September 2008 Archives

the science of walking


I have a passion for walking in cities. As a pedestrian in the U.S. I often feel neglected, ignored, as design requirements of my pedestrian environment are placed far below the need to move as many vehicles through the streets as rapidly as possible. I was thrilled to find out, in a visit to SpaceFlaneurs blog, that there is actually a "walk science" (Spaziergangswissenschaft), at least at the University of Kessel in Germany. All the literature is in German, which I wish to learn now more than ever, as the online translators are very poor. Promenadologie, in German, translates to Strollology in English, which of course corresponds to Flanerie in French, and so on. Looking those up led to psychogeography and the dérive or "drift" of Guy DeBord, and a video of Will Self talking for almost an hour to Google techies, probably the ones responsible for Google Earth, about how finding your way by foot, or "eutechnical" means, is very different from finding your way by car, or plane, or even bicycle. Walking completely changes the map in your head, your knowledge of place. "Drift" or aimless walking, or strolling, is almost a political act, an act of independence. No one is telling you where you have to go, or what you should think is beautiful. If you have no set aim in mind, no ad jingle telling you to shop here or eat there, you just drift, stroll, taking in your surroundings, letting your mind work or wander at will. You are open to finding surprise and delight or at least to truly experience your surroundings, "open the doors to perception" as it were. Such a freedom of environment aids creative thinking - the Googleplex was designed to encourage "accidental" meetings between coworkers, where they can share ideas and create synergy. Kind of like a traditional neighborhood or city, with a place within which to invite and accommodate the stranger with their different ways and what they bring of value.

do cities need families?

Joel Kotkin questions whether cities meet, or even try to meet, the needs of families. He argues the case for the continuing importance of suburban communities as still being the most desirable places to raise children. It does seem to be part of a life cycle - young hip people live in cities; they mature, start families and move to the single-family house in the suburbs when children reach school age, then (sometimes) come back to the city as empty nesters. I am an urban empty nester myself; yet I still remember that powerful, urgent yearning for the house with the yard, when my son was young and I never gave a thought to the need to drive everywhere. I never had the advantage of the education provided by urban experience when I was younger.

And that, I think, is the important advantage of cities. They provide a very special education in diversity and civility, in rules of behavior for forming and maintaining a civilized society, in skills for negotiating the wide world of people different from ourselves in some way or another. The complexity of a city can increase brain activity and even cause parts of our brains to grow.

It is true that, to become family friendly, cities need more and better schools, and better enforcement of drug-free areas. There are, unfortunately, no expenditures in these areas unless the families are already there to be served - a non-fulfilling cycle on both sides. Yet there are some aspects of good urban areas that seem to be conducive to attracting families, and they are provided by: Gays and dogs.

Imagine Capitol Hill

The Capitol Hill neighborhood here in Seattle is an example. It is probably the most dense, diversely eclectic neighborhood in the city, with the greatest rep for cool and hip factors. It was made so by gays who colonized the area before it was "cool", urban pioneers looking for a neighborhood of their own. It then attracted hip young straights, who eventually started having children and just stayed in the neighborhood, pushing strollers. This is a recent phenomenon; time will tell whether, when the kids reach school age, these urban families will start looking for that single-family house.

Denny Regrade Dog Park

My downtown neighborhood is setting the stage for children through that child-substitute, the dog. Some days it seems like everyone out walking has a dog, as do most of my neighbors. I have mixed feelings about urban dogs. I like dogs as personages, generally, but I find it difficult to accept the amount of untreated pet waste that washes into Elliott Bay and our lakes. There's the "eeeww" factor as well. I was dumbfounded that our only internal neighborhood park, in the Denny Regrade, was given over to dogs. It has a fence and its own sculptures, flowers, wading pools, trees - all gone to the dogs. There are dog service businesses all around - grooming, vet, doggie day care. Someone explained to me that before it was a dog park, it was taken over by drug addicts; it made sense to me then. The drug activity is still around the edges (there is in fact a thriving open-air drug market); homeless and otherwise disenfranchised people come in to sit and watch the dogs play. When the young people with dogs start having children, will they bring children here to play? It's a benefit to everyone if they do; but the risks may be too great.

city form and mode of being

Is space intelligible, to be read like a language, a dialect of the urban dweller? Is it experiential, an apparition of phenomenology? Both? Is spatial inhabitation cognitive, or instinctual and automatic? Do we think about the space of our environment or are we just immersed in it, swimming in a sea of sensory information which doesn't require translation by our conscious mind? Does it depend upon what type of urban form we occupy, and how and why it came to be?

London taxi drivers grow bigger brains. The hippocampus of the cabbie's brain becomes enlarged in acquiring the "Knowledge" of the trade, a cognitive mapping of London's complex organic street system, far different from the rationalist grid. The form of spatial analysis called Space Syntax was also developed here, on the theory that urban spatial connections are intelligible in ways similar to the syntax of a language. This relates to mapping, wayfinding, using landmarks to find your place in the city, as Kevin Lynch described in The Image of the City. Space syntax analysis seems to work best for traditional, organic urban settlements, the sort that formed around trade routes and farm to market paths that were created by living creatures in motion, two or four-footed. Land development occurred within the form dictated by these routes. It's as if you took the sidewalk theory of the campus quadrangle - start with the open square, see where people make paths in the sod, and build the sidewalks there - and reversed it. Find the paths, and build the campus around them. Transportation drives development - this is worth repeating many times over.


Except for the exceptions. When land became a market commodity, urban form changed to facilitate the ease of real estate transactions. Land is divided into easily surveyed legal parcels; streets provide access to and legal addresses for the real estate. Transportation is channeled into these real estate access routes. This was done in Manhattan, and across the continent in the Cartesian grids of townships subdivided in square-mile sections, subdivided in turn down to sixteen 40-acre plots, all to turn land into commodity. This was a new way of visualizing space - no longer traversing an unpopulated wilderness in as direct a route as possible towards your destination; instead ticking off the various measures of the grid. The odd thing is this: The rationalist grid leads to mindless navigation. If streets are designed as traffic conveyances for machines, human cognition is not fully engaged, is barely present, secondary. Perhaps this is why you can see so many people walking along with eyes glued to the screen of their handheld digital device - either they're using GPS navigation or they don't need to think about where they are going (although they should be thinking about crossing streets and railroad tracks). Of course, pedestrians are probably doing the same in London and elsewhere; I just haven't had the opportunity to observe it, yet.

Texting while walking

Space syntax doesn't work well in analysis of how pedestrians move through a rational grid of streets. Other forms of spatial analysis using isovists provide useful measures for modes of being in all urban form typologies, even within the grid. While an isovist technically describes a visual field - everything that can be observed from a given point - it has more to do with direct spatial perception than with vision. Blind, or deaf, or no sense of smell - we still have multiple sensory avenues for perceiving our environment. Urban space, any space, has an environmental resonance in which we are immersed at a level beneath cognitive awareness, the level of our remnant lizard brain, of bodies in motion, moving eyes, breathing lungs, beating hearts, pulsing blood. It's about being fully alive where you are at the moment. If you happen to be in a great urban space, so much the better.

the stranger and the soul of the city


Native Seattleites have a reputation for having no discernible accent, and for being polite, if a bit cool. I think it's more on the side of caution. It's been said that the definition of a city is a "place where strangers meet" (Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man). Seattle is a very diverse city, a popular tourist destination, and very tolerant of people who are different, or downright "strange". We even have a weekly paper called The Stranger. When you're not sure just how someone you see on the street is going to react, being polite is a good strategy.

Bo Odyssey,

Cities traditionally had a place to draw strangers in and keep them for a while, where the residents could do business with them and keep an eye on them. It was typically an open space within the urban fabric, defined by walls of shops with residences above. Seattle has such a place in Pike Place Market. It attracts around 10 million visitors, strangers, each year. It is also a real neighborhood, with somewhere around 500 residents in affordable, senior, or market-rate housing above and behind the shops. The disenfranchised consider this their neighborhood, too, walking Pike Place and hanging out at Victor Steinbrueck Park, rubbing elbows with the tourists and offering a little genuine color. A place such as this which can truly accommodate the "Other" is the key to the urban nature of a great city, and is in fact the "soul of the city" as it has been proclaimed. Although programmed events take place here regularly, it is routinely a place for unscripted, unplanned interactions of the kind that give instruction in the need for behavior that might be called "civil", meaning an outward focus on what is taking place in the immediate environment of the city around you. An awareness of citizenship, even if temporary, is required.

Many eyes on the street Hanging out at Victor Steinbrueck Park

The experience of this public place can be powerful, and empowering. On my first visit here I had the most emphatic conviction that a city where something like this could exist must be a truly great city. I moved here two months later (I still have a strong Texas accent). I arranged my life so that I lived on one side of the market and worked on the other, and would be at the market two to five times a day. It is my neighborhood, more than any other. The small business owners, vendors and buskers who make this place work and watch over it daily know me as a regular. Nancy "Nipples" at the Creamery makes deliveries after hours to her long-time elderly customers who can no longer make it down to the Market. The guy who designed "Bridgid, the Milk Goddess" for her van lives over the Market. Jack Levy at Three Girls Bakery, classic curmudgeon, is the enforcer. He shouts at drivers honking at slow pedestrian traffic, and when the sidewalk is full calls to the uninitiated that "its okay to walk in the street - if a car hits you, sue them".

Jonny Hahn, a truly wonderful artist and gentleman, makes beautiful music on the piano. Larry at Lamplight Books knows my tastes and will direct me to new arrivals that he thinks will interest me. Corrine Porch, a lady from Texas in her 80's, sells the Real Change paper on the corner and leaves flowers on the fire hydrant. We discuss cornbread and our favorite greens (turnip for her, mustard for me). Ciao (wrong spelling, sorry) at Bayou on First cooks gumbo better than my Cajun Grandma (sorry, again, Grandma). She shares with me whatever fruit she is snacking on that day. She would prefer to offer classic French cooking, but the Preservation and Development Authority dictates what can be served or sold, trying to keep a sense of historic continuity. Change happens, but not too fast.

Jonny Hahn

The Market long ago moved away from its beginnings as a farmers market, although farmers still make a showing in season. It is always teetering on the brink of becoming something else, between socialist experiment and capitalist takeover, tourist trap and neighborhood  service center. There is careful balance and frequent conflict over what the Market is or should be and who it is for. The potential for conflict is an essential element of urbanity, as is learning to deal with conflict in a civil manner. This is one important way in which an urban neighborhood is different from a suburban neighborhood. In the city, there is an outward focus, looking out on the street and the life of the city. You learn to deal with your windows being somewhat public, as well. In the city you learn to keep your private individuality, to remain a stranger, even when people are all around you and much of your life is fairly public. The house in the suburb has a more inward focus, on the hearth and the life of the family, the private fenced backyard. The city is about diversity, strangers, and potential conflict; the suburb is homogeneity, like-minded people and escape from conflict. Which is more civilized? The very word comes from the Latin for "city".

Hence the popularity of our Public Market; it is a rare novelty. It also feels very safe, even to walk in the street.

modal conflict

We all want our own space. It seems a tremendously inequitable distribution of resources that so much of our public right of way is reserved for private motor vehicles. Here along multimodal Fifth Avenue there are still car-oriented businesses - auto service and rentals - with curb cuts in the sidewalk. Parking lots also do this. It's a conflict that the cars always win. A better urban form has alleys for all motor vehicle access and minimal curb cuts on the street.

Cars hogging the sidewalk

In this country separate pathways for bicycles are more often granted for recreational users than for commuters, and are often built on abandoned rail right of way, which we now more than ever need for new rail transit systems. Bicycle commuters are allowed on streets, but only the bravest and most experienced chance life and limb in commuter traffic. Dedicated bike lanes are still very rare and don't form a complete network for commuters. Sidewalks (in Seattle, not in all cities) are open to both cyclists and pedestrians, which is unfair to the citywalker in urban areas where sidewalks have many pedestrian and other users. When we allot a major resource (streets) to one group of users and leave all the others competing over a limited resource, it is not only an unfair and inequitable allocation; it pits less powerful user groups against each other when we should be combining our attentions towards the users receiving the lion's share. We could become the mouse that roared.

Celebrating Bike to Work month

Instead, we compete and inconvenience each other. I was all in favor of the Friday Critical Mass events that take over streets for cyclists, for a little while. I was all for putting bikes on streets instead of cars, until I became annoyed with the riders for not letting pedestrians cross the street. I understand why; but it's still annoying. A bicycle is a dangerous vehicle to the pedestrian, as the car or truck is to the cyclist. I know there is a difference. If a cyclist hits me, it hurts like hell and can cause severe injury to both parties. When a motorist hits a cyclist, the cyclist often dies while the motorist is unharmed. I still don't like sharing a busy sidewalk with cyclists who insist on their right to ride through pedestrian traffic. We shouldn't be forced to compete for public space in the first place.

A bicycle is a non-motorized vehicle. I've heard it said that cycling is just "a more efficient form of walking" but don't quite agree. Cycling has the efficiency of the wheeled vehicle; that efficiency is based on momentum. Like motor vehicles, if the cyclist has to stop frequently it takes more energy to start and gain momentum again. Thus, cyclists don't care to stop, for stop signs, traffic signals, or pedestrians. The responsible ones do anyway, of course, and I greatly appreciate responsible cyclists. They are ambassadors promoting a good cause.

I have a bicycle but am not an avid cyclist. Once in a while I'll take a scenic waterfront trail route for fun, or to get to a location not on a bus route and too far to walk to. I have ridden to work once, to see if it saved time over walking. Getting to work was easy, as there was a striped bike lane for much of the way. Getting into the garage, picking up my bike and hanging it on a tiny hook, then freshening up for work, more than ate up any time advantage. There was no bike lane in the homeward direction and evening rush hour traffic congestion is extreme. Being a slow and inexperienced bicycle commuter, I took to the sidewalks, where I most often got off and walked the bicycle to respect pedestrians. Bicycles take up a surprising amount of space, in respect to the sidewalk and other people. It's also an encumbrance. If you want to stop and do anything along the way, you have to do something with the bike. Bike facilities are insufficient for the number of cyclists using them. Then you have the helmet, the locks - excess baggage. I don't find urban cycling particularly enjoyable, but many people do.

Bikes over Post Alley Belltown: Bikes and Dining

Back to the point: Cyclists and pedestrians shouldn't be competing with each other. We need enough facilities for everyone. Aside from the environmental costs of private motor vehicles, they take up far more than their share of valuable space. Think of all the public funds used to construct paved roads and bridges that serve only a few individuals. Even in our cities, even here in Seattle, the major of our streets service low-density single-family neighborhoods. It's green, they say. We have more trees, they say. They also have more than their share of pavement. Residents of these low-density areas are less likely to have sidewalks and it's further to walk to bus routes and services. Right now when gas is expensive more people are riding the bus, and asking for sidewalks to get to the bus stop. I try to sympathize, but I think they already have more than their fair share of infrastructure. Here's an idea. Instead of building sidewalks, turn these low-density residential streets into woonerven. Add a few SEA Street planted curves and bulbs, make them inconvenient for cars to pass through. Make them very inviting and safe for people. Eventually, make them more urban, which is the real solution.

multimodal street


As a citywalker my preferred transportation mode is obvious. I prefer feet over vehicular mode. With feet on the ground all my senses are free to take in everything around me. I am fully engaged in the environment of the urban public realm that I love, interacting with it, acting upon it by observation, being acted upon in subtle symbiosis. This citywalker considers a bicycle to be a vehicle; and in the technical jargon a bicycle is a non-motorized vehicle. A wheelchair is considered foot traffic and an extension of the person. Everyone is a pedestrian at some time or other, yet out of necessity or preference many people have some other dominant mode of transportation for their daily travels.

On one of those gorgeous, sunny, temperate days we that we actually do get a fair share of in Seattle - I'll guess 100 or so, they just mostly happen to be all in a row during the summer months - walking along Fifth Avenue provides a glorious vision. On a good day you can see people in cars, on bicycles, walking on sidewalks, riding in buses, and in the Blue monorail car overhead (just refurbished; the Red car is next). At the transit hub at Fifth and Olive Way, there might be people boarding the bright Red car of the South Lake Union streetcar (there are also Purple and Orange), and people waiting for buses by the Westin and on Olive. King County Metro, Sound Transit, and Community Transit buses all come through here, in their various color schemes of green and gold and blue and white and the bus wrap ad of the day. There is even a taxi stand with cabs in yellow, orange, and chartreuse. This is the stopping point in downtown; most of the people in vehicles will be getting out to walk soon. It's good to have more street space for citywalkers; sometimes its very good to share, too.

Monorail, Red Car Orange Car, Streetcar Inaugural

taking back the streets: small encroachments

September 19 is National Park(ing) Day. Think about all those metered parking spaces in our public rights of way. Who says they're just for cars? Pay your rent at the meter and you can occupy the space for any legal purpose. Why not? It's incredibly cheap. A stall in a surface lot might cost you $4.00 an hour; a space on the street in front is just $1.25. What's fair about that? It's another giveaway to cars (their drivers, actually). If the city was charging market rate there would be a lot more revenue coming in - maybe we could even build sidewalks on some of those numerous streets that don't have any. A little self-disclosure: I own a car and sometimes have a reason to drive it. Most of the time it just occupies its own slot of expensive real estate with its battery running down.

Back to the fun part. If you paid $2.50 rent for an 8'x22' piece of real estate for two hours (forget 'parking space', this is your plot of urban land), how would you occupy it? The event was created by people who wanted to illustrate the need for more space for parks in cities, so they usually do something park-like and portable, as you have to pick up and move to another space every two hours. The Street Transformation at the South Lake Union Block Party was more static, and very creative.

The Hang-Out, GGLO

This lady didn't wait for Park(ing) Day. She also took advantage of a Sunday, when parking is free all day long. She was a good hostess, creating a fine social space.

Park(ing) Day Preview: Great Social Space

Other small takings, which we would like to see much more often: This was the first time I had seen a traffic lane closed for a sidewalk detour. It was for construction of a Green Street improvement, which is a pedestrian-oriented form of street, so it made great sense.

Sidewalk Detour (not closure)

Here they moved the sidewalk construction barrier out into the street, which was a good thing. Unfortunately it also encroached on the "sharrows" lane, the shared bike-car lane. Small steps.

 Sidewalk in the Street

taking back the streets: Streets for People

As I mentioned in part 2, we've had three late summer car free street events in Seattle this year, as an experiment of sorts, with varying degrees of success, and that depending on who you talk to (see the P.I. article here and the Times here). They were all on Sundays, the day of the week least likely to inconvenience anyone. The Alki event got good reviews, and South Rainier was well attended. Street closures (you may prefer to think of it as an opening) are usually more successful if there is some special event involved. The South Lake Union Block Party, kicking off the Streets for People Campaign, was a good example. So was the Imagine Capitol Hill sustainability fair, and much better received than the first car free day experiment in Capitol Hill, which did not go well.

Jump rope: SLU Block Party

Parades, fairs, festivals, markets, dances, parties, active people uses, are all good events for taking it to the street. People given a whole street to play in without any organization will make up their own fun, or just enjoy the quiet change of pace.

It's not easy to get a permit to temporarily close streets to cars. It inconveniences a few people and makes some unhappy. It generates speech about 'takings' and whose rights are most imposed upon. It is a taking of sorts; we're taking a street for people to use, for a little while. That's part of the definition of public, as in public right-of-way. Have you ever considered how much valuable real estate is accumulated in the space of our public streets, usually given over to cars? In Seattle it's 26% of our land use. That's a lot of public space - imagine if one-quarter of your city was public green space, instead. Cars take up a lot of space. Think about it some more: How much valuable real estate is given over for parking and car storage? It is the main driver of the cost of development. It has huge ramifications. Bigger than a Hummer limo.

Here's a downtown street filled with cars (photos taken during the ISS photoshoot):

200 people, 177 cars

Here's the same street with the same people that were in the cars, but no cars:

200 people, 177 cars, minus cars

See how bored they look, keeping their car distance.

I didn't go to the summer car free events because there were none in my downtown neighborhood and the others were too far to walk to. It doesn't seem right to go to a happy feet event by vehicular mode. Or I'm just too lazy to figure out the bus route.

taking it to the streets: part 3


Car-free events are sometimes tryouts or previews of something more permanent. I remember London before congestion charging took effect. After a long day of citywalking it took some time and effort (we'll skip the unpleasant details) to clean all the black particulate matter from my breathing apparatus before retiring for the night. It was readily apparent why dwellers in major urbs have a reputation for wearing black - it's not just a sophisticated aesthetic; it's a practicality. Think chimney sweep. In addition to hazardous air quality, crossing busy streets in London was notoriously dangerous, and not just for the wrong-sided tourist.

Car Free Day 2002, St. Margaret's

London Car Free Day, September 22, 2002 began early for me, with the sound of workers unloading barriers from trucks outside my window at the St. Margaret's, my favorite home in London. I had forgotten that it was to be such a special day. I rushed down for breakfast and hit the streets, expecting them to be full of people, rejoicing in the freedom of the pavement. Why was I surprised to find the streets so perfectly empty, instead? It was early, after all. It was a Sunday. It was very, very quiet and good for sleeping in (if you didn't have the noisy barrier truck under your window). The activity began later.


