Walking the City: Belonging & Identity

I spend a lot of time walking. Almost everything I need is within walking distance of where I live, which is an enormous luxury, and I have a body that is able to get to most of those places on foot. Of course, whether or not something is within walking distance really depends on the person. Culturally we have a fairly normative idea of how bodies move through space, but what is accessible for some is definitely not accessible to all. The act of walking can be physically and socially accessible or inaccessible. Physically, each individual body has a different set of abilities. Despite this, cities are designed with a particular idea of a standard body, which then limits many people’s access to them. Socially, the feeling of access or belonging in space has been manufactured and restricted over time, making walking a highly subjective experience depending on one’s identity and expression. These types of inaccessibility have personal impacts, but they also limit how we plan our cities.

Who gets to be a flâneur?

Walking is not an exclusively urban act, but the image of the urban walker plays an important role in history. The idea of the flâneur is perhaps the most recognizable archetype of someone walking in a city. The flâneur, Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 term which Walter Benjamin introduced “into the academy,” was composed of several ideas (Stephen). Firstly, the flâneur is a male figure. Second, the most technical definition of the word is that of a “stroller” or “loafer,” per the Tate Modern (Tate). Their signature activity was the distant observation of modern life as they strolled through the growing cities of this period.

A more complex image of the flâneur, however, is one of a “modern artist-poet” who was at once an “amateur detective” and a “sign of alienation of the city and of capitalism” (Stephen). The flâneur was not simply a natural progression of human behavior but a direct result of the emerging capitalistic city of the 19th century. The flâneur archetype is one of privilege and yet also of anonymity. Anonymity is an important theme when discussing walking in the city, as it is only afforded to those privileged enough to pass by unnoticed.

It is easy to assume that all urban walkers in history have been male. But of course, this is mostly a result of a lack of documentation. Lauren Elkin addresses this lack in her book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City (2015). In an interview with Arnav Adhikari at the Atlantic, Elkin identifies some key figures as flâneuses, or female walkers. These figures include Virginia Woolf and George Sand as well as war reporter Martha Gellhorn, whose “technique [was] to wander the streets of Madrid to get the story from people on the ground” (Adhikari).

Elkin’s discussion of the ways women have occupied the role of urban observer expands the definition of what a flâneuse is beyond the conditions of a flâneur. For instance, Elkin points out that since the city has never been a neutral space for women, they can instead go the opposite route of the flâneur and consciously adopt “extreme un-detachment” and “instead choose to be very engaged.” (Adhikari). In this way, the flâneuse is not simply a mirror image of the flâneur- not just a woman adopting the same values of a male standard- but is instead a unique archetype with its own historic and social significance.

The “little mysteries” of walking the city

As the slowest and most intimate form of transportation, walking involves a direct physical connection to the earth (or at least the street). It places the body in direct contact with the elements and allows it to observe the intricacies of a place that get blurred together when passed at a greater speed.

There’s an illusion within modernist planning that is still present today that a neighborhood or city can be fully understood if it is measured or observed correctly. Matt Green offers an alternative approach to the city that centers on its inherent mystery. In his walks through every neighborhood in New York City, Green discusses the “little mysteries” and “visual discoveries” that he has learned to read, and that may or may not lead to something interesting (The New Yorker).

Another man, the late author, and scholar William Helmreich, famously took on the same project of walking every block of New York City- approximately 6,163 miles (Chang). He maintained that walking was the best way to explore the city and get a real sense of each neighborhood. Anonymity was a part of his strategy- ahead of a profile by The New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman, Helmreich advised Rothman to dress casually in order to not stand out too much on their walk (Rothman). However, Helmreich did not act as a removed observer on his strolls around New York. He made a point to make eye contact with passersby, say hello, and engage with whoever he could. By not being selective about his interactions, Helmreich aimed to get a decent “cross-section” of the area (Rothman).

Helmreich’s tactic strikes a balance between the flaneur’s imagined objectivity and Elkin’s “extreme un-detachment.” He described the ways in which walking so many neighborhoods helped him debunk stereotypes of those communities, getting a more authentic feel for their character and quality.

While Helmreich’s work is pioneering in its intimate exploration of the city at the micro-scale, it is worth noting that even if he was aiming for anonymity, Helmreich’s whiteness and male body granted him inherent access to the city in ways that other bodies may not have experienced in the same way. Rather than disqualifying his findings (or discouraging others to undertake a similar project), it simply adds a lens to the work which would shift depending on who is doing the walking.

