Archive for Walking Philosophy

Walking Isn’t Boring, Part 5: Exploring Machines and Infrastructure

General note: This series of entries is inspired by the idea that walking in even the most ordinary of places can be interesting.

Recently a bunch of books that had been on my reserve list at the library came all at once, and a number of them relate to walking. One that has really had me thinking about lots of ideas for walking-related projects is Ed Sobey’s A Field Guide to Roadside Technology. The book is set up like a bird or plant field guide, but the content is the infrastructure and machines that one might spot in different place around the country. It describes all sorts of technologies, such as utilities, telephone systems, traffic signals, traffic counters and surveillance counters, bridges, sewer grates, manholes, wires, and antennas. In reading through the descriptions, I found that I learned something new about even familiar machines. Unless you have absolutely no luddite tendencies, I do recommend reading the book in bits and pieces — it can be a bit overwhelming to see just how many different technologies we have in place today.

The author suggests keeping this book with you on your travels so you can look up unknown machines as you go. This is a great idea, and one could also take a photo of an unfamiliar object and look it up later. Almost every location will have some of these technologies, and learning about them would be one way to have interesting walks in otherwise mundane locations. If you were the sort of obsessive, checking-off-lists type of person, you could do as some birdwatchers and try to find everything listed in the book. Or, the book could be used as the basis for an urban scavenger hunt — i.e., find and take photos of as many of the items in the book as possible. Regardless of how the book is used, though, it is an interesting read for any walker. I finally have the answers to some of my questions about various boxes, markers, and wires that I see on my walks. For more ideas, take a look at Walking Fort Bragg — Ron has found all sorts of interesting markings on the street, misaligned manhole covers, utility work, etc.


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Why People Walk, Part 2: Psychogeography

While researching other walking projects, I have seen quite a few have been definited as psychogeography. What exactly is psychogeography? According to the Toronto Psychogeography Society,

The word psychogeography was coined by the Situationist Guy Debord. It describes the specific effects of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.

So what does it mean to take a psychogeographic walk and how exactly does it differ from just taking a “regular” walk? The Toronto Psychogeography Society offers some clues in the descriptions of some its past outings. It appears that (unlike the my walks for this project!) a psychogeographic walk does not generally have a planned route, that the walkers might follow something that interests them: a sight, a smell, a sound. From further research, I found that there is also algorithmic or generative psychogeography, which follows a repeating pattern, such as “go two blocks and turn right, go two blocks and turn left, go one block and turn right, and then repeat.” I also saw variations on these ideas, such a walk pattern that was written as a pseudo computer program, Then I found Conflux, a NYC “festival for contemporary psychogeography,” which seems much broader than the traditional definitions of psychogeography and appears to include more of the types of projects that I mentioned in my previous Why People Walk post.

I ran across a few psychogeography events in the Bay Area, but nothing so far that seems to be active. Eventually (once I am finished with my current walk) I would like to do a psychogeography walk in Berkeley. Please post a comment if you happen to know of anyone who is already this or if you might be interested in joining in on such a walk.

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Starting Anew

After more than a week away from Berkeley, I am back and ready for more walking. Most of my time away was spent in the California desert — Anza Borrego, Palm Springs area, Mojave — which is huge and spread out and not particularly suited to walking (especially in the summer when it gets up to and over 100 degrees F). The town of Palm Springs, however, seems to be a great place for walking — lots of interesting mid-century desert modern architecture, old signs, and much more. In any case, I am finding that after being away for awhile in a different environment I am seeing new things. On my first very short walk to get groceries after returning home, I took two photos along a street I have walked down two or three times a week for the past few years.

In mid-December I spotted this apartment building on one of my walks:

I remembered at one point passing an apartment building with a star, but this one looked different. Was it built at the same time as the other one? Well, when I went back to my photos, I found that it was the same building; it was just painted a different color when I took the picture during the summer:

Also, the plants were blooming in December but not during the summer, and the building had now been “staged” with patio furniture because one of the units was up for sale (interestingly, a TIC — tenancy-in-common — the first of this type I have seen in Berkeley).

My last walk of the year was an eventful one, primarily because I had the pleasure of walking with fellow every-streeter Gary Jarvis of Runs Brooklyn. As he does with his accounts of running every street in Brooklyn, Gary did a great write-up of the walk we took while he was in the area for the holidays. Gary’s blog is very enjoyable to read, with detailed and interesting accounts of Brooklyn neighborhoods infused with his great sense of humor, and it was fun to finally meet him in person and share our experiences as “urban completists” (a brilliant term for these projects — thanks Gary!). A great way to end to end a year of walking Berkeley!

