De Certeau, M. (1984). Walking in the City. In _The Practice of Everyday Life_. Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press.

French Jesuit and scholar, Michel de Certeau, received degrees in classics and philosophy before being ordained in 1956. He bth co-founded the journal Christus and received his junior doctorate at the Sorbonne in 1960. His influences include Freud and Lacan, and so his work reflects the intersection of history, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, social sciences, and mysticism.

In “Walking in the City,” Certeau’s everyday practice of the flâneur bespeaks a more optimistic view of the urban phenomenon. While institutions, via the “space planner urbanist, city planner or cartographer” (93) have prescribed the city’s grid pattern and appointed major thoroughfares, the “ordinary practitioners” (ibid) step off these formal roadways, fashioning their own, uniquely personal pathways. This chapter, therefore, is a discourse about the “migrational, metaphorical” (ibid) city asserting itself within the planned one.

The pedestrian-citizen relays her opinions, preferences, ambitions, memories, herself by walking — the walk is an expression of the democratic act. Certeau’s pedestrian act has three qualities that immediately make it distinct from the spatial system. First, it is present: the walker traversing the streets recalls Lefebvrian (2003) centrality — any place can be the place at any given moment. This present-ness of the pedestrian act manifests its second quality, discreteness. “The walker ‘makes a selection’” (98). Third, walking is phatic, communicative but not necessarily informational.

“Walking affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it ‘speaks’…. These enunciatory operations are of an unlimited diversity. They therefore cannot be reduced to their graphic [institution-determined] trail” (99).

This “rhetoric of walking” (100) is separate from the “proper meanings” constructed and dictated by hegemony-promoting city designers. The democratic process is underscored in Certeau’s “chorus of idle footsteps” (97), wherein walking “is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian…is a spatial acting-out of the place…[and] implies relations among differentiated positions” (97).

Certeau extols the “heterogeneous and even contrary elements” (107) in the city. Likewise, he does not take for granted that these elements are privileged, much less encouraged, by hegemonic powers. He reminds us “spatial practices in fact secretly structure the determining conditions of social life” (96), and explains it is the “symptomatic tendency of functionalist totalitarianism” (see Scott, 1998), to override organic, neighborhood discourses, “local authorities” (p.106), in favor of their diametric opposites, readily legible and categorical systems.

Not featured in this chapter but central to Certeau’s premise are “strategies” and “tactics.” Strategies involve using preordained, dedicated spaces for activities, such as state-sanctioned areas for grassroots demonstrations. Tactics, by contrast, take place in novel spaces, outside the state’s authority and in direct contest to the status quo. Certeau favors tactics by far, as do the Situationists.


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Filed under Annotated Bibliographies, Community Development, Major Field, Planning Theory, Public Space, Research Fields


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