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Will modern-day flaneurs help rebuild fragmented communities?

Nika Stella-Sawicka

1st September, 2009

In the age of high-speed travel, walking - alone or in groups - is the foremost way to reconnect to cities, our environment and one another

In the 1960s, the French Situationists coined the term ‘psychogeography' to describe a radical method of mapping cities. Through aimless walks, they would recover what was unnoticed in the urban landscape, performing a phrenology of all nooks and crannies in the Parisian metropolis. The revival we see today in the idea of the flâneur as a writer of cities - through the work of Will Self, Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair and Stewart Home amongst others - should inspire us all to look at walking as a form of urban participation in greater detail. As a community activity that can be freely undertaken in groups or individually, one that raises awareness of our surroundings and fosters connections between people, walking should be seen as powerful technique for defragmenting communities that have been hijacked by mass culture and capitalism.

The joy of strolling

For me, it all began with Will Self and a trip to Paris. Sat on the Eurostar late one Friday evening, faintly aware of the blurred landscape of fields and French farmhouses whizzing past me, I found myself engrossed in ‘Psychogeography', Will Self's and Ralph Steadman's collection of short pieces reflecting on the connections between people and space. My frame of reference set as I strolled around the narrow historic streets of the Marais the following day, I noted my own curiosity as to what lay behind the intricate facades and towering wooden gates guarded by lion-headed door knockers. Meandering without fixed destination and mapless, I was hopeful that the city would reveal to me some treasured secret as yet undetected on the tourist radar.

The experience did indeed reveal some hidden worlds [secret gardens, lost cafes, canalside refugees camps] but most excitingly, it unearthed in me an emotional connection to the rhythms of the city and a deeper understanding of how we as urban walkers connect and disconnect with the city and spaces around us. This understanding of how we as human beings relate to our immediate environment is, I believe, a fundamental prerequisite for creating responsible citizens and a basis for sustainable communities.

Speedy living

'We stumble, walking wounded from the intray to the teatray, numb with disbelief, and when the bandages come off, we do not recognise ourselves, our bruised expressions, our ill-fitting lives. How did we become these wraiths in treadmill corridors?
What were we before we were this?'
A Moore, A Disease of Language (2005)

We city dwellers fly though our lives as if there were no tomorrow. Division of labour has resulted in people being treated as commodities - no more than cogs in a giant machine that turns relentlessly, regardless of our toils and troubles. We get up, catch a train, grab breakfast on the run, sit a computer for 8 hours, catch a train, go back to bed and live equally fast on the weekend - relaxing at the speed of light. The cycle is set to speedwash - time is of the essence and efficiency is king. We are living in what Henryk Skolimowski (1995) described as the fourth great cycle of western mind, ‘Mechanos.'

'Mechanos has been the worldview of modern times: it is based on the frighteningly simple yet powerful metaphor of the clockwork universe.'
Reason, 1998.

The supersonic speed at which we live in urban environments is unnatural, unhealthy and destructive and results in our inability to stop, see and notice. Such city living takes its toll on people and communities in many detrimental ways: bad health and stress; deteriorating local environmental conditions; social polarisation and crucially a lack of time to reflect - which prevents us from seeing the consequences of our actions on the larger global community. Rushing through our lives so quickly causes us to become disconnected from the places we dwell and work and we neglect to see what is happening around us. The prevalent growth of ‘non-places' and ‘clone towns' goes unchallenged surrounded by such apathy.

Becoming an urban explorer

Last summer, on a day of a tube strike, I accepted defeat as I stood at the end of a large queue of desperate but hopeful bus travellers - or so it might have appeared to onlookers as I turned away. But what I actually experienced was a dawning. As I stood at the edge of Hyde Park, under blue skies, on the other side of which was the mid point in my journey home, I asked myself why I was so desperate to get on a crowded bus when I could become an urban explorer for an hour or two. As I walked in to the park, I immediately felt myself slow down and relax. Ten minutes later and I was seeing and noticing cyclists, rowers on a lake, roller bladers and...other walkers. As I took part in this new form of urban travelling I began to feel connected to my fellow pilgrims - united in our quest to get home whilst (shock horror!) enjoying the journey.

Walking for pleasure as well as practical reasons allows us to understand what is important to us. What we value reveals itself with each step instead of whizzing past us and remaining hidden when we choose a four-wheeled mode of transport. Richard Register in his book Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature writes of pedestrian-orientated ecocities and situates urban living within the larger biosphere. This points to a new wave of pedestrian-friendly designed architecture as encapsulated in Paulo Solieri's visionary Arcosanti, an experimental town that aims to fuse the architecture with ecology and the New Urbanist movement where the emphasis is on mixed use community building, walkability, connectivity and public space rather than the homogenised urban planning we know so well.

Secret histories

Walking also fosters experiential knowledge and learning by revealing local stories and cultivating emotional connections with our surroundings through awareness of the contours, rhythms and patterns of our world. HistoryTalk is one organisation which unearths local stories, based on the premise that local histories and stories build social capital. By organising a variety of themed community walks, from those that uncover local sites of historical interest to Spanish or black communities for example, to cemetery walks that provide information about the famous and infamous people buried there - making people feel that they matter, inspiring pride based on ancient vibes and nurturing in them the confidence needed to participate as active citizens.

A commissioned series of local psychogeographic pamphlets by historian Tom Vague are HistoryTalk's attempt to counter the dissolution of community spirit in North Kensington and Notting Hill. This is a move away from the mass culture that has overwhelmed our communities towards a more folk-based culture where the myths and quirks of locality are revealed through the tapestry of local history.

Notable artist-led interventions that aim to foster urban connections include Janet Cardiff's Whitechapel walk ‘Missing Voice' (which can be sampled on her website www.cardiffmiller.com). Her narrative allows listeners a deeper engagement with the city, empowering the walker through access to secret histories rather than following established cartographic routes.

For me, walking the city has now become a means of satisfying that unquenchable thirst for adventure and curiosity that I believe to be emblematic of human nature. I see through new eyes, rather than feeling despair at crumbling walls, zombied unhappy people and static traffic by choosing to unearth what I now know is there - because I have free will. I hope to use the knowledge and insight it gives me to pass on stories and open other people's eyes, because if anything, walking helps to change our perspective of what we value through participation and when we recognise what we value, we can see what it is that we are trying to preserve.

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Nika Sawicka is a recent graduate of Exeter University's MSc in Sustainable Development, a permaculturist and a modern day flâneuse

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