You may be wondering where I am at in terms of completing the walk of every street. I am estimating that distance-wise I am about 3/4 of the way there. However, many of the streets I have left to walk are in the hilly areas of town, which will take much longer than the flat grids of the western part of Berkeley. I also have quite a bit of the Elmwood/Claremont neighborhoods to walk, as well as the Berkeley campus and streets here and there throughout town, so you can expect to hear about all of those areas over the next few months.

Happy walking in 2007!

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Why People Walk, Part 1: Art

As promised in a past post, I hope to devote a few posts to the varied reasons why people walk. Although there appears to be a relatively small number of people who have taken on walks such as mine to walk every street of a city or region, I have found all sorts of other interesting walking projects and motivations for walking. Some that I plan to talk about include exercise, psychogeography, academic explorations of walking, walking meditation, etc. Some of the most interesting and varied walking projects I have encountered have been done as art projects. Now one might ask what makes a walking project “art.” As with the observations on my walks, I am not going to make too many judgments about this question. I also do not feel a need to delve into the “what is art?” discussion; there are plenty of forums for this elsewhere. By no means is my coverage of this topic comprehensive; this is just a sampling of some of the artists and projects I have run across. Note that some of these websites are graphics intensive:

Artist Richard Long has created sculptures by walking in the landscape, walks as “textworks”, and other art resulting from walking.

Artist Hamish Fulton‘s website notes “only art resulting from the experience of individual walks.”

Janet Cardiff is know for her multisensory audio walks.

In One Mile From Home, Julie from the UK has this challenge: “Walk a minimum of one mile from home. Record where you’ve been with a drawing, sculpture, photo or painting and then walk back. Every day for a year.” She posts the art on her blog, and includes links to others who she has inspired to take on similar challenges.

Among the projects of the group of artists Wright & Sites is their series of Mis-guides that suggest “a series of walks and points of observation and contemplation within a particular town, city or landscape.”

The Los Angeles Urban Rangers have offered guided hikes in Los Angeles, including projects at the L.A. County Fair and on Hollywood Blvd.

Also see my post about Kate Pocrass’ Mundane Journeys book and tours.

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Awhile back, I talked about the interesting things one might see by looking down while walking. Here in Berkeley it has definitely proved to be interesting. I am very intrigued by the all of the old railroad tracks that still exist, particularly in West Berkeley. It has also been fun to see where old sidewalks have been replaced by the slightly spongy material that prevents trees from cracking through. I’ve kept an eye out for interesting engravings in the sidewalks as well. But I still have work to do with learning to pay attention to everything around me. This portion of sidewalk is located in front of a violin shop on University Avenue, a street I walk along often as it is an east-west connector. I am intrigued by the violin shop because there are no storefront windows (it is more like a regular house), and I often watch to see if people are coming in or out with violin in hand. The shop also has a nice violin cut-out in its wood entrance. But because I was always looking up at the store, I never noticed the violin engravings in the sidewalk!

Inevitably on busy streets, cyclists will sometimes ride on the sidewalks. Although I have encountered bicycles on the sidewalks while I am walking they have not caused any problems for me as a walker. Likely this is because I am generally comfortable riding and being around bicycles. I know that sometimes this causes problems, though; even on designated shared bicycle and pedestrian paths I have seen startled walkers when bicycles come by. Once in awhile I am a little bit surprised when someone is riding on the sidewalk when there is a nice wide bicycle lane on the street, but otherwise I haven’t spent too much time being bothered even if a cyclist shouldn’t really be riding there. One thing I have found in general as I have walked more and more is that I am less likely to be upset or angry about any incidents. Cars speeding through intersections as I try to cross used to bother me sometimes, but now I just wait and let them go and move on. But getting back to the bicycles, I was surprised to see some discussions recently about how many more bicycles ride on sidewalks now that many cities have incorporated wheelchair accessibility into the sidewalks in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Berkeley, in fact, was a pioneer for curb cuts, as well as for other rights and services for the disabled.) I had never thought about this before, and I am not sure whether any scientific studies have been done on the topic, but it makes sense that this would be the case. Certainly plenty of cyclists are comfortable riding up and down regular curbs, but it is much easier to do so without effort when there are curb cuts. Until thinking about this possibility, it had never occurred to be that there was anything negative that could be associated with curb cuts other than the usual city government arguments that surround priorities in funds used for public infrastructure. But I should have realized that there is always more than one side to everything. I don’t want to make it a priority to try come up with possible negative aspects of things that I see when I am walking, but this was a small wake-up call that there is much more to think about even when I believe I have come to a conclusion about an idea.

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Learning About Landmarks & Architecture

One general guideline I like to stick to for my walks is avoid learning too much about an area before I walk there, and also to go without any guidebooks or reference books. While out on a walk, I might jot down the address or name of a building that I want to look up later, and I may go back to an area for a second look at a later date. The primary reason for doing this is so that I can keep an open mind about what I see on my walks. If I am focused on one thing, I might miss out on something else. I also want to decide for myself what I think of something I see, not what someone else says about it. Using this method seemed particularly important in Berkeley, where architecture, landmarks, and land use is a contentious topic and the subject of endless debates.

