The Roaming City
“The street is a room of agreement” said Louis Khan, and certainly, cities are meant to be shared and enjoyed from various points of view, where the interconnection of urban infrastructures merge with social activity, daily routine and sporadic happenings. There is an evident desire pursuing a physical agreement between us and others, between us and the urban landscape; where we decide how to roam and at the same time, allow the city’s composition to intervene with our roaming decisions.
If the street space acts as a room, and the room suggests its use without a name; certain elements in the composition of the street must reveal its essence perceived by the user’s sensorial experience; elements that would make the user remember the experience rather than the name of a street itself. Sounds, smells, colors, wide or narrow passages, obstructions and lighting; all colliding to provide an experience that can describe the essence of a city composed by these many “rooms”.
A city that embraces the sensorial experience due to its absence of urban fabric and multiplicity of levels and paths, is Hong Kong. A city usually known by urbanists by the lack of ground floor or by having too many at the same time. Christopher DeWolf of SOM suggest that for understanding a city such as Hong Kong it can only happen “if it is fleshed out and revealed in its whole – not just in the dimensions of its space or in the affordance of its materials, but in the sound, smell and feeling of its living essence.”
Urban researchers have identified strategies of sensorial experiences in cities by the use of all senses at different levels of perception. The use of sound, touch, taste, smell and sight along a street (or a room, if we follow Kahn’s hypothesis) adds to the pedestrian’s experience characteristics that remain in the memory, similar to the feeling of wandering around a forest and remembering the scent of the trees or a specific flower, the texture of the leaves, the sound of the rain on the trees and ground, as well as the smell transmitted by the earth when touched by rain water.
The psychological effects of nature through our senses, can be easily translated into urban spaces by the insertion of active elements in the city scape. The use of water features in between two buildings for example, can be perfect traffic sounds mitigators and at the same time becomes a reminder of that street when retracing one’s path from point A to point B.
Just like the use of plants with certain smells and movement on their leaves can stimulate our sensorial experience along a path; the sounds of church bells, the subway passing above or below the street, a bold red sculpture in the middle of a park or a perfectly illuminated building at night, can provide a different understanding of a city. Interconnecting a set of elements like these, perhaps with through-lot projects with a public lobby, important key places to attend or a market that connects with a park; could be agents of a sensorial city that can pleasantly mitigate the antagonist agents that disrupt our experiences in the city.
Hong Kong’s city planning, is not exactly a role model in terms of it’s sporadic development, but it is somehow a guide to follow by understanding how people roam in a city that has developed without a grid and without a ground level, where roaming only makes sense if you follow your senses… literally.
Taking hints on how the city has arranged a sensorial solution for guiding pedestrians, might take part on other cities where the experience is much less sensorial, where walkability is dimmed by the use of cars and the inclusion of people with disabilities is basically unavailable.
Our lifestyles can define the way we roam a city, but our interests also define the path we take within the city, which can be easily altered by the city fabric, how we move around and why. The city can tell the story it was designed with, but it is us the users who create alternate paths, generate gathering places and modify the city’s materiality that guide or interrupt the minority’s path around the city.