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.

Mixed Messages of Inclusion on New York City’s High Line

Walking along the High Line over the streets of Chelsea on a sunny day, it’s easy to see why the repurposed rail bridge has gained such fervent acclaim in design circles. The High Line is an innovative example of adaptive reuse, made possible by the organized efforts of Friends of the High Line. Despite its triumph as a design project and as a green space, how the park functions in its context points to flaws in its creation as well as flaws in the city itself.

Visitors gather on tiered benches at the High Line

Affordability

The creation of the High Line had an explosive effect on property values near the park. Real estate prices skyrocketed after the High Line’s construction, primarily within a couple of blocks of the park’s location. Josh Barbanel reported on this ‘halo effect’ in his 2016 article for the Wall Street Journal. This kind of boom is to be expected near an amenity like a new park, especially in such a dense city. Unfortunately, the majority of housing around the High Line is market-rate, leaving out anyone who can’t afford a luxury apartment. In one apartment building next to the park, a studio apartment starts renting at $3,215. An apartment in the Spears Building sold for $350,000 in 1997, $2.2 million in 2008, and $3.15 million in 2016.

Participation

The High Line’s design process did not effectively include the community because it did not take into consideration how the park could meet local residents’ needs. While there were participatory elements in the design process, the input residents were asked for was not oriented around their needs as a community. The executive director of Friends of the High Line, Richard Hammond, discussed the flawed process and the group’s new approach an interview with CityLab’s Laura Bliss for her 2017 piece on the High Line.

The flaws in the High Line and its effect on the surrounding neighborhood emerge from both a poor inclusionary process for the original community and the failure of New York City to protect and provide for low-income residents.

Inclusion

The High Line also operates on a contradictory logic of inclusion, at once advocating for an inclusive public space yet explicitly monitoring and restricting who should have access:

Informational signs encourage visitors that they are welcomed, but warn against giving money to panhandlers

The message of the first sign is essential to ensuring inclusive public space, and is admirably explicit during a time of increasing social and cultural division. All people should be able to freely access and benefit from public space as equal members of a community and a city. Why, then, should the needy be excluded? Why should poverty be criminalized even in spaces that tout philosophies of inclusion? The exclusion of the needy from the public realm can only lead to greater bias against and fear of those in poverty or suffering from homelessness, and prevents communities from the self-reflection necessary for positive change.

Andy Merrifield, quoting Marshall Berman, identifies public space as an environment in which “a whole society might begin to confront its collective repressions to call up the specters that haunt it and look them in the face.” One of the specters that residents may be called to face in unrestricted public space is the existence of those in need.

Merrifield asserts in his own words that “a democratic and ‘open-minded’ public space would ensure the shock of recognition” of the existence of poor people. Berman calls this confrontation a way to ‘grow up in public.’ Shared space calls on people to truly share their world and bear witness to its realities. Through this confrontation, communities can begin to critique and improve their social conditions. If the High Line is yet another tool in the city for policing the homeless and impoverished, attempting to erase them from the public eye and cementing their image as a threat, it can’t possibly serve its community and city as a truly public space.

Excluding impoverished people from public spaces denies those people the recognition they deserve as legitimate city residents, while also denying entire communities the responsibility and opportunity of self-reflection and improvement presented by confronting their own realities.

Work cited: Andrew Merrifield, Metromarxism: A Marxist Tale of the City, 169–170. 2013.

This piece was originally written in Summer 2018.

Homelessness in the Welfare State

During June of 2017, Danish parliament passed an anti-begging measure to discourage panhandling. The following month, within a fourteen-day span, five people were arrested in Copenhagen by plainclothes officers for begging in public places. When my urban design professor mentioned to us during the first week of classes that panhandling is illegal in Copenhagen, I couldn’t believe there was even a homelessness problem to begin with. Coming from the United States, I had understood the Danish welfare state to be a relative utopia of democratic socialist policy without knowing how that might manifest in daily life. Even after going to Denmark and learning more about how the welfare state operates, it strikes me as a surprising struggle for a country with a famously tightly woven social safety net.

