlier research.

So, plan your walking route carefully. If you can increase the beauty of your surroundings or decrease the traffic by modifying your route, it may be worth your while even if you have to go a few blocks out of your way. You can tap into your inner calm anywhere, but you'll likely find it easier to do in a pleasing environment.

About the author

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a freelance health and psychology writer.

Key reference

Stigsdotter, U. K., Corazon, S. S., Sidenius, U., Kristiansen, J., & Grahn, P. (2017). It is not all bad for the grey city: A crossover study on physiological and psychological restoration in a forest and an urban environment. Health & Place, 46, 145-154. doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2017.05.007