Walking in nature and subjective belonging

The physiological and psychological experiences of walking are the focus of Frédéric Gros’s book A Philosophy of Walking (2014), in which Gros explains various (white, male) philosophers’ relationships with walking. Gros also elaborates on his own convictions on walking and notes other cultural practices involving walking, including a pilgrimage to Tibet’s Mount Kailash or the Huichol people’s annual “great peyote walk” associated with cosmic rebirth and harvesting (Gros, p. 122-124).

Overall, the image Gros paints in his reflections on walking is very specific, taking place mostly away from towns and instead through ideal, unspoiled nature. However, the idea of an unspoiled landscape (at least in the United States) is largely a myth-making tactic rooted in speculative Westward expansion and the erasure of Native American populations and cultures. Plus, these days, “nature” does not really exist, as the impacts of human development completely permeate every ecosystem.

Whatever version of landscape that Gros is situating these philosophers in, he still falls into the trap of assuming that bodies in nature are inherently neutral. However, as with the case of the flâneur/flâneuse, identity plays a key issue in how one experiences their surrounding environs.

A helpful challenge to Gros’s portrayal of landscape is Jamaican scholar and poet Jason Allen-Paisant’s lyric essay “On Being a Black Body in ‘Nature.’” In this “walking lyric,” Allen-Paisant examines the long-held cultural default of white bodies ‘belonging’ in nature, those bodies’ right to watch and observe nature, and their assumed right to leisure and slowness. Beginning his critique through the lens of nature writing, Allen-Paisant asks why nature writing “does not address the concerns of people who look like me?” He observes that the white body lacks the “existential uncertainty of belonging” that Allen-Paisant identifies within himself (Settee Seminars).

Allen-Paisant frames walking as a subjective experience depending on one’s identity, rather than something that is inherently anonymous or neutral. In discussing his experience walking in a park in London during November of 2020, Allen-Paisant intertwines issues of capitalism, colonialism, and identity. On one hand, the park is the sole refuge of “nature” available to most of its visitors- visitors who are “released” from their labors on Sundays and spend that time in the park.

However, Allen-Paisant also notes that dog-walking, a popular activity at the park, is a uniquely “Northern white bourgeois ideal vested in ownership and property.” As people walk their dogs through the park, they express certain ownership of the space. Such feelings of entitlement to space are linked to money and privilege, what Allen-Paisant calls an “unhindered relation to space,” as opposed to his own. Allen-Paisant wonders about the specificity of his own physical experience in space, and how it differs from that of others, asking, “what is it to walk in this body?”

Our identities change how we walk the city

Despite what mid-20th century Modernist planners would have had us believe, cities have been planned according to subjective social concerns for decades. Redlining created extreme racial segregation in American cities which is still very much intact today. Highway construction and suburban development created spaces for white families to flock towards ethnic and economic homogeneity. These types of planning legacies create messages of belonging and non-belonging that are built into the city and felt on an individual level depending on the context and the individual’s identity. As Gabby Tuzzeo notes in her article on flâneuses, the city can at once be a “performance space and hiding place” (Tuzzeo).

Thank you for reading! This blog is a passion project, so if you enjoy it, please consider subscribing to email notifications and @thepeoplecity on Instagram. If you would like to read more about walking, here are a few books that informed this piece-

The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City by William Helmreich (2013)

Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin (2015)

A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros (2014)

Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont (2016)

And here are the sources referenced in this piece-

Adhikari, Arnav. “The Case for the Flâneuse.” The Atlantic. 2017. 

Chang, Ailsa. “William Helmreich, Sociologist Known for Walking Every Block of New York City, Dies,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio. 2020.

Gros, Frédéric. A Philosophy of Walking. Verso London. 2014. 

Rothman, Joshua, “A Walker in the City,” The New Yorker. 2013. 

Settee Seminars. “Jason Allen-Paisant- On Being a Black Body in “Nature”: A Walking Lyric,” 2021. 

Stephen, Bijan. “In Praise of the Flâneur,” The Paris Review. 2013. 

Tate, “Flâneur.”

The New Yorker, “The Men Walking Every Block in New York City,” 2015. 

Tuzzeo, Gabby. “The Flâneur and the Flâneuse: the culture of women who wander cities.” boshemia. 2021.

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