City Walks and the Formation of Place

City Walks and the Formation of Place

When it comes to walking around a city, there is plenty of advice to be found. Although I’d expect there to be guides for walkers in the countryside, it came as a surprise to see the different types of guide for having a casual stroll around Sheffield.

I went looking for walking guides when I was planning the initial participant observation exercises, which I would be doing as part of my ethnographic study of online photography. In order to view the city in a different way, as something to potentially be photographed, I wanted some inspiration for where to go and what to look at.

After a quick browse in the tourist information office, I emerged with a number of leaflets, each of which had a different emphasis. Some focused on architecture, some on history, some on contemporary artworks.

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The walks displayed a series of different routes for walkers, outlining the roads to be followed and the various points of interest along the way:

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Visual material was important in this context, as photographs were used to indicate what should be looked at:

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Images here, as in guide books more generally, serve as a kind of pre-visualisation technique, allowing the reader to assess whether they want to see the sight for themselves. But as my research is beginning to show, photographs of places also serve a variety of other functions, and are used within wider conversations about place and identity.

Some guides showed not only what should be looked at, but what should be learned from this, regarding Sheffield’s history or the merits of specific architectural features and styles.

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The variation in the topics of the walks show how a range of different perspectives can be experienced within the same physical location. All of the routes were based in the same physical location — Sheffield — but each one had its own narrative about what was interesting in, and about, Sheffield. Whether focusing on Sheffield’s history as a locus of radical politics, or its civil engineering infrastucture, or its Neoclassical buildings, each route puts forward a different way of understanding the city.

This mirrors the practices I am observing online, in which users of social media share images of Sheffield to explore different aspects of the city’s history and culture. Crucially, I will argue, these different emphases are not neutral or trivial, but rather express a particular perspective on what about the city should be valued.