Les Flâneurs des Smart Cities

There’s currently a lot of hype around Smart Cities and how technology can assist cities to become ‘smarter’, more efficient and ultimately ‘aid’ the citizen.  Sensors which can be attached to nearly anything, the data collected about nearly everything, CCTV cameras and the tracking abilities of the phone in your pocket means that the opportunity for us to disappear in a crowd is pretty much impossible. Watching the Urban Age Electric City Conference 2012 last week I was pleased to hear Richard Sennett stand up against this hype proclaiming: “I love getting lost. Surprise and serendipity is part of the experience of complexity, how we innovate” and in an article he wrote for the Guardian that same week:  “If they have a choice, people want a more open, indeterminate city in which to make their way; this is how they can come to take ownership over their lives.”

He is not alone in his thoughts.  Over the centuries city dwellers have had to constantly adapt to new technological innovations and the importance of maintaining control of one’s environment resurges constantly.  Take Baudelaire and the technological advancements of his era in Paris:

In the mid 19th century cities were being transformed dramatically and since the French Revolution an extensive network of controls had appeared across Paris.  Balzac commented on the problems of modern living for city dwellers:

Poor women of France!  You would probably like to remain unknown so that you can carry on your little romances.  But how can you manage this in a civilization which registers the departures and arrivals of coaches in public places, counts letters and stamps them when they are posted and again when they are delivered, assigns numbers to houses, and will soon have the whole country, down to the smallest plot of land, in its registers?” (Modeste Mignon 1836)

Add to this Walter Benjamin who describes how the citizens of Paris reacted to the introduction of buses and trams:

People had to adapt themselves to a new and rather strange situation, one that is peculiar to big cities…  Simmel has provided an excellent formulation of what was involved here “Before the development of buses, railroads and trams in the 19th century, people had never been in situations where they had to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another”.  These situations were…  not pleasant” (Selected Writings 1938-1940 The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire)

There was deep uncertainty about this situation because city dwellers until then had not had to mix with others they did not know, never mind feel comfortable with.  Simultaneously a trend emerged amongst some members of the bourgeoisie in Paris (Baudelaire included) to write ‘physiologies’ – articles and poems published in feuilletons which were sold on the street describing members of the public they had observed while sauntering round the newly built arcades and wide avenues of Paris.  It was only once these  arcades (similar to the Burlington Arcade in London) and wide avenues such as Boulevard Haussmann were built that the art of the ‘flâneur’ (saunterer) emerged as previously cities had not been designed for casual walking – the streets having no wide pavements or arcades on which to sit or stand to simply ‘observe’.  It was suggested that these literary works helped people bridge the gap between citizens who had never had to mix before, give people a more friendly picture of one another and, as the physiologies developed over time, to even help reassure people that you could ‘make out the profession, character, background, and lifestyle of passers-by’.  There was, they implied, nothing to be worried about when travelling with people you did not know.

It was against this backdrop that Baudelaire lived in Paris and when the art of the flâneur grew.  It was Walter Benjamin who first used the name ‘flâneur’ when describing Baudelaire and the poetry he wrote. Baudelaire was a ‘saunterer’, a detached observer – a new concept of the time:

To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.” (Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays)

To Baudelaire being a flâneur meant that he could observe but also ‘disappear in the crowd’ which was relevant because he needed to stay under the radar to evade his creditors.  As described by Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire was constantly moving between cafés and reading circles and spent many years having 2 domiciles then when the rent was due moving onto a 3rd lodging with friends.  Roaming the city, keeping under the radar was becoming increasingly complex.  He was not alone in his resistance against the increasing tightening of controls. Even though the obligatory numbering of houses was introduced in 1805 it was recorded that by 1864 people in the proletarian quarters of the city at least, when asked where they lived, still referred to the name of their house and not the official street number.

For us the concept of a city without house numbers is almost unimaginable and we are accepting of a city full of CCTV cameras, but another suggestion made in the Urban Age Electric City Conference that perhaps it would be a great idea to have no lighting at night in some places in London but to ensure that everyone knew that CCTV cameras were in operation there to keep people safe is going a step too far…  Isn’t it???

With all this in mind it may be worth expanding Sennett’s comment in the Guardian from above with a little more context:

“the prospect of an orderly city has not been a lure for voluntary migration, neither to European cities in the past nor today to the sprawling cities of South America and Asia. If they have a choice, people want a more open, indeterminate city in which to make their way; this is how they can come to take ownership over their lives.”

Let’s hope we are given that choice.

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About Janet

Hello these are words about myself
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