“Opening One’s Eyes” to What It is Like Sensing a City Blind

Posted on by Genise Choy

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities, we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.

September 18, 2014
Reading the City as a Blind Person
Chris Downey, Architect and Georgina Kleege, Department of English

Presentation available here.
Video of the conversation available here.
Downey and Kleege spoke on their experiences navigating cities as a blind person, with perspectives shaped by their professional backgrounds.

By Matthew Goodman

What would you say makes a city livable? You might list a couple of key attributes – walkable, diverse, safe, to name a few. Frankly, it’s pretty difficult to clearly define what makes a city livable…sometimes you just “know it when you see it.”

Well, what if you couldn’t see it? This question lay at the heart of this week’s lecture “Reading Cities as a Blind Person” by Chris Downey and Georgina Kleege. Downey and Kleege, both blind, articulately expressed how they experience cities and how their experiences may be similar or different from those of sighted people. Nowhere in the lecture did either speaker ask for pity or campaign for more specialized means to better assist blind people in navigating urban environments. Instead, they have figured out a way to immerse themselves in cities, keying in on their surroundings by using senses besides sight. This may seem difficult to the sighted, given 80% of our sensory input comes through vision.

Image source: bestlifemistake.blogspot.com

When the sighted walk through and navigate a city, according to Kleege, they do so directionally, more specifically forwardly. Ear buds in, many people drown out surrounding noise and keep their eyes fixed straight ahead towards their destination. Kleege and Downey do not have that same ability, so their means of navigating and experiencing cities are different. Their journeys are multisensory, relying heavily on sounds not just in front of them, but all around them. Kleege mentioned that the blind move keeping in mind their spherical surroundings, where sensory inputs from all directions are important. The result is a more immersive, less directionally linear experience.

I opened the blog with the idea of making a city livable, something urban planners (full disclosure: I’m not one!) study and hopefully glean ideas to implement. My most interesting takeaway from today’s lecture was that the same things that make a city livable for a blind person make it livable for a sighted person. Activity and vibrancy on the sidewalk, proper scaling of streets, and accessibility for pedestrians are all things mentioned by Kleege that make a city livable for her specifically…if you’d have asked the same thing of a sighted person, I’d expect they’d list similar characteristics. Kleege mentioned that two cities she’s lived in – New York and Paris – were particularly livable for these reasons, a sentiment largely shared by people who experience and sense these cities very differently than she does.

For lack of a better term, this week’s lecture “opened my eyes” to what it is like sensing a city blind. While navigating a city may be challenging without sight, both Kleege and Downey taught me that experiencing a city without it can be highly immersive and meaningful.

Relating to this topic, a few articles I found of interest:

Matthew Goodman is pursuing an MBA at the Haas School of Business.