One of the things that I occasionally find myself feeling guilty about is being plugged into my phone, usually listening to a podcast, whenever I’m walking about. I particularly notice it whenever I bump into a friend: there’s a sort of dance between us as we both pull phones or iPods out of pockets, switch them off and take headphones out, often before greeting. It’s a new extended form of ‘hello’, and it always feels rather awkward to me – I feel that the gestures portray an underlying acknowledgement of the fact that we were both previously passive actors in our environment, disconnected from surroundings, and it’s only through these acts that we reconnect. Of course, this is just an inbuilt reaction that I have – it’s personally possible to be an engaged participant in the world while listening to music. There’s also an implied morality here – why should it be more important to be connected to the place that you’re in, particularly when that’s a morning walk to work on streets that you’ve tramped over hundreds of times?
It was with this in mind that I recently read Mindfulness & the Art of Urban Living by Adam Ford. It’s an interesting read, though not without problems! It has a rather uncritical take-up of the concept of mindfulness – the idea of an engagement with the immediate, with the present. In other words, it emphasises proximity. Ford uses this to emphasise the diversity of experience and enjoyment that can be gained by interaction with the city and spaces around us. To his credit, that often means activities which are free or easy to access – though many of the activities require significant cultural capital, I think. I’m also skeptical about ‘adaptation’ of ideas from one cultural context into another: is it possible to take/adapt ideas from Buddihst philosophy and bring them into a Western understanding of urban life? I’m not sure, though equally it’s surely a positive to let ideas from elsewhere infiltrate our thought. I’m also sympathetic to any attempt to think holistically; to emphasise the dependency of our subjectivity on the built environment that we engage in.
Interestingly, Ford writes about viewing the night skies, but does so in his rather unfortunate didactic tone. He points out that even in cities, it doesn’t take much to find parks, hills or observatories with views of the night-sky that are significantly better than a street-light lit street. Still, it brings me back to the question of whether the fully-dark night sky is an inherently non-urban experience: something that must always fall outside of being urban?
Either way, an interesting read which is targeted at a general rather than academic market, and a thought provoking if not unproblematic book.