City on the Move

A new book urges you to walk down familiar roads and see them afresh.

Written by Mini Kapoor | New Delhi | Published:March 31, 2013 1:00 am

A new book urges you to walk down familiar roads and see them afresh.

How many times have you heard this,or said it yourself? That to know a new city or terrain,you must walk. Walk and only so will you be intimate with its sights,smells,rhythms,heartbeat. But what of our own habitat? What of the roads and pathways we walk on day after day after day? Aren’t far too many of us unseeing as we get on with our day’s work and strolls? Alexandra Horowitz certainly suspected so,after what she delineated as her mindful walk around her New York City block,paper and pen in hand as aids to concentration,had her miss plenty. In On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes,she hit everyday city sidewalks with 11 “expert seers”.

But if the purpose is to learn the techniques of paying attention,it may be appropriate to first ask,what is attention? The utility of defining it is arguable,and Horowitz writes: “A better way of thinking about attention is to consider problems that evolution might have designed ‘attention’ to solve?” The first problem yields “from the nature of the world”,and attention is a way of blanking out the burst of sounds and colours and shapes around us by reordering what we see into “recognizable objects”. Besides,given that there is just so much our sensory organs can coherently process,attention is a kind of filter,“a way to tune out unnecessary information,to sort through the bombardment of visual and auditory noise”. Put another way: “Attention is an intentional,unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now,and gears up to notice only that.”

If this seems to suggest that paying attention is necessarily an act of discernment — or,as she notes the psychologists’ expression,selective enhancement — the purpose of her project is to see what selectivity each of her experts brings to the walk. Horowitz,who teaches psychology,animal behaviour and canine recognition at Columbia University in New York,obviously comes to her task with formidable domain knowledge. She knows,better than most would,what exactly to seek out from her fellow walkers and has the scholarship to put their observations into the context of a long tradition of inquiry. Nonetheless,besides being a riveting read,On Looking is a spur to seek out your inner expert,or even go to an actual living one,and pound down a familiar road and see it afresh.

Horowitz’s first fellow walker is her 19-month-old son,for whom such an excursion is an exploration of terrain for the very first time. The rest of the “experts” are: a geologist,typographer (with whom she learns the urban sport of finding ghost signs,signs that have been painted over,been replaced or faded),illustrator,naturalist,animal behaviour researcher,urban sociologist,doctor,a blind travel enthusiast,sound engineer,and a dog.

The result,of course,is not just an exercise in honing her attentive skills in particular ways — it is a celebration of the urban milieu,a way of embracing the city by unpacking its muchness into bits for careful and self-instructive observation. Perhaps that is why the walk with Fred Kent,who trained under William Whyte on how to study the behaviour of city-folks,is so fascinating. Learning to observe fellow pedestrians is,essentially,finding the mirror to see oneself and to marvel at how,when we are out rushing past them,we are bound in a marvelous code: “Urban pedestrian behaviour is quick and fluid – all the more impressive for being largely unconscious. Together we are doing a cooperative dance,a kind of pedestrian jig,without even knowing we are dancing.”

So,the next time you hit the busy road,watch out for the “step and slide”,the subject of careful study by researchers: “If sidewalk traffic is dense and collision seems imminent,we pull this two-step pedestrian-dance move. While striding forward,the walker turns ever-so-slightly to the side,leading with his shoulder instead of his nose to turn the step into a side-step. We twist our torsos,pull in our bellies,and generally avoid all but the mildest of brushes of other people (and if we do brush against someone else,we keep our hands close to our body and our faces turned away from one another).” Maybe I am a novice at self-observation of this sort,but I found (after reading the book) that while I pulled off this “step and slide” effortlessly as an instinctive way of walking,when I attempted to pay attention to myself while doing so,it turned clumsy. I guess

I just need practice in observation.

It is,however,a wonderful reminder to look around and seek out behavioural evolution out on the street. Look for instance,Horowitz points out,at the changes being introduced into the unspoken cooperation between pedestrians by those of us who talk on the mobile phone while walking — and even more disruptively,text. Maybe we’ll work out a code on this too.

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