Photo by MartinVorel via LibreShot

Help us meet our fundraising goal. Thanks to NewsMatch, your donation will be doubled.

$13,517
$40,000 goal

10 Ways to Change How You Interact With Your City

Cultivate the art of noticing — from smell inventories to sonic mapping, getting lost, looking up and more.

Story by Rob Walker

Published on Jun 3, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from “The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday,” by Rob Walker, published by Alfred A. Knopf. In the book, Walker suggests simple, mindful activities and practices to combat what he terms the “peak distraction” of 21st-century smart device-obsessed living. What follows are 10 ideas that we think will change and enhance the way you experience life in a city.

“Pay attention,” Susan Sontag once advised a young audience; she was speaking of the creative process, but also of living. “It’s all about paying attention. It’s all about taking in as much of what’s out there as you can, and not letting the excuses and the dreariness of some of the obligations you’ll soon be incurring narrow your lives. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

To stay eager, to connect, to find interest in the everyday, to notice what everybody else overlooks — these are vital skills and noble goals. They speak to the difference between looking and seeing, between hearing and listening, between accepting what the world presents and noticing what matters to you.

Deep attention is good for the soul.

But unfortunately, it doesn’t always feel as important as it is. With growing demands and endless to-do lists, we can be understandably reluctant to try something new, to experiment, and to let curiosity take us out of the usual.

Imagine devoting just one hour a week to consciously direct­ing your attention. How would that affect the way you see, perceive, and think? How would it shift the way you engage with the world? How much might that not only change but also improve your work and your life?

How fun would that be?

These exercises and provocations meant to help you counter distraction by inspiring you to make the small yet enjoyable effort to rediscover your sense of creativity and wonder. These ideas are meant to shake up the way you see, hear, notice, and otherwise experience the world.

1. Look up — and then look farther up.

(Photo by Christophe Surman, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Every year, at least one of my students hits on some variation of the idea that if you want to notice things you missed in the past, then up is a good place to explore. For starters, you can simply look up from your phone from time to time. Lift your eyes to what’s not right in front of you, but just above.

The design writer Alice Twemlow, whom I got to know after she founded what became the School of Visual Arts’ Design Research grad­uate program, points out that there’s a good reason so many people who think about attention suggest that taking a moment to look up can be powerful: “Because it’s true.”

That’s a great start. But Twemlow has another thought: looking farther up.

“If you look farther up — and you really have to crank your head back for this, which means slowing way down or stopping moving alto­gether — to the roofs themselves,” she says, “you might glimpse drying washing being whipped by the wind, a flock of pigeons homing, prisoners playing basketball in a fenced-in yard, or someone secretly sunbathing in between the jagged teeth of water towers, chimneys, and aerials.”

Up is a place that might be glimpsed while in motion.

Farther up requires the suspension of movement and activity.

“My favorite is to count chimneys,” suggests designer and writer Ingrid Fetell Lee. “Looking for chimneys raises your gaze, which seems to boost your mood (possibly because it lets more light into the eye), but it also makes you look at a completely different part of a city or a town. You become aware of the way the land meets the sky, the various ways that roofs are built, and the wildlife living up in the rafters and the treetops.”

Editor and writer Sarah Rich once said to me: “I’d say one visual experience I have more now is seeing planes and birds WAY high in the sky, which requires looking up for a while. It’s sort of like daytime satellite spotting.” The farther up you look, the more time it takes to see anything.

Find a place to sit or lie down and look up. Take your time. See what’s up there. Then look for what’s beyond that.

2. Take a sound shot.

(Photo by Dan Nguyen, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Peter Cusack has called his work sonic journalism, an auditory equivalent of photojournalism. “In other words,” he once explained, “getting information from sound recordings of an event or place with­out too much speech.”

