Spatial Awareness vs. People Watching

Lady on bench in Autumn

The best people in life are nosey. People watching is a common hobby, shared by everyone from the resolute novel writer in the coffee shop to the bleary-eyed commuter on the tube. And with the meteoric popularity of movements like Humans Of New York or the Metro’s ‘60 Seconds With X’ series; hearing peoples’ stories clearly still fascinates us. What is that lady thinking? Where did she get that obscure hat? Why is that man frowning like that? Are those two people a couple or just friends? What does that person dream of at night?

I consider such questions, like countless others, over a packed lunch in my local park. It is intriguing to think about another person’s thoughts, emotions and actions. We are insatiably curious about those around us, and public spaces make the perfect spots for a bit of people watching. But recently I’ve begun to think about my local park a bit differently. As more than just the backdrop to London’s assorted players.

Primrose Hill

A good friend of mine recently qualified as a personal trainer and needed experience, so I grudgingly agreed to be one of her first clients. Whilst me gurning and sweating it out in the local park is hardly newsworthy (though each to their own), to distract myself from planking and lunging as part of our weekly sessions, I started to really notice my surroundings.

No longer were the benches objects for sitting, the yellowed central scrub of grass a place to relax, or the bordering trees attractive shade-givers. The space had transformed into a place of physical significance. The forefront feeling being pain. The benches are for hellish press-ups, the central scrub for timed run-sprints, and the trees act as check points from one ache to the next. I know every inch of this space. And since that first gruelling session, I’ve averted my focus from the people in space, to how a person uses space.

One evening I see a frantic man directing his two disenfranchised actors, using my press-up bench as their deathbed. On another, a group of dancers take turns using the scrub as their podium. The trees one day become pillars, draped haphazardly with bunting to celebrate a child’s birthday.Bunting

Intrigued by this new method of observance, I’ve taken to thinking about space as a fluid organism that can bend to human will. My days of looking for the nearest tube have been swapped for wandering without plan and deliberately getting lost. As many drunken travellers have (perhaps regrettably) had ink-emblazoned on their skin: “Not all those who wander are lost”. A clichéd mantra to follow? Yes. But my writing is better and I feel better.

All the fellow nosey, curious observers out there, I challenge you to turn your thinking on its head. Take a new route to work. Shake things up. Walk and observe. Like Baudelaire’s strolling flâneur or Will Self’s urban walker, space is designed to be explored, adapted and transmuted by us.

Walking away

So let’s get walking shall we?

I wander…

5 Replies to “Spatial Awareness vs. People Watching”

  1. Wow Ellie, your observation so intriguing! I don’t know if you already, or how much you know about neuroscience of psychology, but your observations are linked very closely with the basic physiology of how the brain itself works! I think that you would find it interesting to study a little of the research which was awarding last years Nobel Prize in Physiology. The research found that the minds navigation is closely linked to hippocampus (where they think memories are stored), ie, the same cells in your brain are activated when recognising a landmark, ie, a bench, a tree or building etc (there is loads more to it, such as how the mind produces grid cells which is the first time ever that has shown how part if the mind actually works) and given that so much behaviour to learnt by memory it would reflect the change in how your mind is working. Cool huh!

    You can read about it here (goto link to lecture notes):
    There is a 3 hour lecture here:


    1. Hi Matt, thanks for your lovely comment. I’ve mainly approached the topic from a Literature, literary criticism and writing perspective. I’ve always been interested in how place is written, and I’m trying to apply the concept of transmuted space into my own life and into walking the city. The neuroscience of psychology approach sounds fascinating. Can’t say I’m an expert by any means, but I’d like to learn more. Thanks for the links, definitely going to read/watch them to learn more about it! 🙂


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