Thomas De Quincey received the honour of being the prototypical flâneur, a wanderer walking idly, a “connoisseur of the street.” He was a prolific opium eater during the 19th century and spent much time aimlessly adrift in the city of London. It was his attempt to negate the perceived perfection of modernity: our large, encompassing term for speed, efficiency and a world of rational order.
For a short while during the 20th century, some flâneurs found it fashionable to take a pet turtle for a walk. It was a good pace, a pace that was a “time war” against modernity, where efficiency was fashionable and fulfilled our obsession with time management and productivity. As the industrial class began to dominate society at this time, to flâner was a sort of protest against such business.
Slowing down, meandering, wandering, drifting — the intent was to take delight in movement itself, to inhale the smells and let in the sounds of an unhurried tour of city streets. There was no destination. To flâner — the act of the flâneur — wandering without any purpose was reward enough. It was to “wed the crowd,” as French poet Baudelaire described: to be a part of the group without necessarily holding the same prescriptions.
There is an adage that says those who control the streets control the state. To wander and absorb street life thus became synonymous with democracy, of the democratization of space. Walking wasn’t simply a way about the city, but rather a commentary on the city itself, an explicit critique on the spatial outcome of efficiency. By drifting one could resist the logic of functionalism and its oppression of intimacy.
Sociologist Antonio Gramsci called an “organic relationship” one of being of and being within a place; the ability to have an implicit attachment to place. A space you identify with helps you feel like you. A city constructed for efficiency problematizes this sensual experience. The air of modernity and the prescriptions of its functional brother — movement, destination, sequestration into autonomous realms — atomize cities into units performing singular functions. When the manufacturing line stalls, the economy shuts down.
By taking a turtle for a walk, a flâner disassembles the boring, rational use of urban space; the act avoids the intended logic of the city, which is an outcome of a certain ideology and the period’s political practices. The practices of the flâneur soon became translated into the concept of having a “right to the city,” a theory of spatial justice. And theories in turn prescribed novel, concrete practices to take back the city from the oppressive and discriminatory constructions of modernist city planning.
Civic strollers engaged in “playful reconstructive behaviour” that intended to create spaces they owned, that the public owned, not private spaces or spaces bundled with an administration tied to the practices of modernity. The abstract concept of justice, of redistribution or being a part of the decision-making process, became concrete physical measures in the city. Reusing space, or taking over space as an expression of justice.
Although the automobile was supposed to be the ultimate form of modernity — individualism, the efficiency of point-to-point convenience — it’s led to urban sprawl (along with psychological, environmental and health implications). It’s led to big-box stores, drive-through coffee shops and ATMs, dispersed communities with often ironic names. It’s led to a city designed around its bullish behaviours. The logic of city planning for the single occupancy vehicle has led to oppressive spaces, spatial injustice. And acts now have been developing to take back the city.
Turtles have been left to riparian areas and play has been employed; pop-up parks that take over a parking stall, a block party that shuts down a street, a flash-mob snowball fight — these implement the theories that were instructed by the flâneur. They attach us to a place rather than drive by it at 50 km/h. They are a political act of engagement, a redistribution of space, taking back an element of the city. The monoculture of commuter culture is eroded. The street spectacles of play and reuse upset efficiency, and fixed-use spaces are returned to the organic quality of being able to muddle in it, to pause the assembly line.
And this is where we start this series, which seeks to illuminate the concepts and acts of spatial justice. There are many stories to tell you about a city, but the human-scale seemed like a good place to start — with walking, with playing, with bringing to light the abstract concept of spatial justice and giving it some flesh; not of turtles or opiates, but perhaps to disassemble spaces in order to remake them. To make them yours. To make them ours.
Steven Snell is a city planner with a master’s in urban planning. His series of columns will focus on spatial justice and the city. Follow him on Twitter @stevenpsnell.