Arts + Design

Take an intentional walk — and experience your community in a whole new way

Feb 27, 2019 /

Try these five strategies to step out of your routine and wake up to the life around you, says urban explorer Eugene Quinn.

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community. To see all the posts, go here.

Boredom. Wanderlust. These feelings come and go throughout our days, and we tend to bat them away. But there’s a no-cost, passport-free way to satisfy them both.

How? By taking an intentional walk through your town or city, says Eugene Quinn, who leads unusual walking tours through his adopted hometown of Vienna.

“In Vienna, when people imagine taking a walk, they think of going to a lake or a park. I think that’s a mistake,” he says. “We should go for a walk in our own neighborhoods, rather than try to escape.”

What does he suggest? “Close your door on a Saturday morning, and go off in a direction you’ve never been before. Just walk in a direction for an hour, and see what happens.” Open up, he says, “to the potential of finding stuff by accident, finding yourself, and enjoying the freeness” of wandering without an objective.

Here are his five suggestions for how you can take an intentional walk.

1. Ignore the maps app on your phone.

When walking with a maps app, you’re directed to take a route that gets you there in the fewest steps. Instead, Quinn says, “Get lost. Don’t focus on your phone; it’s part of the problem.” Focus on spontaneity and serendipity rather than on your device, he says: “You’re going to get Instagram likes on your pictures or whatever, but they can wait.”

2. Take off your headphones.

As great as it is to have Beyoncé provide your personal score, “you lose more than you gain,” Quinn says. “You’re not really in the neighborhood you’re in.” Instead, tune into the rhythms around you instead: the conversations, footsteps, cyclists, cars, buses and trucks, sirens, dogs’ barks, bird calls. “Be open to ideas that come spontaneously to you from the soundtrack of your city or town,” he says.

3. Seek out connection.

We’ve all had a random interaction with a stranger — a passing remark or compliment, a shared laugh or glance — that lasted no more than a few minutes but made our day. These encounters can happen anytime, anywhere, but they’re more likely to occur when you’re not in a hurry or fixated on a destination. Chitchat with your barista, smile at the people you pass, give a compliment, or ask for directions.

4. Think like a child.

The father of a six-year-old, Quinn says children can be conducive to adventures. “I recommend everyone get one, if there’s one available,” he laughs. Kids point out objects, plants, businesses and people you’ve never noticed before and ask questions you haven’t considered. They may make you run or skip with them.

“I’ve learned so much from my son in terms of navigating public space, making friends, and dancing for no reason. For example, we wave every morning to the driver on the subway,” says Quinn. “When we first did that, the drivers thought something was wrong so they’d slow down. Now they wave back at us, they turn on the lights, and they beep the horn. They understand that finally someone is acknowledging the fact that there’s a driver in there.”

Even if you lack a young person to stroll with, you can bring a childlike attitude to your walk, or as Quinn puts it, “a heightened openness.” Imagine that you’re a visitor from another planet. What would stand out to you about the people you pass by? What about the buildings? What sights or practices would mystify you or pique your interest?

5. Choose a novel lens to examine your neighborhood.

When Quinn, a London native, first moved to Vienna, he was unemployed. In searching for an occupation, he found an unexploited niche among the tourist offerings: walking tours with a sense of humor. He says, “I saw an opportunity to play with Vienna’s image, because it’s famously a beautiful city. On our tour, we pass lots of beautiful buildings, but I ask the people not to look at them and just to look at the mistakes.” Another of his tours showcases 20 aromas in Vienna: 14 good smells and 6 bad smells.

Channel Quinn’s spirit, and come up with a special theme for your walk. You could sniff your way around, or you might decide to focus on the soundscapes — what he calls “the hustle and the flow” — of the streets or the changing color palettes or the trees and plant life (weeds count too). Or, you could rate each block according to this question from Quinn: “How fun is to walk through?”

Like any journey, your walk won’t be all intriguing sights and unforgettable exchanges. Says Quinn, “Of course, there are boring bits — that’s a part of walking and that’s a part of travel in general — but the very boringness of it becomes the subject.”

Watch his TEDxVienna talk here: