“They walk – an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers, Wandersmanner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it.”
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p. 93
One of the greatest aspects of Edinburgh is its pedestrian-friendly layout. Encouraged by relatively close clustering and intermingling of residential and commercial structures, sidewalks lining every street, the city is easy to walk. By walking, we not only get to where we need to be, but we also play an essential role in creating the urban fabric, bringing life to (or bringing to life) the architecture and infrastructure around us.
De Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life describes our walking as a “speech act,” a story that “begins on ground level with footsteps” and creates a sort of “collection of singularities” as individuals “weave places together” (p. 97). In this way, our paths give the geography of the city a legibility that can be read, but that we barely take time to read or process. Our routines and movements from one place to the next are taken-for-granted pathways that we take because we simply must or because that is what we feel like in the moment; they are merely inconsequential getting-to’s and coming-from’s that constitute our existence within the city. However, when we take a moment to look at these footpaths, we can see how this motion helps to define our place and role in society and the city. This “process of appropriation of the topographical system” (p. 97) tells us quite a bit about who we are and our perceptions of the spaces we occupy.
For example, if I were to map out my walking patterns from the past week, I would find an especially specific routine, from which I deviated very little. My schedule is embodied in the briskness of movement from one node to the next: my flat, the gym, Buccleuch Church, my flat, the Chaplaincy Centre, the library or Teviot Row House, St. Columba’s Church, Greyfriar’s Kirk… Oh, and I suppose various classrooms are dotted about when I was in class, but those could essentially be summed up as George Square or Central Campus. The regularity of this routine reflects my incredibly structured schedule and attests to my involvement in the Something More missions week the Christian Union on campus hosted this week. If I were to look at this map, I would see the movement and be able to read my role as an attendee, organizer, participant, host depending on when I was where and for how long.
By walking the city, we collectively and individually “make some parts of the city disappear and exaggerate others, distorting it, fragmenting it” (de Certeau, p. 102) just as much as we define ourselves. If I were to create the city and my role within it based on my movements of this past week, one could hardly guess I was a student at university, instead perhaps thinking me a missionary or events organizer (which, in many ways, this was the mantle taken up by many Christian Union students this week!). By entering certain places and avoiding others, my actions help to shape and define space. I make real the possibilities of these architectural elements of the urban environment; a wall’s ability to impede or a crosswalk’s capacity to facilitate pedestrian crossing is made a reality when I engage with it. Until I enter the church to pray or worship, that structure is merely a building whose potential remains unrealized.*
The sort of fragmented nature of an individual defining space as a single unit that is also unavoidably a member of a collective is also evident in the deceiving dichotomy of public and private space. The street is the “backbone of the urban experience” (Madanipour, p. 91), connecting the disparate private space of the individual person with the cacophony of public life. Being a pedestrian among crowds of fellow pedestrians is the epitome of the public space as “a place of simultaneity, a site for display and performance, a test of reality, an exploration of difference and identity, and an arena for recognition…of the self and others” (p. 201). In other words, as we walk along the street, we are forced to constantly consider our positionality, as we bump into strangers, wave at familiar passers-by, or keep our heads down and mind fixed on our destination. Public actions – crossing the street without using the crosswalk, for example – are considered on a private level – I think to myself, “Are there cars coming? Will I be ticketed? Is it worth the risk?” – and then carried out in full display of the public – I cross the street – which then in turn considers me (or ignores me) in the privacy of their minds.
The public and private are interdependent and constantly in dialogue, defined by the fluid boundary that differentiates them. This boundary is in traced out by the footpaths created through pedestrians’ spatial transgression and acquiescence as well as established by the architectural and infrastructural guidelines urban designers and city planners concoct. This dialogue, according to de Certeau, is a text that we write but do not read because we do not take the time to do so or we do not know how. It is also a text into which we are written, unaware or voluntarily.
The convoluted nature of this post shows the complexity of our everyday environment, the story we are writing and reading, the footpaths we enact and visualize. Just as thoughts are often difficult to harness and coalesce into comprehensible ideas, so the city rarely presents itself as something easily explained. If you don’t believe me, try to describe the entirety of your own daily routine – you may be doing more writing and reading that you think!
* Some would argue that certain structures, such as churches, possess the inherent quality to be what they are whether interacted with or not. While I agree that, for example, a church is often recognizably a church – based on social expectations and historical qualifications of what a church “should” be – the recognition of it as a church relies on people at the very least seeing it or knowing it to be there, which is arguably a form of interaction. De Certeau elaborates on this point by suggesting that spaces do not necessarily need to be physically engaged with to be enacted. Though here I do mean physically entering a church, there is also the argument for the creation of the sacred through mental association or spiritual affinity with absent brick and mortar. Essentially, buildings are what they are because we make them so; to say otherwise is to take for granted the built environment even though it is just that – built.