Thoughts on the power of observation to engage with place
Many aspects to life are played out in public and observation is a very powerful skill to have. To my mind, the very act of observing (rather than looking/seeing) means you’ve begun the process of engaging with place and everyday life. For me, the difference between seeing and observing is found in asking yourself two key questions: Why is that happening? How did this occur? By asking those kinds of questions, you start to dig below the surface of what you see. It’s through this you get to add to your own stories of a place, your own experiences and your own knowledge of self and others.
As an aside, this is why I’m not keen on listicles and ‘1001 things to do in (.wherever) before you die’ kinds of lists. I have a personal concern with bucket lists – as if they are the ultimate definer of an experience, a life. Too much time marking things off lists means too little time getting to know a place, its people and its everyday life. Quiet reflection and observation (and most importantly, understanding of some kind) are too often subsumed by the next thing to tick off.
The streets are the point of intersection of people’s lives, relationships, networks and interactions and the vignettes of people’s lives which unfold tell a lot about the pulses of everyday life, well away from the our own assumptions But this is not that unusual – public spaces (parks, roads, wastelands, forests for example) provide glimpses into the everyday life of place. You just need to spend the time to observe and do, rather than rush by or through.