The Modern Flâneur

by Audrey Maloney


A person who walks the city in order to experience it.

Charles Baudelaire

A figure of the modern artist-poet, a figure keenly aware of the bustle of modern life, an amateur detective and investigator of the city…

Walter Benjamin

Street art in London, UK. Photo by author

Do you remember the last time you took a stroll somewhere in the city, perhaps noticing a new piece of artwork on a brick wall or being amused by some overheard conversation? Did you know you were engaging in the 19th-century French literary-crowd notion of flâneurie?

The flâneur, originally endemic to mid-1800s Paris, was at that time most commonly spotted in the wild as a well-dressed and (being the 1800s) typically male specimen, wandering the streets with the proto-sociological, philosophical goal of observing humanity going about its business. Though flâneurie was a physical act – walking – it was just as much about fostering observations and ideas. Flâneurs used the material of life and of the built environment to make intellectual connections and be immersed in the current look, feel, behavior, fashions, and conversations of the city.

The appeal of taking up the flâneur mantle today is not limited to top-hatted dandies of le café scene. Using the life, architecture, and open spaces of the modern city as a springboard for exploration and contemplation is as enjoyable a prospect today as it was then, and is more accessible to more people (although this aspect remains a work in progress). The benefits of flâneurie are both physical and mental. There is the mind-clearing effect of getting some exercise, for one. The details of a city offer creative stimulation, and the psychological response to encountering a variety of textures, spaces, and plants along a path enables interesting mental connections. One can sense this effect, anecdotally, and studies back it up: for example, one series of experiments demonstrated increased creativity in verbal tasks performed while walking, particularly in spaces with some vegetation.

As many plants as possible, please. Kyoto, Japan. Photo by author

The modern flâneur, smart device in hand, has different exploratory and recording opportunities than Monsieur Baudelaire. A sketchbook is still a wonderful way for 21st century flâneurs to focus attention and stay engaged in the present surroundings, but a thoughtfully wielded phone camera can also be an excellent tool for engaging with urban surroundings. At walking speed, eye-level urban details – small spaces, courtyards, shortcuts, the materials of facades – become as prominent and interesting as grand architectural moments.

Vegetation and street-grid connectivity invite walking exploration on Amazon’s campus in South Lake Union, Seattle. Photo by HEWITT

While the appeal of flâneurie is broad, many people are most likely to have experienced becoming temporary flâneurs while on vacation. The desire to explore and be immersed in the outdoor and urban environment is so strong that many people – myself included – will spend considerable resources on getting to a place where they feel they can do just that. The walking tour is even older than the concept of the flâneur, and yet it remains as popular as ever. Booking.com reported that 56% of travelers wanted to go on a hiking or walking tour in 2018; travel company Butterfield & Robinson reported that bookings of walking tours were up 188% in 2016 over 2010, reflecting a steady year-on-year increase; and another travel company, Backroads, last year reported similarly that its walking and hiking tour segment had more than tripled in the past five years. Is this really only a vacation-time desire? The plethora of DIY walking guides to various cities, neighborhood walking cards available for most large American cities, and the like, indicate that it is not. How can modern urban developments support the desire to be able to experience the city on foot?  

Walkers are ‘practitioners of the city,’ for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities.

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

As a landscape architect at HEWITT, I have the chance to participate in turning a love of urban exploration into professional practice. Questions and observations that I’ve developed from years of wandering cities in several countries have application to projects in constantly developing cities like Seattle. What can the grassroots modifications to small-scale and neglected places that I’ve observed in back lanes and along sidewalks tell me about universal human needs and desires for our environments? When walking for exploration rather than destination, what signals, landmarks, and clues guided my choice of route, and what does that mean for understanding how people find their way around? What can historic places where people have gathered for many years teach me about creating appealing places in new developments?

What will you notice on your next walk?

Audrey Maloney is a landscape architect at HEWITT, where she is currently working on mixed-use and urban design projects in Washington and Oregon. She received her Master of Landscape Architecture degree from the University of Washington and studied architecture at the University of Shiga in Japan.  A native of Oregon, she enjoys skiing and hiking in the Cascades, urban sketching, and taking ambitiously long walks through all kinds of cities.