Recently I’ve been thinking about my spatial experience of my contextual environment and about what I have learned over the years in consciously encountering space as a user of space, a creator of space, and a participant in community through space. I am thinking about this as I am getting ready to do some tutoring on domain mapping in ethnographic research. Here is a summary of my spatial experience.
As a child most of my experience with space was either moving through it on foot or by being driven around in a car. Toss in the stroller, occasional plane ride, boating, crutches, sledding, riding a bicycle, but by and large WALKING and RIDING dominated my childhood experience of space.
As an adult I would live in cities like Chicago and Honolulu, places where the infrastructure encouraged walking. This changed my understanding of terrain, and walking became my primary vantage point for my movement through space, although each place did have new modes of movement; Chicago had a train, Honolulu had surf boards.
Doing fieldwork in West Africa I would never drive; I saw most of sub-Saharan Africa in a van, or a Volkswagen, or a Renault, but I was always the passenger. At least I could stare out the window and imagine what it was like at a walking pace.
Where I live now has a walkability score of 25 out of 100. Where I lived in Chicago had a score of 98, Hawai’i had a score of 78; clearly my current 25 is pitiful in comparison.
To be fair, where I live now there are some residents with a score of 82, so, it is not like walking is precluded by living here, just that it is not easy for everyone (like me). I walked home from work once and it took me three hours.
This has restricted my daily routine movement to driving. These days I experience my landscape from a vehicle (much like my Africa passenger days), but this time I don’t even get to look around and pay attention to what zooms past my face; no, I only pay attention to that which is necessary to avoid collisions.
Driving has seriously hindered my sense of place. I used to spend a lot of time walking, exploring, noticing things at street level, at a pace that let me participate and observe; being a car driver has forced me to give up participation with a place in favor of being a consumer of that place, the road is just a conduit.
Instead of participating with the place I now participate with my driving peers as we consume the street on our way to our various destinations. The interactive dynamic is not with the people who reside in a place, but with people who routinely pass through the place. This is like the boat that is moored to the riverbank, the boat might not move but the river has certainly changed.
Compared to the speed with which I now drive through my neighborhoods, walking is practically standing still. Walking is being the boat moored to the bank; driving is the rushing river. And the places I drive through do not really change either, but I have nothing to do with the neighborhoods which I zoom through, not the shops, not the landscape, not the people.
I need to stop driving so much.
I need to learn to walk, again.
I need to experience the physical crust of earth and to encounter a place with my feet, unmediated by round rubber tires and a gas pedal.
Being a driver has abstracted my encounter with a place by removing the minutia and patient tiny details made visible to the walking man. I say “man” because I speak of myself; I was a walking man, like James Taylor, but now, where I live, if you walk expect to be stared at, honked at, yelled at by crazy fun-loving child-drivers, and occasionally the target of someone’s empty sodacan/coffeecup/waterbottle hurled out the window with an insult. I am serious; walking is stigmatizing, and dangerous.
This is partly why I drive places.
My level of attention to place as a driver does not decompose into lower level experiences with place like it does on a stroll where those small experiences gradiently build up to become a walking journey, instead I pay more attention to how many red lights have impeded my progress.
Walking for me does more than serve the function of travel between places; I walk to know a place.
When I move somewhere new (or even visit from out of town), the first thing I do is walk around a place, in an ever widening gyre, a scroll stroll uncurling through a city emanating away from my apartment or hotel room. I walk around and I get a feel for what surrounds me. I don’t even look at a map until I have learned the map through my feet. By doing this I start to learn my place in the broader context, and this is where you encounter the joys of a place, its people, its vitality, its curiosities; by walking you learn the identity of a place.
This afternoon I thought about how walking is natural for me as an ethnographer; in fact, walking is essential. And one of the reasons it is so important is that it helps in making maps of a place, in mapping the domains and the various spatial relations found in that place. Sure, you can sit somewhere and draw a map of everything you see, but I promise you, if you walk around a place and look first with your feet, your map will be more detailed, more accurate, and more relevant as you come to capture the reality which each participant experiences as they use that space.
I might have seen a lot of sub-Saharan West Africa, but it doesn’t mean too much to me, and I certainly could only attempt to map it out from an approximation of the various landmarks I happened to have noticed from the window. This is because the dynamic and progressive movement of a vehicle is that your sense of figure-ground organization is constantly shifting, and it goes as fast as the driver feels is necessary. But when you walk around, if something becomes figural in your field of vision, and you feel it is important, you get to pause for a moment and reflect on the significance of what you have seen. This kind of intentional embodied experience is vital for making sense of a place.