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.

Better than AirBNB: The Affordable City

Better than AirBNB: The Affordable City

A little over a year ago now, I was walking around the Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon. It was my first time in Portugal, and I was overwhelmed with how gorgeous everything was. I admired the trams, sweet pastels against azulejo-tiled buildings, and the narrow medieval streets winding up and down hills with views of the Tagus River meeting the sea. I romanticized everything, like travelers often do, imagining that one day, maybe, I could move here.

Lisbon’s purported beauty was one of the main reasons we had decided to go at all, drawn in by the idea of a city not yet crowded with tourists, at least a small distance from the usual bucket list destinations like Paris and Rome. My first impression was of a city that was beautiful yet approachable, with a wealth of culture and history but still very much a people’s city. Turns out, I was mistaken, but Lisbon itself wasn’t to blame. During my walk that day in the Alfama, still soaking everything in, I came across a phrase spray painted on a wall: 

“Fuck AirBNB

We want to live here”

Despite how comfortable I had felt in Lisbon, local life was being affected directly by the thing I was benefitting from. The message was for people exactly like me. We had booked an apartment on AirBNB for the trip, without having encountered critiques of the service before. Seeing that message, nestled among other graffiti, I thought again about the apartment we had rented. When we had checked in a few days earlier, it was clear that it was not the only apartment our host owned. I hadn’t encountered such a commercial AirBNB before, as my only other AirBNB experience had been staying in the other side of a young couple’s duplex in New Orleans. And, despite being an urban studies student, I hadn’t come across the many articles on the perils of AirBNB that I would read soon after.

So, I was staying in one of several investment properties in a desirable neighborhood in Lisbon. A place where, because of those kinds of investment properties, local people were no longer able to live. I found myself indisputably part of the problem. Is it the fault of people like me that apartments have gotten too expensive, that long-term rentals are disappearing from the market to instead be listed on AirBNB, rented week by week year-round? I was also staying in an AirBNB because it was a third, if not a quarter, of the cost of a hotel. It was a sweet apartment, convenient, and for a few days I got to pretend I really was living in this incredible new place.

I am certainly on the privileged side of the AirBNB debate, the one who gets to stay in a nice apartment while others confront limited housing options. I haven’t personally been priced out of a place I used to live. But, even if I stopped staying in AirBNBs altogether (I do avoid them, due to my own ethical dilemma), there are plenty more people like me, which is why AirBNB is so successful to begin with. 

A tram in the Alfama District of Lisbon

It’s my responsibility to understand the implications of my choice to stay, or not stay, in an AirBNB property, but as an individual I am not able to change the impact the company has had, as much as I try to improve my own actions. What does have the capacity to protect communities and housing markets from AirBNB is strong local policy committed to prioritizing affordable housing and livable neighborhoods. 

New Orleans, which is now at the forefront of the struggle with regulating AirBNB, has introduced several policies in the last couple of years with the aim of protecting the hospitality industry that is so central to the city’s economy while promoting and preserving affordable housing in a rapidly gentrifying city.

Most recently, New Orleans City Council member Kristen Gisleson Palmer introduced a ban on ‘entire home’ short-term rentals, allowing hosts to rent extra space as long as they are also on the property. This prevents homes from serving exclusively as short-term rentals, bringing different neighbors to a neighborhood every week, and removing housing from a market that desperately needs it. New Orleans ranked in the top ten cities at risk of a housing crisis last year, and while AirBNB is not the sole cause of the city’s housing troubles, stronger regulations are certainly part of the solution.

New York City faces similar issues, with an already deeply strained housing market and a bustling tourist industry. New York has also been found to have a large quantity of vacant apartments that serve as investment properties, like the one I stayed at in Lisbon. Stronger regulation of short-term rentals and vacant apartments, for instance taxing those investment properties as described by Adele Peters in an article for Fast Company, is part of a toolkit cities need to adopt in order to maintain, or perhaps regain, affordability.

That being said, the profound importance of public policy should not excuse individuals from their responsibility to promote inclusivity in their cities and towns. Yes, it’s unlikely that as an individual I can make much of a dent in AirBNB’s actions as a company or the massive scale on which they operate. However, I can vote. I can advocate for better housing policy. I can act in solidarity with those struggling to remain in their homes or find a home at all. Piece by piece, and lot by lot, we can all contribute to creating more equitable and inclusive cities. We have a responsibility to push our cities to be better, not as investments but as homes and communities. 

Winter 2019