Sharing the city one step at a time

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Activists, vagabonds and tourists find a common language through the march.

By Tim Waterman

As confinement eased in 2021, the Hôtel du Nord led a walk in L’Estaque, north of Marseille, to the Miramar site, with the encouragement of music along the way. Photo by Dominique Poulain, Hotel Du Nord Archives.

Matthew Beaumont’s beautiful book on London, Nightwalking: A Nighttime History of London, begins with a quote from Ford Madox Ford’s The soul of London (1905): “…little by little the Londoner comes to forget that his London is built on real earth: he forgets that beneath the pavements there are hills, forgotten streams, springs and swamps. Beaumont shows wayfaring as an immersive and connective practice and proposes that cities can only be truly experienced through the practice of walking. Beaumont, however, often speaks of the solitary walker – Charles Dickens, for example, whose prodigious nocturnal restlessness drove him to walk for hours upon hours, contributing to his very particular knowledge of places. What preoccupies walkers in Marseilles, France and London is rather the collective the experience of group walking and how this forms not only common wisdom, but the possibility of dynamic transformation of the urban landscape through collaboration and activism.

Carole Wright of Blak Outside. Photo by Anna Deacon.

In January, while planning a trip to Marseille, I asked a question on Twitter: What projects or sites should I visit? One of the most interesting responses came from London-based academic and activist Clare Qualmann, who pointed me to a network of artists, walkers and community activists who communicated regularly, sharing ideas and practices at both virtually and at either end of the fast, easy and engaging train journey between the two cities. Qualmann organizes Eastern Jam, an urban walk of foraging and jam-making, and she’s not alone in pursuing walking as art and activism. John Bingham-Hall explores queer ecologies and urban fringes in Paris, Marseille and London. Carole Wright participates in community walks with the organization Black outside in south London and Essex, excursions that connect the spatial politics of race and place with community gardening and housing. Charlie Fox works with a group called InspiralLondon, who makes wide loops through London, and in Marseilles with his companion Julie De Muer, a representative of the Guide office (organizers of ski, hiking and climbing trips), on a popular Airbnb-type network called Hôtel du Nord.

The River Wandle, a tributary of the Thames, runs through Morden Hall Park and is explored here by walkers. Photo courtesy of Carole Wright.

In Qualmann’s upcoming East End Jam essay, she details how walking in groups encourages people to use space differently, share knowledge and change perceptions. His picking forays into and around the Olympic and Paralympic venues in Stratford, east London, are breaking the social stigma attached to picking fruit in public spaces and helping people see the city’s vegetation differently. They end with epic jam-making sessions that encourage togetherness and communication. Qualmann explains during a walk along the Stratford Greenway that in the beginning the walks attracted a predominantly white and middle-class population, so there was a need to directly reach a more diverse constituency and bring intentionally these people in the experiment.

The participants of a Bureau des Guides walk following the route of the Aygalades stream and discuss their route. Photo by Philippe Conti, Bureau des Guides.

In Marseilles, De Muer from the Bureau des Guides took similar groups, intentionally from different classes, along the course of the Aygalades stream, a neglected urban waterway that empties into the harbor through a vast urban renewal project of 1,200 hectares called Euroméditerranée (Euromed for short). Sharing knowledge and changing perceptions in this case not only resulted in community involvement, but also a profound change in understanding of the governance of Marseilles and the fundamental narratives of the Euromed regeneration effort. Treating the course of the Aygalades as a continuous landscape and addressing the issues of urban watercourse syndrome – the familiar state of urban waterways defined by issues such as ecological degradation, pollution and impermeable surfaces contributing to flash floods – will now be the task of a dedicated municipal service. Euromed is committed head-on to the issue of the landscape and stormwater management of its increasingly flood-prone site through its support for this new department, increased investment in the study of past flooding events on the whole of the Mediterranean, committing to the principles of the “green city”, and the installation of rain gardens.

Walking the full and continuous course of an urban waterway is not without its challenges. Here, walkers live an immersive experience. Photo by Philippe Conti, Bureau des Guides.

Wright’s work in south London and Essex is more local, but engages in a similar way to that of De Muer. She says that when she creates a community garden like she did at Brookwood House Council Estate, with the artist Fritz Haeg on a project called Edible areas, walking around the neighborhood is a crucial part of the process. “Almost anyone can walk,” she says, “and walking is inexpensive.” A garden is never a discreet and delimited site, but it is always in dialogue with its context, social, cultural, ecological, she says. In the 19th century housing project where she lives, Blackfriars Estate, she used the same purposeful marching approach to enlist local politicians in creating substantial change, prompting needed but long-stalled repairs and renovations on the streets. buildings.

De Muer and Fox point out a peaceful grove of umbrella pines on top of a hill (Pinus pinea) above Marseille Nord, formerly country house (country house) by the sculptor Jules Cantini. On his death in 1916, he bequeathed the house and park to the Marseillais in perpetuity. One of the last acts of the former conservative city government, however, was to sell the site for industrial development. The site, called Miramar, is not an official park but is maintained for its biodiversity by volunteers. Through the Bureau des Guides, residents of a neighboring housing estate, La Castellane, were introduced to Miramar. Although La Castellane has recently seen an escalation in drug gang activity – to the point that it is now barricaded and fortified by the gangs, making it impossible to organize further walks in the area – residents and other residents showed up to defend the pines when teams equipped with chainsaws attempted to clear the site. “We don’t need a park,” says De Muer. “The park is the end and the beginning of the problem.” The city does not need to maintain Miramar as a formal space, she says, but as a site for active participation and community engagement. A park in this neighborhood would never be properly maintained, and if formalized, its maintenance would pass from the hands of locals into the hands of politicians.

This colorful map from the Bureau des Guides chronicles a trip on the road to the Aygalades stream in Marseille, France. Image of the Bureau des Guides.

“Wayfaring,” writes anthropologist Tim Ingold in his book Lines: a brief history, “is neither placeless nor bound to a place, but a place-manufacturing.” These local forms of placemaking require landscape architects to find ways to work locally and walk locally, collaboratively and productively, to identify and develop sites with their communities rather than waiting for clients or competitions to stimulate the action. Landscape architects can be leaders by treating cities and neighborhoods as whole, continuous and substantial landscapes and by drawing people into active participation to learn more about the places they inhabit, increasing cosmopolitanism and communication and creating mutual understanding. People find common landmarks even though they come from radically different backgrounds when they come together to see their city as a landscape. People are also finding the political will and developing the language to talk about and for their landscapes through the practice of walking.

Changing perceptions also requires the eye of the outside, and productive communication networks such as those developed in London and Marseilles help to ensure that there is a ready feedback mechanism, with critical distance and the ability to compare and contrast. London and Marseille are very different cities but share many of the same problems and opportunities. Not only is walking a useful collective practice, but it can also form a solid basis for site analysis, evaluation and the processes of critique and reflection. Walking can inform designers of local practices, the local context, and any ongoing active management and maintenance, and familiarize them with pre-existing, current, and future forces that may delay seemingly inevitable degradation after installation.

Part of this process is also to separate sites and design from research from profit, although this does not preclude the need to raise funds and organize volunteers. Yet what is needed are not so much showy, big-spending projects, but widely dispersed projects that take a lighter, longer-term touch so that green infrastructure can be effectively developed wherever it is needed. , that is, everywhere in the city.

An InspiralLondon walk with Charlie Fox and Clare Qualmann. Photo courtesy Counterproductions.

Tim Waterman is Associate Professor of Landscape Theory at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London.

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