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  • Ken Ilgunas

NYT Op-Ed Addendum

I’m in the New York Times this morning!

My piece introduces the idea of bringing European walking rights (in which citizens are legally permitted to walk over private land) to the U.S.

If you’ve read the article and would like to learn more, here are a few lines and thoughts that didn’t make it into the final cut.

Americans don’t walk enough

This is no surprise to anyone. Our towns and cities have not been planned well and do not promote good civic, spiritual, and healthy lifestyles. Let’s just focus on the healthy thing for a second: It’s recommended that folks should be walking 10,000 steps a day (an Amish person gets 18,000 steps a day, I believe), but we Americans only walk an average of 5,117 steps a day, far fewer than the averages of the other countries the researchers studied, including Australia (9,695), Switzerland (9,650), and Japan (7,168). [1]

The United States of Private Land

By my count, America is 72 percent privately owned, the great majority of which is off limits to walkers. Even many of our public spaces, like national parks, are unroamable since we’re often forced to keep to trails and designated campsites. Therefore, America, home of the free, is ultimately unroamable. An American right to roam law — that properly balances concerns for the privacy and property of landowners — could open sections of our nation’s 614 million acres of grassland pasture, 408 million acres of cropland, and approximately 444 million acres of privately owned forest. [2]

Walking in the woods is better for you than walking on roads

This is obvious to anyone, but it’s important to point to good research that legitimizes common sense. In a pair of studies published in 2015, Stanford graduate student Gregory Bratman found that volunteers who were directed to walk through a green section of the Stanford campus had less anxiety, better memory, and experienced less “morbid rumination” than the volunteers who walked alongside heavy traffic in Palo Alto. [3]

The Right to Roam Society

What’s next for the presently-nonexistent “right to roam” movement in the U.S.? It makes sense to me to create a Right to Roam Society, or an American chapter of the U.K.’s “Ramblers.” The Ramblers are a walking advocacy group in the U.K., which is influential and powerful and which fights for the walking rights of ordinary citizens. A similar organization ought to be developed in the U.S. that would bring together folks who ought to think about ways we can throw our weight around. There’s absolutely no chance for a national law anytime soon. But there are plenty of battles to be won on the state level, like with opening up private coastlines so that the public can access them. Right to roam activists and lawyers and writers could work together on winning these battles and opening up the country, albeit in a piecemeal fashion

Would a right to roam law even work in the U.S.?

One of the things I don’t address in the piece are the challenges (outside of the constitutional challenges) that might get in the way of a successful American right to roam program. When you look at the countries with generous right to roam systems (Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Finland), you can’t help but notice that these are countries that have achieved something close to “democratic magnificence.” These countries don’t have the same disparity of wealth problems that we do. They’re impressively egalitarian. And they have strong social safety nets. There just isn’t the same abject third-world poverty in these countries that we find in parts of the U.S.

So perhaps a country first needs to satisfy the basic needs of its countrymen and women before it can think about a national right to roam law. Having walked through an impoverished section of Oklahoma, I acknowledge that a right to roam system simply wouldn’t work there. There’s already too much theft and guns and crime and paranoia. There, a right to roam system wouldn’t make any sense.

You can also argue that American towns and cities and suburbs have been built in such a way that many citizens wouldn’t get to take advantage of a right to roam law since there are no worthwhile green spaces within walking distance. What green spaces are there for your typical suburbanite, who’s surrounded by nothing but more suburban homes and backyards. City dwellers, too, would be largely unaffected by such a law. It’s sad to say, but a right to roam law would do a lot of nothing for a great many Americans.

Other right to roamers

There are very few Americans talking about the right to roam. As far as I can tell, my piece is the first in the mainstream press. There are, however, several law scholars who have written about other countries’ right to roam laws, and who often make the case that we should consider the possibility of bringing it to the U.S. Here’s a little bibliography of essential works:

1. Jerry Anderson is a Drake University Law Professor. He wrote a nice overview of the English and Welsh roaming law while commenting on it’s feasibility in the U.S. “Britain’s Right to Roam: Redefining the Landowner’s Bundle of Sticks.”

2. John Lovett is a Loyola Law Professor. He wrote a solid background of the Scottish roaming law. “Progressive Property in Action: The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.”

3. Brian Sawers is a scholar in residence at Emory University. He wrote a piece on the history of roaming rights in the U.S. “The Right to Exclude from Unimproved Land.”

4. Malcolm Combe is a law scholar from Scotland and one of the foremost experts on the Scottish right to roam. He has a blog here.

Citations in this blog post

[1] “Pedometer-Measured Physical Activity and Health Behaviors in U.S. Adults.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: October 2010 – Volume 42 – Issue 10. (Page 1822-23).

[2] “Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2007.” USDA. (Page i)./ “Forest Resources of the United States, 2012.” USDA. (Page 6).

[3] Gregory N. Bratmana, Gretchen C. Daily, Benjamin J. Levy, James J. Gross. “The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition.”Landscape and Urban Planning 138 (2015). (Page 41).

[4] “Statistical Report of State Park Operations: 2013-2014.” National Association of State Park Directors. (Page 9) The table compiled acreage from states including state parks, recreation areas, natural areas, historic areas, among others. / “Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data.” Congressional Research Service. December 29, 2014.


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