Back in 1998, he started a project called “Favourite Sounds of London,” collecting submissions — short audio clips — from Londoners and posting the results on a dedicated site with a playable map. This has since inspired similar projects from Berlin to Beijing, and most recently Cusack’s own favouritesounds.org site has offered a map of favorite sounds of the British city of Hull: traffic, playground noise, squawking birds, a band at a fair, a public fountain. Cusack himself has embarked on other projects, notably “Sounds from Dangerous Places,” collecting audio from environmentally damaged sites around the world.

Favourite Sounds asked contributors to both name and explain their entry. But the real goal had less to do with sonic mapping, Cusack explained, than with trying to “get people talking about the way they hear everyday sounds and how they react to them, or what they think and feel about them, and how important (or not important) they are.” Usually when people talk about where they live, they discuss what part of town they live in, and what they do during the day, or how they travel. Try thinking instead about what you hear.

“You learn a lot about the city by asking about its sound,” he continued. “And you learn different things about it than if you’re asking questions about how it looks, its visual impact. So for me, that’s been very interesting. I was sent to new parts of London that I’ve never heard of before — even though it’s my hometown and I know it very well.”

You don’t need to participate in an official project to play. Over the course of a day or a month, make a point of using the voice memo app on your phone to take audio snapshots — sound shots, as it were. Think about what you’re choosing to record. Listen back to the results and see if you can recall the locales. Play some for a friend and see if he or she can figure out what they are. Talk about where you recorded them and why. Invite your friend to do the same with you.

3. Take a scent walk.

(Photo by Viv Lynch, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Observation of smell has inspired a number of compelling works and projects that can in turn inspire us to figure out better ways to follow our noses, as it were.

Victoria Henshaw, a British scholar, urban planner, and author of the 2013 book Urban Smellscapes, devoted her career to the subject. Her practice included organizing smellwalks in Sheffield, England, and elsewhere, drawing on her research into “contemporary experiences of odours in town and cities.” The Henderson’s Relish factory was a cen­terpiece of the walk in Sheffield.

As she recounted in one interview, it wasn’t necessarily the routes of her smellwalks that were remarkable, but the simple fact of prompt­ing participants to focus explicitly on scents and odors — which they often reported were familiar in that I-know-this-but-I-never-thought-about-it way. “We’d walk through an area, and because I was asking them to focus on smell,” she once explained, “they would say things like, ‘You know, that smell is very familiar — I smell it every day and I really like it, but I’ve not consciously registered that it was there before — I’ve just whizzed past.’ ”

Artists Kate McLean and Sissel Tolaas have also used scent and smell as tools for discovery, exploration, and understanding. Tolaas, a Norwegian based in Berlin, has worked regularly with International Flavors & Fragrances, which develops scents for luxury brands. She spent years amassing a “smell archive,” stored in thousands of airtight jars, and has conducted more than fifty city smellscape projects in London, Istanbul, Tokyo, Calcutta, Auckland, and elsewhere.

In Kansas City, she “collected” smells from six neighborhoods in the city, on both sides of the Missouri/Kansas border, using a portable funnel- and tube device borrowed from IFF. These scents were then embedded in scratch- and sniff cards and made available at distribution points around the city as an exploratory game. McLean, who is British, has made smellmaps of Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Milan, New York, and other cities. In Amsterdam, she took multiple walks with dozens of locals, working with them to identify eleven core smells that “represent” the city and plotting the locations where one might experience them. Sometimes she focuses on details of some more micro smellscape: the way retailers’ open doors have an olfactory effect on a portion of a single city block, for instance. And of course, McLean’s work confronts bad smells, investigating, for instance, the “smelliest blocks” of New York City, and the various combinations of stagnant water, dried fish, and cabbage. McLean offers a handy PDF guide for conducting your own smell-walk at sensorymaps.com/about. (She calls this a smellfie kit.) I’ll quote here some of the basics:

  • Be alert for curious and unexpected smells, but also for “episodic” smells specific to a particular area — flowers or cooking, let’s say — and background smells that are less intense but suggest an olfactory “context.”
  • Walk slowly and note at least four distinct smells; she calls this relatively passive approach smell catching. Write them down, noting the location, the smells’ intensity and duration, and your own reaction and thoughts.
  • Try smell hunting — crushing leaves, for instance, or actively sniffing at a wall or other object — and note four more.
  • Collect four final smells using either method described; discuss your findings with fellow smellwalkers, if appropriate. Choose a smell that “summarizes the area.”

