Human beings are nomadic creatures. For 99% of our existence as a species, anthropologists believe, we’ve been on the move. Some scientists have argued that a propensity for travel, novelty and adventure is actually encoded in our DNA. Either way, we don’t take well to confinement.
When the world shut down in March 2020, that’s exactly what we got.
For many, the sudden inability to travel beyond our own neighborhoods brought with it a very real, very natural sense of claustrophobia. But while obviously limiting our experience in some respects, the imposition of this bizarre new reality also opened up possibilities for channeling our nomadic impulse in ways we might never previously have thought to explore.
Too often — and not necessarily through any fault of our own — our engagement with our surroundings consists merely in getting from A to B and back again. At worst, the places we live can become little more than places we drive away from in the morning and back to at night. Even those of us who prefer to get around on foot tend to find ourselves treading the same familiar routes, consciously or unconsciously, day in, day out. “If you track your own path through a typical day,” writes Joseph Hart, “you’ll soon discover that your journey is habitual, that you’re slowly wearing a canyon through the same streets, the same sidewalks, day after day.”
Stepping even a short distance off our usual path, a familiar scene can be completely transformed. We notice slivers of green space we might not normally notice; nature persevering through the cracks in the asphalt; street art and graffiti, tags signifying whatever they signify (in most big cities, a single spray-painted symbol on a wall can instantly alter your understanding of a neighborhood and the tensions and power dynamics at work within it). By consciously seeking out new itineraries — footpaths, alleys, boardwalks and edgelands it might never have occurred to us to explore before — we gain a new perspective on our surroundings.
It’s hardly a new idea. Think of Walter Benjamin’s flâneur, or Debord and his followers, for whom urban wandering can open up “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities… anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts…