Digital Book of Landscapes


Psychogeography and Placemaking

Calila Ponte
Graduate Landscape Architect, Atkins

Through the course of their careers, Landscape Architects can intervene in several realms of landscape: be it urban, natural or cultural. Often, landscapes are a combination of these realms and are much richer when combined than by floating independently or segregated in functional partitions.

To create true ‘places’, we need to understand our baseline conditions and the richness of a specific space. What makes them unique?

As humans we are fully equipped with astounding sensorial capabilities. However, in this modern and highly technological era, are we, as creatives, making full use of them?

In the past, the belief in human perception as a powerful tool for design development led to a retrospective of artistic movements with a focus on the humanistic conscious and subconscious sensorial experience and the intricate relationship between subject and environment.

History of terminology

In the 19th century, the poet Charles Baudelaire extensively explored the literary figure of the ‘flâneur’1 – the flâneur would take part in the act of ‘flânerie’ (the act of strolling) and was seen as an ambivalent figure of urban riches representing the ability to wander detached from society with no other purpose than to be an acute observer of society. Despite the flâneur being a rather passive figure, Baudelaire saw the flâneur as having a key role in understanding, participating in, and portraying the city.

The flâneur subsequently inspired artistic movements in the 20th Century, including the Dadaists and the Surrealists, art movements which explored ways of unleashing the subconscious imagination. This then led to the Lettrists and climatically the Situationist movement in the 1950s. In 1955, Guy Debord, a key member of these two latter movements defined the term ‘psychogeography’, as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals" .2

In 1956, Debord, explored this notion further in the "Theory of the Dérive". Dérive (French for ‘drift’), was defined as "a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances”3 an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, in which participants drop their everyday relations and "let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”. 4 A far more active and engaged way of exploring the urban environment than that of the flâneur.

Through the concepts of psychogeography and the dérive Debord wanted to develop a revolutionary approach to architecture that was less functional and more open to exploration. And as landscape architects, an acute curiosity and a will to explore unconventional ways of space analysis led us to develop a methodology inspired by these terms.

The aim was to use these techniques to find a suitable bed test site and develop a project that reflected the true essence of the place. How relevant could those be? Could we adapt abstract artistic processes to our workflow as landscape architects?

One very tangible expression of psychogeographical studies, were the maps produced by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn as part of their The Naked City series during the late 1950's, which were shown in "The First Psychogeographic Exhibition" in 1957. These maps, derived from Debord's psychogeographic studies, were produced through the process of 'détournement' ('the integration of past or present artistic production into a superior environmental construction')5 in which fragments of existing works are taken and rearranged or juxtaposed to produce new meanings.

Although conventional maps convey a physical, geometric kind of 'truth' about the urban environment, the psychogeographical maps were supposed to convey a social, experiential or existential 'truth'.The maps show an experience of space as fragmented and discontinuous; areas which are experienced as distinct are pulled apart on the map. However, the arrows serve to relate the different areas and are based on the forces of attraction and repulsion or exclusion experienced in the course of the dérive.

Conducting our dérives

Figure 1 'Naked Southwark' inspired by Debord and Jorn

We started by defining our parameters and geographical location; opting to explore the London Borough of Southwark. The challenge was to observe the area’s routines, movements, patterns, reactions and behaviours to truly understand its needs. We defined areas of interest within Southwark – these are the ‘plaque tournantes’ and our dérives were to take place in between these pre-defined areas.

This sensorial journey allowed us to observe the urban voids and edgelands, our dérives being guided by following noises, smells or flows of people, all the while observing and registering. The preferred methods of recording were video, notes and rough sketches/diagrams. Several dérives were taken at different times across several days to build up the layers of information.

Figure 2 Linear Park Masterplan

Through the act of walking in this meditative state we were able to observe not only the spaces through which we ventured but also our place within them and the wider city. Within Southwark, Bermondsey revealed itself as an area in a state of metamorphosis; gentrification is occurring at a steady pace, nevertheless the richness and variety of the neighbourhood is enormous. We could identify a variety of land uses from light industrial to schools, churches and health services all mixed with council and high-end residential developments. The existing framework of green spaces is vast, although the majority felt sterile; a layer of generic grass with sparsely scattered trees disconnected without apparent function besides framing a building. However, as Landscape Architects we were able to identify some locations where potential ‘situations’ could occur; where the public could be spontaneous and interact with their environment in imaginative ways.

We also found potential to create new connections, increasing the level of permeability and biodiversity. We envisaged that through the creation of a linear park we could connect the River Thames with inner Bermondsey, integrating its busy Jamaica Street and providing a sensorial path for pedestrians.

Development of design

Figure 2 Linear Park Masterplan

The intervention of a new linear park could focus on retrofitting areas totalling approximately 5ha. and would aim to increase functionality and sustainability from an ecological and social perspective.

In order to develop our design, we defined nodes/clusters of activities and focused on connecting these, using organic and curvilinear forms which we felt would help to induce perambulation, creating pocket hubs along the way with distinct functions - connecting the main dynamic centres.

The first of our dérives allowed us to perceive these clusters, these main activities of the city and their inhabitants. Proximity to the river and intention to create immersive walking opportunities to pedestrians led us to the use of organic shapes, inspired by river terraces and the sensations of openness and closeness that you may find on a forest walk.

How was this methodology relevant to the design process?

In our fast paced highly technological society is easy to give way to a simpler and more passive analysis process, using digital maps, drone footage or 3D mapping it is possible to look at spaces without leaving the office.

However, to truly understand the specificities of a place we, as design professionals, need to step out of our confined offices and conventional means of analysis and design and broaden our horizons. We need to explore our cities to understand their realities, their people, their interchangeability and the infinite network possibilities they provide us with.

The dérive conducted with a psychogeographic perspective allowed us to truly immerse ourselves within the space, observe the people that use it every day, understand the possibilities for cultural connections and explore the potential to enhance ecological functions.

The megacities of the future will require multipurpose and multifunctional places within integrated urban areas. These places must consider social, economic and cultural values as well as ecology. As humans, embedded in our cities, we often forget that we are an integral part of nature, we are a component of a system and therefore we need to respect its dynamics.

When planning our cities, we need to consider that they are macro organisms, with an ecological, cultural and societal footprint that we all have a duty to respect, mitigate and enhance. Let us, as landscape architects, be the ones who lead the way and use this narrative so that we may all enjoy the diverse cities of tomorrow.

  1. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1964). Orig. published in Le Figaro, in 1863
  2. Guy Debord, (1955) ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, in: Les Lèvres Nues #6
  3. Guy Debord (June 1958). Translated by Ken Knabb. "Definitions". Internationale Situationniste #1
  4. Guy Debord (June 1958). Translated by Ken Knabb. "Definitions". Internationale Situationniste #1
  5. Guy Debord and Asger Jorn (1998), ‘The Naked City’, Sadler Simon, The Situationist City. MIT Press