4. Take a photo walk, with no camera.

(Photo by Matthew Powell, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Googling can lead you to any number of articles and lists with basic suggestions for taking better pictures. I’ll choose one: a video that blog pioneer Jason Kottke once posted, appealingly called 23 Ninja Tips for Your Next Photo Walk. It featured street photographer Thomas Leuthard walking around Salzburg, offering viewers “potential approaches to being creative with a camera.”

Some of these tips are purely technical. But a number have more to do with spotting a great picture and thus can be employed without a camera — as ways to filter the world, notice new things, and appreciate them.

Find an interesting backdrop and wait for a compelling subject to wander into it, the video advises; you’re looking for a “decisive moment,” and it may take a while to occur. Photographer Eric Kim calls this fishing. Camera-free, you can still pause or sit in a particular spot, look around, carefully imagining the pictures you could take, and wait for the “right” or “decisive” moment. When you decide you’ve seen it, move on to a new spot.

“Find new angles,” the video advises, showing Leuthard placing his camera on the ground and perching himself on a bollard. “Get down low, and up high.” This is solid advice. As you take your camera-free photo walk, take a moment now and again to squat down (pretend you’re tying your shoe if you’re embarrassed) or step up onto some­thing and consider the view. Imagine taking a snapshot, and then con­tinue on your way.

“Look for natural frames for your subjects,” the video suggests, offering up an image of women on a park bench, “framed” by elements of a public sculpture; a composition that places a man typing away at his laptop neatly between two large potted plants; and so on. “Alleys and doorways are great for this,” it adds. “Just duck in and wait.” Here, too, you can deploy these ninja tips without worrying about recording a beautifully composed image. Duck into that alley and wait. When you’ve seen the right scene, you’re done. Keep going.

“Squint your eyes to see the luminance of a scene and place your subject in the brightest spot.” This is a delightful tip, particularly because you can do the first part without worrying about the second. Use this tactic intermittently whenever you notice the light is tricky or interesting.

“Shadows also make great pics. And reflections, too.” Agreed: Make it a point to look out for them.

And finally, “Don’t be afraid of people,” the video reassures us. Fair enough, but you can skip the photographer’s further step of approaching every interesting human you notice and offering a business card. Instead, you need do no more than smile politely — or wear sunglasses, so your subjects don’t know they’ve been “captured” by your attention.

5. Get there the hard way.

(Photo by Robin Low, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Google Maps and its competitors are designed to ease your pas­sage through the world, to guide you turn by turn, step by step, from wherever you are to wherever you say you want to be. As somebody from Google once put it: “No human ever has to feel lost again.”

I’m sure that Googler meant well, but I find that sentiment chilling. In fact, I’m tempted to suggest “getting lost” as an explicit goal.

But if that’s too extreme, then risk the possibility of feeling lost — at least every so often. Next time you’re going somewhere new, skip the apps. Study the route in advance by looking at a map — even a digital one. You can bring a printed map along or write the directions down or simply memorize them, but make your journey without any real-time digital guidance. If the trip is a hassle, with wrong turns or false starts, that’s good.

Thinkers from Ralph Waldo Emerson to John Dewey have extolled the value of overcoming obstacles to achieve something. This is one simple way to do that.

Get there the hard way: by engaging with the world, not skimming over it.

6. Look like a vandal.

(Photo by Betty Tsang, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Some of the most imaginative observers of the streetscape I have ever known have been street artists. They examine the built envi­ronment with an eye toward detecting the spaces that would be most effective to exploit. I’m particularly drawn to the work of street artists whose creations incorporate and transform urban elements.

