Gender and Urban Space

Walking in the city: urban space, stories, and gender

by Dr Natalie Collie, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia


1This paper outlines a feminist reading of Michel de Certeau’s work on urban space and narrative in The Practice of Everyday Life. De Certeau offers a persuasive, highly poetic theoretical framework for understanding the production of urban space and the way it is experienced – and ‘written’ – through the everyday practices of a city’s inhabitants. The role of sexual difference in the production of this space is somewhat underdeveloped, however. In response to this gap, and with the help of Elizabeth Grosz’s essay Cities-bodies, I develop a feminist analysis of the urban subjectivity implied in his work.

Urban space and narrative

2Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life investigates the spatial logics of everyday life and cultural consumption. The particular essay on which my reading is focused – “Walking in the City” – explores the use of urban space as an example of the ways in which consumers, as bricoleurs, actively re-use culture and “reappropriate the space organised by techniques of sociocultural production” (de Certeau, xviii). These ways of operating are “ruses of other interests and desires” that are not determined or captured by the systems in which they develop (de Certeau, xviii).

3Everyday practices are enunciative for de Certeau (Collie). The physical act of walking realises the possibilities of space organised by the spatial order (the network of streets for example), in the same way that the act of speaking realises a language, its subject, and writes a text. This process “affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects etc., the trajectories it ‘speaks’” (de Certeau 99). Walking is framed as an elementary and embodied form of experiencing urban space – a productive, yet relatively unconscious, speaking/writing of the city.

4Walking and other spatial practices are individual modes of appropriation as opposed to collective modes of administration (96). And they are tactical in nature, rather than strategic. Tactical ways of operating appropriate and divert spaces away from administrative strategies designed to create abstract place (29-30). This distinction between strategies and tactics is closely aligned with the distinction de Certeau makes between place and space in “Spatial Stories”, another essay in The Practice. De Certeau’s use of place refers to a stable ahistorical configuration of positions ruled by the law of the ‘proper’, that is, defined by the distribution of elements in relationships of coexistence (117). Place enables an institution to delineate itself and its others and to exercise strategies of power using this distinction. Space, in contrast, is a ‘practiced place’, taking vectors of direction, velocities and time variables into account: “thus the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers. In the same way, an act of reading is the space produced by the practice of a particular place: a written text, i.e., a place constituted by a system of signs” (117). Space is actuated by “the ensemble of movements deployed within it” (117) and situated by the actions of historical subjects.

5Pedestrians, in effect, tell urban stories through their movements. A multitude of intertwined paths and detours weave the urban fabric. They give their shape to spaces and weave together places in ways that potentially transgress, from within, the abstract map imposed from above by the panoptic gaze and administrative strategies of corporate and government interests. Using speech act theory to think about walking and its relationship to the city thus enables a basic distinction to be made between the forms of a system (the organisation of the city, the city as a text or book) and the ways these forms can be used (the ephemeral, discrete and communicative trajectories of the walker, the walker as a user/reader/re-writer of the city-text).