It turned out to be a big day, after all, with 400,000 plus or minus people on the streets for the Countryside March, which stole much of the thunder. Then there was the Citywide Open House of architectural firms (I went to Terry Farrell and to the Foster studio, of course), and the first open house for Norman Foster's new GLA or London City Hall. 20 of the London boroughs had their own events on streets opened for people. The Tower Bridge Festival was colorful, with it's own sandy beach, and the weather was sunny and fine.

DSCN0078Tower Bridge Festival 2002Opening Day Queue at GLA

Congestion charging took effect in February of 2003. God bless Red Ken Livingstone; he had the courage to pay the political price. I visited the city in March or April that year and the most amazing changes had already taken place. There was less traffic on the streets, of course. That meant less particulate matter in the air, less noise, less fear in crossing the street. It was suddenly a much more pleasant city. Because of the increase in ridership the Tube was a terrible mess, but I enjoy walking London so much, especially after the change, that it was no great inconvenience to leave it to the people who need it for their commute.

The greatest surprise was in the change to bus service, so much so that I started riding for short hops, whereas I had previously avoided the bus unless I needed to make a distant trip. With fewer cars clogging the streets the speed and efficiency of the bus was tremendously improved. The benefits of less traffic seemed obvious. Yet I was walking in Kensington in 2005, where the congestion charge area was going to be extended, and the merchants were very unhappy about it, sounding much like the ones here in the States. Merchants never think they can survive without drive-by traffic and convenient parking.

taking it to the streets: part 2

Crowd after Fremont Solstice Parade

Our Mayor proposed some Seattle car-free street closures for late summer/fall this year. Occasional events that give the streets to the people are a cause for celebration (and usually involve a celebration) and are certainly a step in the right direction. Make that many steps, by many, many people enjoying their rights as citywalkers. The image above is the crowd dispersing through the street after the 2008 Fremont Solstice parade. The event is best known for renegade cyclists clad only in cleverly applied body paint. A few go it on foot.


This was the 2002 Countryside March of about 400,000 people protesting London big city policies affecting rural life. The right to hunt foxes got the most interest but there were other significant issues. They were given half of the street to march in. This was the largest and yet the most cheerful, orderly and polite crowd of protesters I've had the pleasure to witness or march with. I went along for the walk as it was such a novel use of the street. They seemed to be enjoying their walk in the city, in spite of themselves.


taking it to the streets: part 1

Street as Theater

Like other great cities, downtown Seattle sidewalks are congested. In a perfect, or at least better world, transportation engineers and city planners would rank the all-important LOS (Level of Service) higher for pedestrians than for automobiles. When the sidewalk congestion is at gridlock citywalkers could then take over a traffic lane. Instead what we get is sidewalks closed for construction, with two street crossings and signal waitings added to get to where you intended to go. Don't close a busy sidewalk; close a traffic lane to cars and give it to pedestrians. Everyone knows that if you make it easier to walk than to drive, more people will walk anyway.

There is at least one place in Seattle for relief, where pedestrians have the right of way over vehicles and exercise it freely. That history-laden, socialist experiment sometimes called "the Soul of the City" but more commonly known as Pike Place Market, is our nearest example that I know of a functioning woonerf, that trendy over-used Dutch term of always-questioned pronunciation. What it is meant to describe is a place of multiple uses that looks sort of like a street and functions sort of like a street, but is designed for people first. Cars and other users are allowed by invitation, but the needs of embodied humans have priority. The street on which the Market was founded, Pike Place, is our woonerf.

pedestrian rule

To see people walk unafraid in the midst of a line of vehicles, forcing them to match a pedestrian pace, is a thrilling site for the uninitiated. What I find mind-boggling is that so many people so inconvenience themselves by driving through the Market anyway, searching for that rare on-street parking space, or double-parking to run in and buy a big beautiful bunch of inexpensive flowers. They want cheap flowers and don't want to pay for parking. What is the experience of strolling the Market worth? It seems strange to me what we place the most value on, sometimes.

sidewalk etiquette

crowded sidewalk

Sidewalks are a transportation system (perhaps the most important one), as well as a series of urban places. Sidewalks support multiple uses, with amenities such as trees and street furnishings, al fresco dining, vending, busking, etc. The somewhat restricted space that is left must function as two-way traffic lanes. In a good city the sidewalks are congested, even before you add the cyclists (legal on sidewalks in Seattle), skateboarders, people pushing strollers and people with dogs on leashes. Even in these circumstances, the citywalker will come upon groups of strollers walking multiples abreast at a leisurely pace, blocking the flow of traffic. They may bunch together to allow someone coming from the other direction to go by, but immediately spread across the breadth of the sidewalk again, oblivious to anyone behind them who would like to pass.

