Urban history hikes are modeled on nature hikes. In the traditional version, a naturalist leads a group of intrepid walkers through a forest, park or wetland pointing out interesting landscape features, identifying trees, flowers and other plants, and sharing information about insects, birds and small mammals. The purpose of the hike is to help walkers learn about the local environment and to gain a greater appreciation for it.
For an urban history hike, change local environment to local history, substitute buildings for trees and old signs for landscape features. Don’t be intimidated by the word “urban.” History hikes work in small towns and suburban neighborhoods just as well as they do in cities.
It’s not necessary to have a large area to explore. In fact, it’s counterproductive. Forget the big picture and zero in on one or two blocks or a single street. The idea is get people to slow down, open their eyes and really look at their surroundings.
The suggestion that familiar places hold clues to the past captures the history hikers’ imaginations and opens the door to the immersive, engaging experiences people want.
Urban history hikes are perfect cross-generational family activities. They are great for teens, senior citizens, young adults or random groups of people who simply show up to join the walk.
An urban history hike can be put together with next to no overhead. The minimal (and optional) cost of creating handouts of vintage images of the neighborhood plus whatever you spend on promotion should cover it. If you don’t have old photos of your target area, read our article on Finding Vintage Images.
If you decide to charge for the hike, you’ll enjoy an excellent profit margin. If profit isn't important, consider offering it free to attract new members or as a gesture of goodwill to your community.
Another possibility is to offer it free or at a very low price in exchange for the hikers’ honest feedback on how the experience could be improved. Read our Ready, Fire, Aim article for more information on running test events.
Designing the Hike
Go to the area you plan to tour and look around. What have you overlooked during past visits? What captures your attention?
Plan your route so the hike lasts about 90 minutes. The real hike will take longer than you expect, even if you’ve got a group of energetic kids. It takes longer to walk with groups than it does when you’re alone or with just a few people. Your hike should not feel like a forced march. You want the hikers to enjoy themselves, be able to ask questions and take pictures. Plus you can only go as fast as your slowest walker. What you think will take 90 minutes will probably end up taking closer to two hours.
Historic elements vary town to town and region to region. Here are the ones we cover on a walk through a small, 1900-era downtown.
- Fragments of railroad and trolley tracks
- Old permanent signs on buildings and embedded into sidewalks
- Ghost ads
- Flood markers
- Blackened walls, burn marks and other evidence of fires
- Old foundations
- Empty lots, especially interesting if you have old photos of what used to be in the spaces
- Alleys and the backs of buildings
Make sure everyone knows cameras are welcome. If you’re using copies of vintage photos as handouts include a few opportunities for hikers to set up "Then and Now" shots. Design the tour route so they can stand in the same place the original photographer did and try to reproduce the image.
Invite the hikers to share their favorite pictures from the tour or the "Then and Now" collages they create. Feature them on your Facebook page or website. Don’t forget to encourage the hikers to take selfies along the route and to post them on social media. There’s nothing like free word of mouth advertising to kindle interest for the next hike.
Want more tour ideas and suggestions on how to run successful programs? Check out Create Walking Tours People Love.