The wonder of a city wander

So reader – do you feel comfortable walking our city streets? Do you ever walk with no agenda or appointment or map? Are you happy to wander in an urban area without accompaniment (other than your normal commute)? And when alone, do you feel more conspicuous? My guess, your answers – especially if you are female – are no, rarely, not really and yes.

This year of public attacks, from Cologne to Nice to Istanbul and beyond, may well have heightened our fears of walking out for pleasure.  But having listened to the inspiring  Radio 4 reading of the  The Flaneuse by Laura Elkin, we are missing out on a world of opportunities.

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The term flâneur comes from the French masculine noun flâneur— meaning “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, “loafer” (which itself comes from the French verb flâner, which means “to stroll). Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) first used the term to question fast-paced urbanization and industrialization in Paris.  The flaneur then was a creature of the 19th century : a man who wanders the city idly and aimlessly, from alley ways to hidden corners, observing the immediate, but also empowered by his anonymity. Charles Dickens was one. He could easily rack up 20 miles, often at night (as an insomnia cure). Today’s leading flaneur? Will Self.

All this aimless walking wasn’t just for fun. There was a distinct political undertone to flâneuring –   a deliberate opposition to capitalist society, with its two great imperatives, to be in a hurry, and to buy things  (there was even a brief vogue to amble around Paris with tortoises on leashes as a protest to consumerism). Flâneurs aren’t idling either  – they are wondering about the lives of those they pass, constructing narratives for them, they are eavesdropping on conversations, they are studying how people dress and what they are buying.  (Later influencing French theorist and filmmaker Guy Debord’s psychogeography (founder of Situationist International) in the 1950s.)

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Back then flâneuring was a male domain but the twentieth century saw women, from Virginia Woolf to George Sand and Martha Gelhorn,  take on the role and redefine it. “The flâneuse is not merely a female flâneur, but a figure to be reckoned with, and inspired by, all on her own. She voyages out, and goes where she’s not supposed to; she forces us to confront the ways in which words like home and belonging are used against women. She is a determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.”(Elkin writing in The Guardian)

But as this vigourous multi-biography shows, whilst there are some exceptional examples of perceptive women wanderers, there are not many of such great note (or maybe women choose not to reveal their wondering walks).   It’s likely many women would find being likened to a street-walker rather than Woolf’s “street haunter” off-putting. Elkin argues, it has ever been thus, that the lives and imaginations of these women have been tied to the way in which they negotiate public and private space, while protecting their bodies and their reputations.

So have our 21st century cities improved as spaces for women to wander? Not really. The real or perceived fear of intimidation, harassment or violence is still (if not more) prevalent on urban streets today – around the world.  (35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives.

Filmmakers and artists have already questioned this fear producing a range of creative challenges to make streets safer. From walking a man on a leash around Vienna (Valie Export), to stalking a male acquaintance in Venice (Sophie Calle), and Adrian Piper’s revulsion acts, a deliberate provocation to her fellow New Yorkers.   In each of these performances, there’s a woman, alone, with her body either on display, confronting a crowd, or at risk of violence,  using their vulnerability as a way to reinvent the narratives we hold about city living. (

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Today research and activities are continuing – more celebratory in ethos; the walking artists networkwalking library projectwalking women.

A more direct action approach seems to have found ground this year (following on from  the New Year attacks in Cologne and the global horror reaction to rapes in India) – has produced this award-winning four-minute film “Walking Home”to raise awareness;



Women’s Equality campaign #WEcount, recently launched their campaign to reclaim Britain’s streets for women, UK-wide. (Following a London campaign in March, when the city’s women posted on social media and an interactive map to mark their experiences of violence, harassment and assault)

Whilst ActionAid’s Fearless campaign has produced initiatives in London but has a more far-reaching global strategy.

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ActionAid: Getty Images

So where’s the safest place to flaneur?  Reykjavik and Singapore and Edinburgh according to this study. Global rankings of the safest cities for women

The fear our modern-day data trends often engender were, likely, far from the minds of the original flâneuse.  It’s damned fear that also takes the shine off an activity that really should be “pure” – without constraint or boundaries.

So we should brave up and take heart from the women who have overcome the challenges of our streets to produce such interesting work. Epitomized for some of us, perhaps, by Phyllis Pearsall – the creator of the London A to Z.

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The romantic version of her story says she was inspired to map the city after failing to find a party  with a 1919 Ordnance Survey map. Working 18 hour days, she walked 3,000 miles to check the names of London’s 23,000 streets. Unable to find a publisher she then set her own company, the Geographers’ A-Z Map Company and self published 10,000 copies. When WH Smith ordered 1250 copies, she said she delivered them herself in a wheelbarrow and only when they sold out did the other retailers catch on – the map has been in continuous production ever since.


This is probably a goodly spun version of the truth (it’s more likely she extended detail on exiting map work), but she was a strong, independent woman who has left behind an enduring legacy.

And one we can build on. So sturdy shoes on, eyes and ears open, the streets are ours too.


Further Inspiration:  



Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962). Now hailed as innovative and influential this film’s strong feminine viewpoint raises questions on the perception of women in French society.

Roman Holiday (1953). Audrey’s Hepburn’s gives an oscar wining performance as she negotiates Rome as a breakaway princess.

Lost in Translation (2003). Scarlet Johansson is a lonely woman struggling in urbanized Tokoyo.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway – This British Library film recreates the London of Virginia Woolf and her siblings in the early 20th century.

Animated short – Phyllis Pearson – A to Z

BFI Top Ten films about women and the city 



The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone  by Olivia Lang 

Wanderlust: A History of Walking  and A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Mrs P’s Journey: The Remarkable Story Of The Woman Who Created The A-Z Map

On how to walk aimlessly – The slow death of purposeless walking b



BBC radio player – A Walk of One’s Own.  To celebrate the centenary of Virginia Woolf’s first published novel, Woolf biographer Alexandra Harris takes four walks that inspired her work.



Help make “gender fair-cities”, a city at a time.