How to Analyse a City: Observation, Memory, Reflection and the Journal/Notebook as a Tool for Observing and Analysing Cities in Action
One of the most useful ways to engage with a city is to learn how to read it through the process of observation, memory and reflection.
To take time to be in the city, enjoy the city and to practice the ancient art of being a FLANEUR in the city.
The Flaneur: or, How to Read a City
‘…as Walter Benjamin explains, the flaneur is in search of experience, not knowledge…’
– Edmund White in The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, Bloomsbury, London, 2008.
Who, or What, is a Flaneur…?
The flâneur, or the notion of the flaneur, is a creation of the 19th century Parisian streets that offered an almost unlimited kaleidoscopic opportunity for social observation and experience.
The flaneur, by definition, is an ‘exemplary stroller’ who strolls through the streets at a pace in which observation becomes the centre point of his experience.
As Edmund White suggests in his stunningly observant account of the flaneur and the ‘paradoxes of Paris’, Walter Benjamin was probably one of the most acute observers of the idea of the flaneur and one of literature’s most important writers in documenting the activities of this unique Parisian creature.
The flaneur is not a tourist, shopper or pedestrian eager to rapidly consume the landscape, but one who is almost overwhelmed by the delectable possibilities of the urban landscape; so much so that he is not really sure where to start or where his journey will take him.
The Journal and the Notebook and How to Observe a City
One of the best ways to really learn to observe a city is to carry a notebook or a journal with you in your pocket or in your bag and to record the observations that you see and hear all around you.
This is one of the simplest and most powerful techniques that a writer can use in gathering material for their writing.
Some Observational Techniques for the Journey: Memory, Observation, Reflection – Writing or Slowing Down and Observing – The City as Art and Text
Next time as you wander through the streets and lanes in your city, you might like to consider the following creative ideas as the basis for making notes in your notebook which can later be used as the basis for reflection and writing in a wide range of genres:
Poem – write a poem based on an observation you make…
Found poem – construct and write down your found poem in your notebook…
Observational – record an observation/s you have made…
Overheard conversation – record and overheard conversation as dialogue…
Visual image – record a visual image that you have seen as the basis for poem or starting point for a piece of writing…
Remembrance – Record a remembrance that may have been triggered by something you have seen…
Smell – use your sense of smell and record some notes or reflections…
Reflection – use a visual image to reflect or to write a mediation about what you have just seen …
Colour – Taking the Colour Walk: William S. Burroughs and the ‘colour walk’ through Paris …
“I was taking a colour walk around Paris the other day … I was walking down the boulevard when I suddenly felt this cool wind on a warm day, and when I looked out I was seeing all the blues in the street in front of me… blue on a foulard…a girls’ blue sweater…blue neon…. the blue sky …all the blues. When I looked again, I saw nothing but all the reds…of traffic lights…car lights…a café sign…a man’s nose…”
Excerpt from The Beat Hotel, Barry Miles, Atlantic Books, London, 2000, p 157.
In the next two Journal entries, I’ll talk about one of my favorite creative and observational writing techniques which I call the The Camera Eye, as well as my two most favorite writers – Blaise Cendrars and John Dos Passos – who both used this technique as an important exploratory and experimental tool amongst their broad armory of creative writing techniques.
Marcus D. Niski, June 2017
 Modernist Cultures 7.2 (2012) 180-204