Speeding Cities by Brett Otis

Many refer to life in cities as “fast-paced,” which, depending on their tone can be interpreted as exciting or overwhelming. Personally, even though I love living in Boston, I sometimes find myself feeling a mixture of the two emotions - leaning more towards overwhelmed if my commute is met with traffic jams or subway delays. Looking for a slight change of scenery, I recently took advantage of the long weekend to take a trip north of the border to visit Montreal. With a loose itinerary in mind of the spots I wanted to visit, I set out to explore the city by my favorite mode of transportation - my own two feet. 

Hearing all about the spectacular view of the city atop Mount Royal, I made my way down Ave du Parc, ready to see it for myself. It wasn’t until I walked over three blocks and passed by dozens of other people before it hit me just how much quicker I was walking than my fellow pedestrians. While I’m often guilty of a rushed pace when I’m running late back home, the mountain wasn’t going anywhere, so why was I moving so quickly? What had I missed while I sped by those around me? I was so preoccupied with the idea of the view at my final destination that I was ignoring all the sights on the way there.

I paused, checked in on my breathing, and slowed down my pace. I concentrated on my steps and soon began to really notice all this new city had to offer. While the mountain view lived up to the hype, taking the time to experience the unique details of each block on the way reminded me why I enjoy exploration by foot. For the rest of my trip, whether I was discovering the vibrant public arts scene or ambling through Marché Atwater, I made sure I wasn't rushing anywhere.

The experience brought to mind a piece in The Atlantic called, "Why People in Cities Walk Fast." The article details quite a lengthy history of the study of walking in cities, including studies that observe a correlation between walking speed and population size, and ultimately economic growth. Growing, economically thriving cities seem to be filled with people who walk fast.

For many it’s easy to validate this view through daily work experiences. Most jobs require moving from task to task at an ever increasing rate, responding quickly to requests, and working efficiently through as much as possible each day. When job performance is rated on productivity, which ultimately drives financial status, time really does equal money—and the pace increases. 

However, what if we prescribed to a different lens? As I think about my walk through the markets of Montreal, I was able to observe and interact with my surroundings with more clarity. I was able to pull ideas from the sights and smells of the market. With a slower pace, my attention was drawn to the beautiful colors of the produce arrangements, but I also took inspiration from how the vendors handled their interactions with customers with minimal friction. Taking the time to slow down might not only be good for the soul, but may also benefit my productivity, creativity, renewal and mental acuity.

Indeed, I believe that even in the fastest paced cities, we innately recognize the need for spaces to reflect and pause. One spot that comes to mind is the ‘Imagine’ monument for John Lennon set in New York’s Central Park. No matter the surrounding bustle of business deals, taxi honks, or cell phone conversations, you will always find locals and visitors alike pausing to take a moment to breathe and observe, to come back to themselves and reflect.

With technology pushing us to a faster and faster pace and blurring the boundaries between personal and work life, I think it’s important to consider developing the habit of slowing down. We shouldn’t see it as a tradeoff, an ‘either-or’ of productivity versus peace. We should see it as an opportunity to develop another gear of operating.

What’s best is that there is no need to wait until you take a trip to an unfamiliar place to be more aware of your surroundings. Next time you find yourself speed-stepping down that same street you've been on a million times, try slowing down the pace—you might just notice something new, in you and around you.