Thursday, August 30, 2012

How to be an urban flâneur and city planner.

(Imagine found on the bog Paper Pills: )

Often city/urban planners merely sit at their desks, go to meetings, interact with other government officials or politicians, but rarely wander around the cities or regions that they assist in guiding development.  Perhaps, part of a planner’s activity should be to sit at a café, watch the people, watch passing pedestrian and vehicular traffic, listen and engage in conversations with his/her fellow citizens in this informal setting; or perhaps wandering or driving around the streets of a city, observing the everyday lives of its citizens. 

However, in the modernist framework of urban planning, this would be considered wasting time, as you are not pursing knowledge in a systematic way.  It would be frowned on by local politicians who expect public servants to be sitting at their desks ‘slaving away’ and not ‘goofing off.’

Being an urban flâneur is not one which has rules. In fact, there are no real formula for being an flâneur.  It is one of being aware of ones surroundings.  With the trappings of the modern world, we are often not aware of the urban or physical environment.  It is ultimately awareness of space and being engaged with it.  It is being aware of ‘the now.’  This is also congruent with Zen philosophy.  I remember one Zen book which advised its readers to “wash the dishes!”   What this meant was for a person to be totally concentrated on one task—in this case, ‘washing the dishes’-- and not thinking about other things-- practicing awareness in everyday events.  

Here are some suggested steps on how to be an flâneur and city planner:
1. Pick a regular time convenient for you and the staff and block it on your calendar to go out and wander the streets.

2. Turn off your cell phone, when you are being an urban flâneur.  Tell everyone, including friends and spouses, that you can not be reached during this time.

3. Bring a notebook or laptop to write down your observations.

4. Select one area of the city and either sit there or wander about or both.  You should select different areas so that you can expose yourself to a variety of experiences.

5. When observing, be totally aware of your environment. Do not think about other things—be in ‘the now.’   A good way to be able to do this is by practicing meditation. Notice the people: activities, mannerisms, and listen to conversations.

6.  Take a cheap camera along to record memorable things you see and reference in your notes.

7. Near the end of your ‘walk about’, put your observations in a notebook or an electronic devise. A suggestion would be post them internally so other planners could read them or if you are bold, post them in a blog or webpage.

In a complex and chaotic way, you will see themes start to emerge that maybe you have not thought of before.  Some of your observations may prove to useful in identifying opportunities and problems which will be inserted into the planning process.  Also, it will help in your credibility because you are seen out in public and not just some city employee behind a desk or counter.

The author of this blog entry, Dr. Michael A. McAdams, is a university professor seeking employment and independent consultant specializing in urban planning, spatial technologies and transportation planning.  He can be reached at

1 comment:

  1. I think this is a great - and very perceptive -article. It was fun to read, too!

    However,it seems to me that being a flaneur (as described herein) is a prerequisite to being an urban planner, and that perhaps the US (and other countries) are in the condition they are in because most planners (and politicians) haven't had the visceral responses to surrounding conditions that you've described above. Professional practitioners of planning need to be much more articulate about the importance of awareness of one's surroundings, and what tools are appropriate for ameliorating those conditions.