Breaking the time machine: How to slow the pace of city life

Reclaim urban space by moving through it at your own pace.


The speed of urban life has been noted for centuries. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared the city a “whirlwind” back in 1761. Fast forward two hundred years, and a study in the journal Nature found scientific proof that the “pace of life varies in a regular fashion with the size of the local population, regardless of the cultural setting.” That is, cities move fast. In his song Empire State of Mind, rapper Jay-Z speeds from Brooklyn to Broadway to Harlem in three and a half minutes—an homage, in content and form, to the haste and hustle of the urban dream; “City is a pity, half of y’all won’t make it.”

But what exactly does ‘making it’ mean? More and faster isn’t always better. You can break (or at least take a break from) the relentless machine and ‘make it’ work for you, reclaiming urban space by moving through it at your own pace.

The way we experience urban space dramatically shifted in the twentieth century. Take London’s tube map. Published in 1933 and designed by engineering draftsman Harry Beck, it prioritised time over geographic space by documenting stations in even units to denote the journey time between them rather than actual distance. Deemed radical at first, it was ultimately voraciously accepted by Londoners in their attempt to command the increasing complexity and scale of their home. This model of city mapping has spread far and wide in our urbanising world.


slow city


But life can only go so fast. In 2010, poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron proclaimed, “Let me tell ya fast city living ain’t all, It’s cracked up to be… I need to go home, And slow down in Jackson, Tennessee.” Today, in the era of Headspace, Hygge and #pause, there’s plenty of evidence that more of us want to slow down. And the good news for urbanites is we don’t even need to leave the city to do it.

Even in speedy London, I’ve managed to successfully pace against the machine. I once spontaneously started wandering the five miles home from Bermondsey to Kentish Town. I vividly remember looking up at the sun bouncing between the tall buildings, knitting together places I’d previously thought disconnected or dispersed. There are mere minutes between Seti’s Sarcophagus at Sir John Soane’s Museum, a Thai green curry on Leather Lane, and the drilling sounds of the City renewing itself.

slow city

On those occasions when I decided to do my London commute by bike, I got to see the seasons change day to day in Hyde Park and whizz down Constitution Hill like I was ten years old again before passing the perennial pomp and properness of Buckingham Palace. One evening, on my way home, the sunset took my breath away. I stopped to take it in and it lives with me to this day in all its red, purple and orange glory.

slow city

As engineer Daniele Quercia says, “Efficiency can be a cult.” So he and a group of researchers at Yahoo are developing crowdsourced maps that find the quietest, happiest and most beautiful—not just shortest and fastest—routes between urban locations. Their next step is to make the maps available on a variety of mobile platforms to change the way we experience cities.

On foot or by bike, a daily commute can turn into an opportunity to radically change the pace of your day. A weekend wander in your own concrete-covered backyard can reset your definition of ‘making it’ in the big city. Redrawing the mental map of your metropolis, moving through it at your own pace, can make it your own. So, fellow urban dweller, the next time you feel weary of the clock, remember that sometimes you can set it to your own time.


Follow Gael on Instagram at @gaelwelstead.