The Mending Stitch

The Mending Stitch


In light of the Surgeon General’s recent Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walking Communities, here is a piece I wrote on walkability in US cities. 


In sewing one uses a mending stitch to repair tears and holes in clothing.  The stitch pulls together the fabric, closing the void, rendering the cloth once again whole.  Our town and cities are much like a tattered cloth – highways have cut them apart, railroads have divided them, and tall walls segregate neighborhoods. These massive infrastructure projects are like a loose stitch – pulling gently on them opens a deep gash in the cloth. They unravel the social and structural fabric of a community dividing cities and towns physically, but much more destructive are the socioeconomic divisions and environmental and social injustices that result. So torn is the urban fabric that we live in, that in many places we have began to haphazardly mend it with dirt paths and cut throughs that take shortcuts across long vacant lots, climb hills too rocky for development, line the rivers yet to be forced into concrete boxes, and wind between houses to access alleys.  These trails are fighting to pull together otherwise disparate regions of a city that highways, railroads, viaducts, and massive shopping malls have torn apart.

Trails and paths link together the human necessities (food, friends, work, entertainment) that single-use zoning and cul-de-sac filled development have rendered into distinct regions that can only be traversed by high speed motorized vehicle.  The hole in a fence that cuts across the tracks linking a housing development and a fast food center – this is an attempt to pull together basic human necessities on a human scale.  The worn trail through the vacant lot expresses a human desire to be able to walk to see family and friends.  The cinder blocks that allow you to hop through the stagnant water of a culvert tunnel with dry feet stitch together a college and its student apartments.   They may only be across the street from each other but are divided by barbed wire topped fences and five lanes of high speed traffic and may just as well be on opposite sides of town.  The path beaten down in the grass over the rocky hill links a neighborhood and business park – two human necessities that can be within sight of each other yet often require a multi-mile drive to be accessed. These trails are desire paths; they are how we shout over the walls, barriers, and impasses of the city that our two feet can not be stopped. We will walk because to walk is to be human.

City trails are tucked behind industrial areas, located at the end of alleys in old residential blocks, accessed through highway culverts, and leave from the dead end of steep roads.  Just as mending stitches run visible along the surface of a cloth only to plunge beneath and reappear further along, so do trails cut across the long vacant lots before disappearing into the concrete sidewalks and asphalt blacktop only to reappear at the dirt alley, public park, open space, public easement, or edge of town. The hidden drainage tunnel, the hole in the fence that lets you cut across the tracks, the fence you hop to access that hidden single track, the trail entrance behind the house at the end of the road that has been under construction for years and years – trails are the threads that run through towns and cities fighting the private property, the impassable highways, the gated communities, and the urban sprawl that make our homes navigable only by vehicle.

Go forth and mend your city.  Pull out your needle, your thread, and your walking shoes.  Splash through the culvert, climb through the fence, reclaim the human scale life we all crave.  Be adventurous and brave – the thimble protects the finger when sewing for mending is hard word and the city may fight your efforts. Revel in clearing the overgrown weed as you pull together your torn city.  Walk the sidewalkless roadside until your path screams out “I will walk” so loudly it can no longer be denied.  Embrace the rebellious nature of crawling through the hole in the fence, for it is the city itself that has rebelled against you for far too long.  Walk with your friends, your family, your pets, and by yourself.  Make whole your neighborhood, your town, your city.  Reclaim your humanity and your community with your own two feet.

Celebrate the mending path for it makes whole the tattered cloth.

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