Towards a Theory of Cross City Walks

Reflections by Pete Ashton.

My impetus for walking across the city I live in in a straight line was simply to see what it would be like. I had no idea of whether it would be interesting or what it might throw up. Maybe it would open up a whole new appreciation of the city. Maybe I’d just rub my aching feet and regret wasting a day.

Now I’ve done four walks, thanks in no small part to Andy’s unceasing nagging, I have begun to develop an appreciation of what this practice of walking is and what it could mean. I still have to rub my aching feet (after one walk I couldn’t walk without pain for a week, lest anyone think I’m some insane walking fanatic) but my brain also throbs with ideas and notions. Here’s a very rough run-down of some of them.

Comparing opposing districts is fascinating.

When dealing with a city with the size and diversity of Birmingham it can be really hard to comprehend what exactly you’re dealing with. This “core sample” approach keeps things simpler and makes any differences starker. Walking from Kings Heath to Handsworth Wood saw us pass through Moseley, the trendy, middle class, leafy borough, and its opposite Lozells, one of the poorest districts in the country. The difference could not have been more stark and utterly erased any notion of their being “one Birmingham”.

The line pushes you into the hinterland

When we walked from the University to Spaghetti Junction we thought we’d be comparing two monlithic institutions which happened to be opposite each other, but the real interest happened along the Aston Expressway where we were forced into a desert of industrial estates and business parks. Each one was a monument to investment and regeneration policies of the post-industrial era, some successful, many not-so. The architecture along this route was atrocious but it didn’t matter as no-one would ever pass this way accidentally.


You connect up areas in new ways

The road network joins up the city in a rigid manner. Even walking will often keep you to the main routes because they’re easier and safer. It takes effort to find the straightest line and the flow of people will always take the path of least resistance. As regular explorers of Birmingham we had been to most of the places on the routes, but we’d never connected them in this way. The path in and out of the city centre was always a novelty as crossings of the inner ring road happen at very specific points. And the route from Acocks Green to Digbeth saw us pass through many peripheries rather than leapfrogging onto high streets. Our Birmingham cortical homunculus was rendered more human.

Wearing a camera is socially awkward

I am undertaking these walks with a Go-Pro camera strapped to my chest. Despite being small it is rather conspicuous and people notice the black circle of the lens immediately. We keep a steady pace so there’s never a chance for confrontation but I felt I was being very rude, walking into people’s communities and taking photos of them without consent. This was amplified by my being a middle aged, middle class white guy with a £300 camera walking through ethnically diverse areas of poverty where cameras are primarily used for policing and punishment. This discomfort on my part was particularly fascinating and is something I want to explore further. Is this sort of art a form of class tourism? See also sousveillance.

The photos do not reflect the reality

The GoPro is socially and politically a fascinating device. The wide-angle lens makes everything seem much further away than we remembered it. This means the viewer of the images is much more detached from the experience. They cannot reach out and touch as we could. When coupled with the treadmill installation this notion of a “fake Birmingham” became even stronger.

And there’s much more which will be articulated when it’s ready to be articulated. Stay tuned.

Pete Ashton
April 2015