22 August 2009

The City in High Heels - New Methods in Urban Studies

Men cannot understand the urban surface. Sadly they design most of it, but paths trodden in Converse allow no appreciation of the myriad textures and challenges of the different pavements in this City. Sturdy flat shoes stride onwards unimpeded, unthinking - let's trip this shit up.

I propose a high-heeled method for this exploration, this opening up of that which is in plain sight. As high as you can, please - 5" does nicely - as this walk must take on both altitude and danger. One needs to walk in something that makes the very practice of walking rather difficult. Perverse? But that is the point - to complicate walking in the richest social-science sense of 'to complicate': to make multireferential, contradictory, challenging. For this purpose Balenciaga's legendary high-heeled hiking boot would be ideal:

The first lesson of this methodology is fetishistic. We wish to expand the notion of the erotic from mere genital origin into the very fabric of the city itself. On an elementary level, the very concept of hiking boots with a 5" heel is perverse. Good. Then, to walk in such shoes lengthens the leg and forces a certain sashay into the hips. In such a heel the buttock is tightened, the body tautened; there is a physical awareness and an awareness of the eyes of others, especially the admiring glance from those gentlemen who have a kink for these things. One no longer merely walks but struts - the stroll becomes a passegiata, a promenade, and the role of pedestrian spaces for style and display and flirtation is brought to the fore. The possibility of an erotic encounter is trodden into the city with every step.

The second lesson of this methodology is about disability. To be sure in high heels one restricts oneself voluntarily, so it hardly offers meaningful insight into the urban experience of people with mobility problems. Nonetheless the pavement is transformed into a place of hazard - and the pedestrian now aware of the slightest irregularity. Gaps between paving slabs; tree roots; this particularly slipperty type of tarmac. Uneven paving slabs offering just enough of a step to trip you up. Uneven kerbs, sloping streets, metal gratings and un-flat manhole covers - even frequent changes of pavement surface or inexpertly patched tarmac become a problem. Give yourself a balance impediment, restrict your stride length, and suddenly such things as these become real obstacles - furthermore if you trip and fall it is not so easy to recover. Accessible distances become another issue, the long walks at Bank tube station exhausting in a way the Converse-clad cannot see. High heels offer a chance for empathy with those who find it hard to walk, and spotlight all the places where the pavement is exclusionary. High heels tell us what to change to make these public spaces really public for all.

Under this methodology all New York is hell - the city cannot mend a pavement for shit. In one particularly epic pothole a high-heeled friend did in fact fall and break her leg - transforming voluntary impediment into real disability for some months. This, you understand, is why it is important to wear stilettos rather than wedge heels: they'll snap in place of your fibia.

The final lesson of the high-heeled method is in texture: for this we must abandon the platform heel for something with a thinner sole. (But please not the ballet flat: these are not chic when terminating an English cankle.) The heel puts pressure on the ball of the foot and again focuses attention as to what's underneath. This intimate contact between sole and pavement allows hitherto unconsidered differentiation between different surface materials - the cool pleasures of smooth flagstones; the dozen genres of tarmac; dimpled concrete versus cobblestones. With practice one might locate oneself to the exact street within a handful of closed-eye steps - now that would be urban knowledge.

Yes, I would make every urban planning student walk in high heels for a semester - transvestite shops cater for all sizes no excuses. More navigable pavements would be a victory for disabled access, sure - but, shit, shouldn't urban designers pay some attention to the needs of high heel wearers as a fundamental principle? Stiletto-navigable streets inconvenience no-one, help many, and yet women's specific needs for urban space are inadequately sufficient. From another angle, Barbara Penner's work on the politics of public toilets makes a similar point - as she puts it:

" As one of the last openly sex-segregated spaces in Western cities, toilets fit the bill, allowing me to think about the ways in which the male-dominated professions of planning, engineering, and architecture fail to accommodate and even actively suppress female needs.

In the late nineteenth century, George Bernard Shaw, then heavily involved in local government, complained that the barrier of the “unmentionable” meant that women’s bodies were never visible at the political level. This silence about needs and provision, in turn, has historically had a real impact on women’s mobility, comfort, and sense of belonging in the modern city."

1 comment:

katty said...

I love the high heels, because every time that i am wearing high heels i feel very elegant and change my style of walking, i feel more womanly and sexy. Because of that i prefer to use high heels when my boyfriend buy viagra we always have a great result.