Mark Jenkins, for example, once arranged slices of toast in a street vent, and on another occasion laid out a red carpet that led right into a sewer opening.

Artist Oakoak, who works in Europe, has an equally clever style, painting figures that seem to interact with crosswalks and traffic barri­ers and building elements.

Canadian Aiden Glynn adds charming googly eyes to Dumpsters, utility boxes, and other dull features of the street.

French artist Clet imposes shadowy figures on traffic signs.

I’m not suggesting you become a street artist — not everybody wants to risk jail time for creative expression. But it’s now easy to examine and enjoy such work from around the world on sites like Street Art Utopia. And you can be a street artist in your own mind. Steal the street artist’s way of seeing. Imagine the streets are your canvas. What would you do with them?

7. Make a field guide.

(Photo by Holger Prothmann, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Field guides — catalogues of birds or plants or elements of the natural world that are meant to serve as references and aids in the field — have been around since at least the nineteenth century. An artist and ornithologist named Roger Tory Peterson is often credited with devising what may now be the most familiar version of the form. Peterson’s original collection of his color illustrations of various birds was published in a 1930s guide book, and proved to be an enduring franchise. My parents constantly toted an edition of the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, one of many guides using the Peterson Identification System still in print.

The educational spirit of the field guide has since been carried over to address elements of the world created by humans. Designer Peter Dawson explicitly compares his book The Field Guide to Typography: Typefaces in the Urban Landscape to the sort of reference a bird watcher would rely on. In a sense, Dawson’s book is an overview of and introduction to typography. There are a lot of those already, but its conceptualization as a field guide makes it a valuable reference that helps budding design geeks learn the names of type styles they encounter (or learn to look for) on signage and elsewhere in the world.

My favorite field guides are even more idiosyncratically specific. The Container Guide, published by Tim Hwang and Craig Cannon, is a metic­ulously researched guide to shipping containers. Ingrid Burrington’s Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure teaches its readers the meaning of cryptic sidewalk markings that actually refer to the placement and specifications of cable and fiber-optic lines; the corporate connections to certain manhole covers; and the physical location of notable data centers and similar facilities of interest to anyone attempting to “see the internet.”

Arguably the most famous unconventional field guide is Julian Montague’s 2006 The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification, which offers a deadpan absurd and meticulously thought-out breakdown of the twenty-one varieties of “true stray” shopping carts, and the nine “false stray” varieties, carefully distinguishing, say, the “plaza drift” varieties that have migrated only as far as another retail parking lot from the “refuse receptacle” (which comes in two variations).

This combination of specificity and flexibility is where the field guide idea starts to get fun, and potentially useful. Consider recurring sets of objects or personality types or almost anything in a particular setting you know, such as your neighborhood or your office. How about a Field Guide to Area Dogs, based on your observations? Determine names, physical descriptions, relative friendliness, and barking styles. Or research a Field Guide to Intriguing Personal Objects Spotted in Cubicles on the Fourth Floor. Come up with your own idea. Whether you produce such volumes is hardly the point. It’s the fieldwork of noticing that you’re after.

8. Find something to complain about.

(Photo by Fibonacci Blue, CC BY 2.0)

Complaining gets a bad rap. Of course it can be dangerous to simply wallow in the negative. But let’s face it: Without complaining, there can be no progress. The trick is to treat negativity as a means, not an end. James Murphy, the founder of LCD Soundsystem, has been credited with a nice aphorism: “The best way to complain is to make things.”

He did not actually say that, but he once expressed something fairly close to its spirit. Instead of lamenting the fact that no one was making the music he wanted to hear, he set out to make that music himself.

In a very similar spirit, Seth Godin, the author and speaker, suggests one positively negative way to go about looking at the world: Ask “What’s broken?”

What he means is: What, among everything you encounter, could be made better somehow? He offers examples from his own observations: the cab line at the airport, inadequate concession staff at a movie theater, an anti- crime sign riddled with bullets. The litany has a point: “All around us is this huge potential — hidden potential — to make things unbroken.”

