A few days ago I finished a wonderful book – definitely one of my favorite books this past year: it's titled ‘On Looking – Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes’. The author, Alexandra Horowitz is a behavioural psychologist and essentially explores her own neighborhood on the Upper West Side in NYC with ‘expert eyes’ in tow. She walks with experts, such as an urban planner(!), a doctor, an insect specialist, a geologist, an artist, a sound engineer - all of whom show her details of her so-familiar surroundings. In many different ways they all teach her how to ‘look differently’ and thereby see and notice so much more and Horowitz does a fantastic job passing on some of the knowledge these experts shared with her.
Fred Kent, President of the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is the urban planner she walks with. PPS is “a nonprofit planning, design and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities” – see: www.pps.org. Kent talks to Horowitz about pedestrian flow patterns, urban pedestraian behaviour, and about the types of facades and streetfronts that encourage social interaction. The chapter made me want to take a walk with him, too!
I especially appreciated that Horowitz not only walked with ‘professional experts’, but also with companions such as a blind woman (expert in ‘seeing without eyesight’), a dog (expert in smelling!), and Horowitz’s own toddler son (expert in finding things orange!). Turns out her son is interested in taking entirely different walks and has much to share. His walk does not connect A and B in a straight line, he does not leave the house with a destination in mind, or even the goal of wanting to ‘walk around the block’. Instead he wanders around, stops a lot, backtracks, all the while exploring details such as steps, a standpipe, and seeds that have fallen off a tree.
As Horowitz explains in an interview she is generally less drawn to ‘the exotic’ than to ‘finding the unique and interesting in the ordinary’ (the interview with Harry Kreisler for University of California TV is available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyclcBoTe7k). I find her approach fascinating and highly recommend her book – it may help you to see your surroundings in a whole new way! And if she decides to write an sequel, I hope she will also be taking walks with an architect, a traffic engineer, and also with a teenager and maybe a homeless person – all would have much to add, I think.
There is a short video of Horowitz showing off some of the discoveries she made on her walks at: http://pages.simonandschuster.com/onlooking