Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The sidewalk as a landscape of movement

I'm fascinated by the way we engage in our landscape through movement. One thing in particular--the way people negotiate space collaboratively has always held special appeal. 

I have always found sidewalk manners something of a challenge. Experiencing how this works in Sri Lanka helped me get a handle on the question. 

But first the question: why have I always found sidewalk negotiating to be do awkward? Before my recent trip to Sri Lanka I was in Israel, where I noted patterns in sidewalk sharing that took me back almost fifty years. My first trip to Israel was when I was 17, on the cusp of young adulthood. I had walked plenty on the streets of my native Chicago, not a very crowded place, wide sidewalks, Midwestern place-ways. But it was at 17, when I spent several weeks walking around Israeli cities, that sidewalk manners were first inculcated. In fact I noticed it on this recent visit. If you are directly parallel to an oncoming pedestrian you align yourself slightly to your right. This way you will pass one another on your left. 

For years I tried this move, unaware that I had picked it up in a "foreign" county, and that it didn't make sense in America, where we pass on any old side of each other unless, or, as we frequently do (at least in Boston) we cross to the other side of the street to avoid contact. 

Strange, isn't it? But we live in a very cold place.

So it was dead interesting to me when I was in Colombo a few weeks ago, walking my 2km of the Galle Road, to observe pedestrian patterns. Do you know how it's done in Sri Lanka?

I noticed that as a person approached me on the narrow, slightly chaotic sidewalks of the Galle Road they aligned themselves slightly to their left. This way, we passed each other on the right. More of a habit than a "rule" I noticed this pattern within certain parameters. For example, older people conformed to this pattern more than younger people. Generally it seemed men did it more than women (was this because I'm a man? Would a woman purposefully change her gait in relationship to another woman rather than communicating any presence to a man?). And there were particularities like puddles, car parks, and potholes that interfered with the pattern. 

A significant finding? You be the judge. How do we use our streets? How do we shape our landscapes? How do we relate to one another vis a vis our human landscape? Personally I think these questions are worth a lot more study. 

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