Going on a Field Trip: Critical Geographical Walking Tours and Tactical Media as Urban Praxis in Sydney, Australia

M/C - Media and Culture
Publication Type:
Journal Article
M/C Journal, 2018, 21 (4)
Issue Date:
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The walking tour is an enduring feature of cities. Fuelled by a desire to learn more about the hidden and unknown spaces of the city, the walking tour has moved beyond its historical role as tourist attraction to play a key role in the transformation of urban space through gentrification. Conversely, the walking tour has a counter-history as part of a critical urban praxis. This article reflects on historical examples, as well as our own experience of conducting Field Trip, a critical geographical walking tour through an industrial precinct in Marrickville, a suburb of Sydney that is set to undergo rapid change as a result of high-rise residential apartment construction (Gibson et al.). This precinct, known as Carrington Road, is located on the unceded land of the Cadigal and Wangal people of the Eora nation who call the area Bulanaming. Drawing on a long history of philosophical walking, many contemporary writers (Solnit; Gros; Bendiner-Viani) have described walking as a practice that can open different ways of thinking, observing and being in the world. Some have focused on the value of walking to the study of place (Hall; Philips; Heddon), and have underscored its relationship to established research methods, such as sensory ethnography (Springgay and Truman). The work of Michel de Certeau pays particular attention to the relationship between walking and the city. In particular, the concepts of tactics and strategy have been applied in a variety of ways across cultural studies, cultural geography, and urban studies (Morris). In line with de Certeau’s thinking, we view walking as an example of a tactic – a routine and often unconscious practice that can become a form of creative resistance. In this sense, walking can be a way to engage in and design the city by opposing its structures, or strategies. For example, walking in a city such as Sydney that is designed for cars requires choosing alternative paths, redirecting flows of people and traffic, and creating custom shortcuts. Choosing pedestrianism in Sydney can certainly feel like a form of resistance, and we make the argument that Field Trip – and walking tours more generally – can be a way of doing this collectively, firstly by moving in opposite directions, and secondly, at incongruent speeds to those for whom the scale and style of strategic urban development is inevitable. How such tactical walking relates to the design of cities, however, is less clear. Walking is a generally described in the literature as an individual act, while the design of cities is, at its best participatory, and always involving multiple stakeholders. This reveals a tension between the practice of walking as a détournement or appropriation of urban space, and its relationship to existing built form. Field Trip, as an example of collective walking, is one such appropriation of urban space – one designed to lead to more democratic decision making around the planning and design of cities. Given the anti-democratic, “post-political” nature of contemporary “consultation” processes, this is a seemingly huge task (Legacy et al.; Ruming). We make the argument that Field Trip – and walking tours more generally – can be a form of collective resistance to top-down urban planning. By using an open-source wiki in combination with the Internet Archive, Field Trip also seeks to collectively document and make public the local knowledge generated by walking at the frontier of gentrification. We discuss these digital choices as oppositional practice, and consider the idea of tactical media (Lovink and Garcia; Raley) in order to connect knowledge sharing with the practice of walking. This article is structured in four parts. Firstly, we provide a historical introduction to the relationship between walking tours and gentrification of global cities. Secondly, we examine the significance of walking tours in Sydney and then specifically within Marrickville. Thirdly, we discuss the Field Trip project as a citizen-led walking tour and, finally, elaborate on its role as tactical media project and offer some conclusions.
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