A perfect example came up just as I was pulling together information for this post, in fact. I ran across a page on landmarks preservation opinions, which uses examples of to show what Berkeley should and should not look like from a preservation viewpoint. Now I have seen plenty of examples of what I do not like in terms of building and land use, but the building they picture does not fall into what I would consider to be the worst of the worst. the building pictured on the right is located at University Avenue and Acton Street. Most of the building is housing of some sort, though I am not sure of the cost, floor plans, etc. , and at the bottom is retail space. One of these is the Bread Workshop, a bakery and sandwich shop that is known for its sustainable business practices. Also at this corner and on the surrounding blocks is a supermarket, a popular independent coffee bar, restaurants, a copy shop, and various other small businesses. Bus lines and BART are nearby. From my observations out on walks, it seemed liked this a thriving corner and a great place for people to live and be able to take care of many errands without using a car. Seeing this photo now is okay, because I can think about what I have observed on my own and do more research if necessary. But if I had seen this photo of a “bad” Berkeley before walking by this building, would I felt differently about what I saw? I’m not sure, but I do know that it might have distracted me from walking with an open mind.

But getting back to the guidebooks … I do like to find good references to look up the history and other details of buildings I encounter. Luckily, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association has put out a series of house tour booklets for Berkeley neighborhoods. Additionally, they have published 41 Walking Tours of Berkeley, which a friend gave me recently, and some older booklets that are available at the public library. I have one checked out from the library right now, Discovering West Berkeley: A Self-Guided Tour, which includes the history of many of the industrial buildings and paints a good picture of the types of manufacturing activities that have occurred throughout Berkeley’s history.

Much can be learned about Berkeley’s buildings while out on a walk, thanks to the many historical plaques all over town. The nice thing about Berkeley’s historical plaques compared to many I have seen elsewhere is the amount of detail provided about the history of so many buildings throughout town. Currently there are close to 300 Berkeley landmarks; I am not sure that plaques are up for every single one at this point, but the plaques do seem to be everywhere I turn. The plaque pictured above is for a building that now houses the Strawberry Creek Design Center. Apparently before the design center opened, the building was boarded up and the surrounding area was the site of much drug dealing and other crime. Now there are artist and architecture studios, a cafe, a yoga center, and other professional services and organizations. When I have walked through the complex, people are relaxing on the lawn and under the trees, and there does not (at least during the daytime) seem to be much evidence of criminal activities.

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Walking Isn’t Boring, Part 4: Outside Lies Magic

General note: This series of entries is inspired by the idea that walking in even the most ordinary of places can be interesting.

Sometime before embarking on my Berkeley walk, I read an interesting book called Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. Written by John Stilgoe, a professor of landscape history at Harvard University, the book encourages the reader to get out on foot or on bicycle and explore and observe the world around them, learning to notice the details that are often overlooked when travelling by car or when one is out of the car but in a rush or thinking about other things. Well, even before starting this walk I knew I did not need any encouragement on that front. But then things start to get challenging. Stilgoe thinks that a lot can be discovered in the most ordinary of places, the locations without intriguing architecture, interesting landmarks, beautiful landscapes.

I remember that my first read of the book left me with some doubts about whether the ideas presented in the book were really possible, so I went back recently to re-read the book. What I found was surprising. Over the months that I have been walking and trying to keep an open mind about what I see, I have observed many of the things that Stilgoe mentions in the book. Among other things, he talks about looking at old railroad tracks, sidewalk engravings, plants, lawns, and electrical lines. Then I got the part where he discusses exploring rundown commercial strips, particularly the right-of-ways where all of the trash dumpsters and piles of junk are kept. And then he talks about the frontage roads along highways. Way up on the list of my least favorite things are freeways and shopping centers, especially the endless strip malls filled with chain stores. Luckily, Berkeley has more pleasant and unique streets than most cities, but there are still some areas that I have found challenging to walk. One of them is the frontage road to I-8o. As I have mentioned before, this freeway is consistently ranked at the top of the list of traffic nightmares in the Bay Area. Despite the wall separating the walker from the road, there is the constant noise of the cars, the unpleasant smells, and views of trash and broken glass. The areas surrounding the freeways exits can be similarly unpleasant, particularly the black soot that covers all of the buildings and the slick black oil spots on the roads and sidewalks. But in the process of deciding to look objectively at my surroundings, I have found myself forgetting about the unpleasantness and seeing the details that I might have missed in past when I was just in a rush to get through the area.

After reading this book a second time, I realized that despite Stilgoe’s convincing ideas, I did not fully appreciate the book until I actually got out and did what he said to do. And in fact, the first sentence of the book says it all: “Get out now.”

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