And people do need to pass. Not every sidewalk user is in leisurely tourist mode (although I sincerely hope that all citywalkers enjoy such a period of leisure daily). Sometimes the citywalker is trying to get to work or a meeting or somewhere else in a hurry, or is just exercising at a rapid pace. Often I've thought I was moving at a brisk clip only to have someone blast past me and rapidly disappear. I've experienced this often in London as there are some serious sidewalk commuters there. I remember them as very long-legged people, perhaps as a way of salving my short, wounded pride.

As a citywalker I like to play the tourist even during my morning commute, and pause to notice the details of my city in my daily travels. Just today I was taking photos on the sidewalk in front of a shop I was about to visit and the proprietor asked where I was visiting from. But there are some recommended practices for an etiquette of the sidewalk, my roadway, similar to rules of the road for drivers (just to put it in an unfortunately familiar context):

  • stay to the right (the rules may differ in some cultures)
  • when pausing, check over your shoulder for traffic
  • step out of the flow of traffic - doorways, lamp posts, and newspaper boxes are convenient safe harbors
  • in groups, be cognizant and respectful of other users and yield a share of the sidewalk
I feel quite fortunate to live in a city where I can complain about sidewalk congestion. There is a lot happening in Seattle, everyone wants to come here, and when they get here it is most convenient to walk where they want to go. Sometimes when I'm in a hurry I curse "sidewalk hogs" who have no sense of sidewalk etiquette. If I'm feeling generous I'll make excuses for them - that they have been hitherto deprived of the experience of congested city sidewalks. I hope they are learning something, by osmosis perhaps, even after short exposure. Our environments to some degree shape us.

flânerie and the space of being

While the initial concept of flânerie dealt with the citywalker as a more or less detached observer (read the wikipedia entry on flâneur here), fields of study as diverse as quantum physics and urban design give the observer a positive role in the environment by the act of observation. Henri Lefebvre posits that the object of bodily existence is lived experience. The space of cities is produced by bodies for this purpose, and in turn influences those bodies in a process both circular and linear. We shape our cities and our cities shape us. "Bodies...produce space and produce themselves, along with their motions, according to the laws of space."
cardiff arcade

Walter Benjamin's flâneur (The Arcades Project) was a sort of resident tourist. Lefebvre, advocating a more involved role, opines that urban space belongs to the dweller, and that it "...reproduces itself within those who use the space in question, within their lived experience. Of that experience the tourist, the passive spectator, can grasp but a pale shadow."

With other theories you could make the claim that cities originated for tourists. Space syntax theory (Bill Hillier, Space is the Machine) indicates that traditional urban form, meaning cities built before we designed cities to move cars rather than respond to bodily human existence, functions by drawing in the stranger, then containing and controlling them. Tourists were always a necessary part of the trade economy of cities. So, citywalkers, don't be ashamed of being a tourist in your own city (or any other city).

for the dedicated urban stroller

I like to walk in cities.

I like to walk a sun-warmed pavement on a cool day and feel a sudden chill on the instant of moving into shadow, that sharp thermal incline at the boundary between light and dark marked on the pavement as well as on my senses. I like to pass a corner and have the prospect of a new path to some interesting destination. I like the sheltering sense of buildings that form a streetwall near my path, so long as they show human presence and are not too blank and dull. I like a variety of interesting things to see where I walk: shop windows, flowers, trees, people dining, drinking, talking; or the questionable urban attractions of thoughtful graffiti, provocative signs, and the eccentric behavior of certain urban denizens.

I like to walk in cities. Citywalker, flâneur and flâneuse, stroller, observer; designer, planner, geographer, researcher; dedicated urbanists everywhere; here's to you and the cities you love to walk.