Rules of Wandering
by Morgan Friedman
morgan@westegg.com
28 Jan 2002

Introduction
Last week I was wandering around Milan. After following interesting looking buildings and streets and people for many enjoyable hours, I happened upon a fantastic neighborhood called Porta Genova. My discovery of Porta Genova made me realize that I had been following, instinctually, certain patterns, looking for clues as to what I found interesting. The experiment was a success and I found a neighborhood of great cafes, interesting people, and even a vibrant outdoor market. But what are these patterns? How did I stumble upon Porta Genova?

It is the thesis of this page that each wanderer should develop certain rules that govern his wandering. Indeed, most of us already have such rules internalized, but we may profit from making these tacit ideas explicit. As Christopher Alexander might say, we need a pattern language to understand how we wander -- and how we can best find new places to wander.

The Two Principles of Wandering
There are two general principles that we should understand before we develop our own set of rules to help us wander around with the explicit purpose of discovering areas that we would enjoy the most.

The first is that in wandering we should think by association. Every type of building, person, neighborhood, store, or geographic feature is associated with others, for better or for worse. These associations may or may not be universal; but they are deeply personal and each of us must arrive at them based on our own experiences. When we wander, to find something we like, we should look for other items that are associated with it.

I've noticed, for example, that theater districts tend to be surrounded by seedy districts, with their sex shops, adult video stores, and peep shows. Therefore, if I were the type of person who enjoyed peep shows and wanted to find a neighborhood full of them, then I would go to the theater district to wander around there.

The second principle is that similar stores, restaurants, and even people tend to stick together. If there is a Hard Rock Cafe, then a Planet Hollywood would probably be nearby. If there is a peep show, then there is probably another right around the corner. And people and places tend to collect together not only with themselves, but with the other items that they are associated with. So if I find lots of people who look and act like me together, then there are probably cafes and stores nearby that I would like, too.

A Wandering Language
Understanding these two principles, it becomes easy to develop our own set of patterns or rules through which we wander.

Here are some patterns that govern my wandering, for example. Every wanderer must come up with his own, if he is to discover areas of the greatest interest to him. After the patterns are some practical applications of them.

My like: old neighborhoods
Association: Old neighborhoods tend to be full of Churches
Pattern: Wander around neighborhoods with lots of Churches

My like: People watching; also, safety
Association: You can people watch only in areas with people; also, areas with lots of people are safer than areas with fewer
Pattern: Wander around areas with lots of people

My like: Walkable areas
Association: Walkable areas have lots of small streets and alleys
Pattern: Wander around areas with lots of small streets and alleys

My like: Areas with lots of cafes
Association: Gay neighborhoods tend to be the neighborhoods with lots of cafes
Pattern: Wander around gay neighborhoods

My like: Areas with lots of bookstores, cafes, young people, and that are cheap
Association: Areas around universities tend to have all of these
Pattern: Wander around the areas near universities

My like: Small, unknown corner stores and good, cheap, unknown restaurants
Association: These tend to be in crowded areas near subway stations; these also tend to be in dirtier neighborhoods
Pattern: Wander around areas near subway stops, and in areas that are dirtier

Practical Applications
So now that I understand the patterns that connect my likes and dislikes to physical places, how can I apply this to actually wandering?

The simple answer is that the associated items are easier to find than my actual likes and dislikes - which are very idiosyncratic and individual - so that I should look for associations.

One pattern I stated above, for example, is that I like bookstores, and collections of bookstores tend to be near universities. Very few maps label bookstores; but all label major universities. Therefore, when I am in a city that I don't know, I look for the major urban university, take the subway there, then wander.

Or, for another example, I like old neighborhoods, and old neighborhoods are full of Churches. Churches are often labeled on maps as well: so, for me to find an old area I like, I look on the map for clumps of Churches, then go and wander around there.

The Element of Surprise
One casualty of such a rigorous approach towards wandering - it could be argued - is that it takes the surprise out of the wandering. Why wander when you know what you will find?

The answer to the question is that each person knows, or at least should know, the themes that he does or doesn't like, and that our excitement comes from the variations on the themes. This methodology merely encourages us to find the variations of what we know we like.

There is something to be said for the argument that one role of wandering should be to introduce us to that which we don't already know. Luckily, following the symbols still lets us do so. It wouldn't be wandering if we only went to and from the destination; the wandering itself is the act of exploration. The patterns are intended only to serve as clues as to how to best find what you will enjoy while you wander. But clues are just that -- merely clues and guideposts as we follow the unknown.

That is to say: I know I don't like Malls. When I wander, I want to try to stay away from the Mall as much as possible, so I use my patterns to keep them away. Nonetheless, when I wander, I may still stumble upon Malls -- indeed, that has certainly happened more than enough to me. If my wandering method ensured that I knew exactly what I would find behind each corner.

Notes for City Planners
This analysis has applications not only for the wanderer, but for the city planner as well. If the city planner accepts the premise that it is a good thing to wander (see postscript), then he should design the city or the neighborhood with wandering in mind.

Although the patterns I outlined above are personal patterns, many suggest universal themes or associations. Walkable areas have small streets, public transportation, and lots of Churches, almost by definition. What the city planner should do then is see what patterns are more general and popular than others are, and then design their towns with these in mind.

Postscript: Why Wander?
There is a certain type of person who enjoys wandering around unknown neighborhoods. Wandering reinvigorates the senses, letting us explore looking for what we know is there, but we don't quite know where it is.

Wandering is an act of research, of discovery, of exploration. What the microscope is to the chemist or what the telescope is to the astronomer, wandering is to the person who is interested in cities -- or in people. Wandering outside the usual touristic areas is the primary research that gives each person the opportunity to discover that which sparks his interest. And this can only be a good thing.



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