Sierra Magazine


Step by Step

by Editor-in-Chief Joan Hamilton

Through his 1990 book, The Experience of Place, author Tony Hiss has taught thousands how to take a walk. Not the kind of marching you might do when your thoughts are focused on your next appointment or the latest political puzzlement. But a more open-eyed, satisfying kind of ramble. You venture out the door, into your neighborhood, and assess the sights and sounds around you. You notice that some settings invite you to slow down, look, listen--maybe even socialize. Others make you feel uncomfortable, so you lower your head, quicken your pace.

This kind of a walk is more than an interesting exercise. Hiss maintains it can foster a civic awareness that is the first step toward building more livable communities. "Paying attention to our experiences of place, we can use our own responses, thoughts, and feelings to help us replenish the community we love," he says. "We each have a contribution to make."

After 31 years as a staff writer at the New Yorker, Hiss is now a visiting scholar at New York University and author of 11 books. The two volumes about his father, Alger Hiss, a U.S. diplomat accused of spying for the Soviets in the 1930s, have attracted the most attention. But the core of his work--what has drawn this shy man out of his office to lead seminars and spearhead environmental projects--is the link between land and people. "Places have a real impact on us," Hiss says. "They can help us reconnect with the rest of creation and find fellowship with other human beings."

Currently at work on a book about transportation, in this issue of Sierra Hiss does a bit of traveling himself. In "Man About Towns," Hiss shadows fast-moving community organizer Dan Burden, a one-man source of solutions for cities with social and environmental problems. Though masters of different professions, Hiss and Burden are both devoted to helping people deal with sprawl--one of the unprecedented challenges of the 21st century. "How do we make sense of these oversized urban areas that have never existed before--one hundred to three hundred miles across?" Hiss asks. "How do you create any sense of common purpose, any sense of connectedness?"

While asking tough questions, both men still manage to foster hope. Civic improvement can start simply, with one person taking a walk.

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