The subjectivity in these statements is important. Don’t worry about whether someone else could counter that whatever you’re complaining about is actually just fine the way it is. Negativity is personal. “If I think it’s broken, it’s broken,” Godin declares. “You get to say the same thing!”

So look for the ugliest building (or car or sweater) of the day, the worst thing, the most broken thing, the thing that’s so bad it makes you mad. That which angers or irritates or annoys you need not conquer you. It may amuse you or inspire you. That which bothers you might just make your day.

9. Exhaust a place.

(Photo by RainerPrang/Pixabay)

French writer Georges Perec, best known for his 1978 novel Life, A User’s Manual, coined the term infra-ordinary to describe the opposite of the “extraordinary” events and objects and communications that dominate our mental lives.

Perec’s obsession with the infra-ordinary was in part ideological — it critiqued the media of his time. “What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines,” he wrote in 1973. One can only imagine what Perec would make of the twenty-first-century “news” cycle.

“The daily papers talk of everything except the daily,” he complained. “What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it?” That’s his deeper question: What about everything else?

Perec’s boldest effort to try to pay the infra-ordinary its due attention took the form of a slender, lovely book called An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, published in 1975. To write it, he planted himself for the better part of three days on a particular Parisian plaza — disregarding the spectacular architecture and instead noting everything that came into his field of vision. His list — a postal van, a child with a dog, a woman with a newspaper, a man with a large A on his sweater — became poetry of the everyday.

I think about Perec’s work most often in one of my least-favorite places: the airport. If I’m stuck in a long security line, I try to channel him and make a mental catalogue of the details and absurdities around me. (Instead of disregarding, say, a guy in a T-shirt that reads “Old School,” I ruminate on it.) This helps pass the time.

Taking notes would sharpen one’s focus. And I wish some brilliant and diligent observer would try to match Perec, but in the setting of a modern airport. I have spent many hours waiting out flight delays in Atlanta, and I cannot think of a more daring literary experiment than An Attempt to Exhaust Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

10. Ask: How did it get that way?

(Photo by Liam Kearney, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The writer Paul Lukas loves to spot interesting details in the designed world that the rest of us missed, and he has a remarkable skill for this practice that he’s called “inconspicuous consumption.” It’s useful, he suggested to me, to question what’s right in front of us. Don’t overthink this, just ask a basic question: How did that get that way?

“We often take for granted that the physical world, and especially the built environment, just sort of happened out of nowhere,” he says. But actually, everything has a backstory — from a skyscraper all the way down to the doorknobs in the offices of that skyscraper.

I suspect we take many human-made things even more for granted than we do the natural. Think about, say, the stop sign. Stop signs are as familiar as clouds. When you look at the clouds, you probably know, or at least have a hunch, that there is some kind of scientific explanation behind their shapes, density, or precise white-to-dark coloration. You may not know or even care exactly how each one got that way — but you know it’s a function of something, and you know that you could know the details.

Weirdly, the octagonal shape of a stop sign seems much more like something that just is; we are more likely to wonder or at least speculate about the shape of the cloud.

But of course stop signs have a backstory. Did you know that road signs are designed to signal the level of danger drivers need to be aware of by the number of sides they have? And stop signs, having eight sides, signal the second highest? (The round and thus effectively infinite-sided sign used to mark railroad crossings is the highest level.)

Identify one thing that you’ve taken for granted your entire life and ask how it got that way.

Find out the backstory. And do the same thing again tomorrow.

Excerpted from The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday,” by Rob Walker, published by Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright © 2019 Rob Walker. Reproduced by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Rob Walker is a journalist covering design, technology, business, the arts, and other subjects. He writes the Human Resource column for Lifehacker, and has contributed to The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Atlantic, NewYorker.Com, Design Observer, The Organist, and many others. His newest book is The Art of Noticing  (Knopf). He is on the faculty of the Products of Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts. He lives in New Orleans. (Author photo by Michael Lionstar)