The Science of Taking a Walk

Schmitz recommends going down the trodden path in a new way: Leave the car at home one day, for example, and brave the morning commute by bike or on foot.

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Published March 5, 2007 by DW-World.de 
By DW Staff 

As if being a tenured professor wasn't good enough, Martin Schmitz's job is a real walk in the park – literally. Professor Schmitz holds Germany's only chair of "promenadology," or the science of walk-taking.

What may sound like a religious cult to the layman is in fact an official course of study at the University of Kassel, in the central German state of Hessen. And though it may seem silly to dedicate an entire field of study to the simple act of taking a walk, promenadologists say there is more to it than putting one foot in front of the other.

 

"It's all about the concentrated and conscious perception of our environment," Professor Martin Schmitz explains. He accepts that technology changes the way people perceive the world, but progress need not blind people to the world around them, the 50-year-old professor mused. "More and more people are looking for idyllic scenery, yet they continue to aspire towards the cities."

 

By examining this apparent contradiction, promenadology also borrows from sociology and other fields.

 

In fact, when the Swiss professor Lucius Burckhardt developed the science of walk-taking during the eighties, he explicitly based his new discipline on elements of sociology, anthropology and urban studies. But the field never really caught on, and when Professor Burckhardt died four years ago, the nascent field was in danger of heading to the grave with him.

 

But Burckhardt's former student, Martin Schmitz, took over his mentor's work and now heads the one-man university department. Among his work is a paper he wrote in the early 1980s called "Ambulant Eating in the City." The essay was later adapted in a book, "Currywurst with Fries: On the Culture of the Takeaway Joint," required reading for any aspiring promenadologist.

 

"Details are superfluous"

 

Prof. Martin SchmitzBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift:  Martin Schmitz is walking — and perceiving

Schmitz offers a history lesson of a different sort. "Our view of the countryside has rapidly changed," he said.

 

The first revolution came with the railroad. The locomotive's unprecedented speed blurred the details of any landscape, forcing its passengers to perceive less. By the time cars and airplanes were around, says Schmitz, people had gotten so used to rapid transport that they didn't bother to stop and see the roses.

 

"Thus, even when he goes for a walk, modern man misses details that his ancestor surely would have noticed," he said.

 

Thanks to Google Earth and GPS, we are ever better at finding our way, without actually seeing it.

 

In addition to not noticing the world around us, Schmitz warns of a tendency to "Disneyfy" it.

 

"Today, all we need are two or three building blocks: beach, palm trees and ocean equals the South Sea; mountains, forest and snow equals the Alps. Details have become superfluous and are no longer appreciated," he said.

 

But there is still hope for humanity, and promenadology is here to help. Schmitz recommends going down the trodden path in a new way: Leave the car at home one day, for example, and brave the morning commute by bike or on foot.

 
"It's all about opening people's eyes and bringing the world that surrounds us back into their consciousness," he said. "People just have to perceive this natural cinema again — things like the changing weather."