Walking can be transformative and should not be a luxury

Thinking in a Climate Emergency: It should be possible for everyone of every age and ability to enjoy their surroundings on foot

Possibly the worst consequence of car dependency is the ensuing loss of freedom and independence for children. Growing up in 1970s Dublin, children played on the streets everywhere and in most homes the six-channel TV was rationed to some degree. We passed the time playing hopscotch or football. We invented elaborate variations of games, we argued over turn-taking and rules. We went to places we shouldn’t have and learned how to take risks, mostly without getting caught or hurt. We explored the edges of our known world and learned to notice what was around us.

This could be dismissed as rose-tinted nostalgia, but by not paying attention to what we have lost, we are normalising both autogeddon and dull and uneventful childhoods. From the perspective of human history, the severance brought about by designing everything around cars is profoundly abnormal. Today, it is rare to see children play on the street. Instead entertainment is continuously beamed into our lines of sight with punctuated ad breaks measuring the passage of time instead of adventures and experiences.

In 2022, just a quarter of primary school-aged children travelled to school on foot, a fall from 45 per cent in 1986. While this figure is now increasing, according to Sport Ireland research just 15 per cent of children are meeting the recommended physical activity guidelines of one hour of moderate-to-vigorous activity per day.

The tragedy is not just the lack of exercise and the long-term health burdens on entire generations. Loss of opportunities for unorganised physical activity represents an incalculable loss of freedom and independence. We have created a world that is literally drowning out our human need for physical movement – for fresh air, walking, running and playing.


The fantasy landscapes of endless freedom offered in car advertisements require the frames of reference for children to shrink accordingly: they move in metal boxes between concrete boxes, and the outside world is compartmentalised and unexplored with parks and playgrounds now places to be “visited”. With speed and convenience we have sacrificed something of ourselves that is necessarily slow and scaled to our ability to absorb and interpret our surroundings. As the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit puts it, thinking is done best at three miles per hour.

Given the fact that all of us move around on foot or by wheeling (buggies, wheelchairs and mobility aids) for at least part of every journey we make, making our communities walkable seems like an obvious way to improve our general wellbeing. Dublin City Council is nonetheless the only local authority in Ireland with a dedicated walking plan. The plan aims to increase the current modal share for walking from 11 per cent to 13 per cent by 2028 but implementation will require dedicated budgets for walking as well as road space reallocation, enough to tempt any populist political candidate into opposition.

Of course, walking is not just about cities. In the UK, the Right to Roam campaign sees public access to walking routes in rural areas as a right to reconnect to nature and access the countryside. Unlike Ireland, many European countries have long-established towpaths and rights of way across the countryside. A walking route is currently under construction around England’s entire 4,345km coast.

By contrast, here in Ireland we have virtually no legal right to step onto private land, no matter how remote it is. Ireland has scarcely any rights of way, apart from on public roads and in urban parks. This is why, according to the campaign group Keep Ireland Open, casual walkers are often confined to tarmac or have to struggle on intermittent paths. Worse, they can be turned back by a landowner for no reason. If there is a political economy of the sea view, it has been entirely captured by car-oriented tourism. Fáilte Ireland proudly declared recently that the Wild Atlantic Way route inspires tourists to “stay longer and spend more” but tourists, like the rest of us, will struggle to find the Irish coast on foot.

Fundamentally we have to get past a way of thinking about walking and walkability as just an inferior way of getting from A to B. Walking (and for differently-abled bodies – wheeling) is a way of being, it is as natural and necessary as breathing in order to be alive and be in the world. Walking should not be a luxury. It should be possible for everyone of every age and ability to enjoy their surroundings on foot, to breathe fresh air, and see, touch, smell and hear the world around us at an enjoyable and unhurried pace.

There is a deeper, philosophical aspect to the experience of walking. According to ecologist Liam Heneghan, writing about the naturalist Robert Lloyld Praeger whose book The Way that I Went is the inspiration for both walkers and naturalists alike, embarking on 1000 miles of walking means entering into “a spirit of openness to the world, a type of attentiveness that Praeger insists one can cultivate only on foot”. There is no act more transformative in a car-dominated and polluted world than to simply walk for the sake of it and enjoy it.

Sadhbh O’Neill is a researcher in climate and environmental policy