It doesn’t take much digging, however, to notice the increasingly complex approach to issues of squatting and homelessness in Copenhagen. As more central neighborhoods get tapped for redevelopment and public space is further commodified, homelessness is being relegated further away from the public realm. Local ignorance regarding homelessness in Denmark makes the decriminalization of homelessness and poverty unlikely, too. A study on perceptions of homelessness in Copenhagen and one of its suburbs identified a theme in residents’ understanding of homelessness: The Danish government provides assistance to those in need, so why wouldn’t someone take it if they had to? Homelessness must be a choice.

Generally, those most removed from daily urban life (in this case, residents of the more expensive and suburban Hellerup neighborhood) were more likely to hold such convictions. The interviewees from Copenhagen proper had more varied responses, with a more sympathetic bent. What the study found was, unsurprisingly, that homelessness is not a choice but rather a matter of repeated poor circumstances that strip away a person’s economic and social resources. This can make it difficult for folks struggling with homelessness, often along with addiction or mental illness, to go through the official steps to claim their benefits. They may not even know they are qualified for the benefits in the first place. And even then, there have been reports of government employees turning people away for their behavior while visiting the office to fill out paperwork.

Clearly, there are social and bureaucratic barriers that still keep those experiencing homelessness from getting the help they need. This condition is not unique to any city. Thankfully, Denmark has such a strong welfare system that homelessness is unlikely to reach the proportions it has in the United States. The criminalization of poverty and need, however, does nothing to help the most vulnerable residents in any city. Denmark’s recent anti-squatting laws are only the most recent legal apparatus developed for clearing urban space for more desirable occupants; but it is certainly not their first or most dramatic attempt to do so (for example, the destruction of the Youth House, which involved police violence and mass arrests). As redevelopment and gentrification continue here and in cities around the world, protection and resources for those least likely to benefit should remain a priority.

Public space is not public if it isn’t for everyone.

Welcome to People City

People City is made up, but you’ll recognize pieces of it from where you’ve already been. If you’ve sat in the sun in a public plaza, listening to the fountain bubble and musicians play for passersby, you’ve been here before. The widest sidewalks and bike lanes you’ve ever navigated are here, too. The crowd of protesters downtown, who carried their painted signs rolled up on the subway en route to City Hall, are still chanting through the streets. If you’ve congregated with your neighbors on your front porch, stoop, or outside the local corner store, you’ll find yourself doing the same here.

People City represents a vision of the city as it might be, but not as a utopian dreamscape. My goal here isn’t to imagine away the realities of city life but rather to celebrate moments where cities do good by their people while critiquing where they fall short. I’m a student of cities, so this process is as much about learning for me as it is about sharing. This is a sketchbook of ideas, a journal of drafted thought. I hope you’ll bear with me.

The relationship between the city and its people is historically fraught. Industrial urbanization subjected masses of people to disastrous living and working conditions, yet made large-scale organizing (against those same conditions) possible. As the city grew to bursting it became a physical manifestation of structural inequality under capitalism. And in the post-WWII United States, those structural inequalities were demonstrated more viciously as white people fled to the suburbs, taking their privileged tax base away from inner cities and leaving already systematically oppressed citizens to fend for themselves. More recently that pattern has shifted, as wealthy and predominantly white suburbanites ‘rediscover’ the value of the city and move into spaces made available to them by the displacement of more vulnerable longtime residents.

As the gap continues to grow between the poor and the wealthy, the city likewise becomes polarized as a home for both. This along with the increasing privatization of formerly public goods and services means that the line between space for the people generally and space for the consumer specifically has become hazy. We are finally recovering from freeway-dominated mid-century planning practices, but those highways remain, and we still struggle with creating equitable and human spaces. We’ve seen towns and cities adopt principles put forward by New Urbanism, but are still deeply entrenched in an inequitable economic structure so that even something as simple as walkability becomes an issue of wealth and class.

Ultimately, though, the city can be a rich and vibrant place where all sorts of very different people can mix, which is why public space and human-centered design are so massively important. The potential of the city is that of communication, exposure, celebration, protest, and all that people as individuals and as a collective can bring to it. People City is that city: animated, yet imperfect, and above all allied with its people.

Summer 2018