Level Up Your City Walks With A Dérive

Slow MorningsPhoto by Carli Jeen

Last weekend, I spent a good two hours drinking coffee in bed, embracing my Sunday morning laziness as I flipped through Kinfolk Magazine’s 23rd volume in search of meditative think pieces and lofty artist features. I came across plenty of those, but what really caught my attention was a piece called “Get Outside,” a succinct and aptly-titled article by Asher Ross. Just a little over 800 words, it’s a brief yet powerful essay that discusses the psychological benefits of, essentially, going outside and getting lost.

Right from the jump, Ross declares that “the ubiquity of Google Maps and other navigation systems has significantly reduced our experience with being lost….we learn less about our physical world when we are guided through it passively, and we have fewer opportunities for the lucky discoveries that come from finding our way.”

Ross has a point. Thanks to GPS technology, it’s considerably harder to get lost in 2021 than it was 50 years ago. And while there are indisputable benefits to the metaphorical North Star of Google Maps always being there to guide us home, something is lost in the age of GPS: the art of simply wandering.

Ross isn’t the only person of this mindset. In fact, there’s an entire subgenre of psychology dedicated to simply exploring the psychological effects of getting lost and wandering around. It’s called psychogeography, and it aims to discover the experiences a city can bring you, and how it can reveal forgotten, discarded, or overlooked aspects of the urban environment. Central to the discipline of psychogeography is the dérive.

Leveling up your city walks with a derive

Dérive: Drifting Through A Familiar City

A dérive (the French word for drift) is defined as “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.’” Put in plainer terms, a dérive is the act of wandering through a city without a predetermined route or plan.

The dérive has its roots in Marixst and Situationist theory, conceived as a revolutionary method for staving off the monotony of living everyday life under capitalism. But how might this differ than, say, taking a walk around your neighborhood, you might ask?

The main differentiator is purpose.

Taking a walk or even a leisurely stroll is usually attached to an end goal — “I’m going to walk around the block twice to clear my mind, I’m walking across the street to the corner store, I’m strolling around in the park just to get some fresh air.” A dérive, on the other hand, has no such purpose to speak of. Instead, it invites people to be drawn in by the geometry of the city and the terrain of urban spaces without letting preconceived notions or past occurrences taint their experience. There’s no motif or end goal in mind. It’s just about experiencing the city the way it is.

So, yes, while walking once or twice around the block has become a pretty popular phenomenon (especially amongst the WFH crowd during pandemic times), a dérive differs in the sense that it is inherently purposeless, releasing us from the notion that even a brisk walk down the street must be related to serving some higher goal (even if that higher goal is just getting some fresh air).

Leveling up your city walks with a derive or city walk

How To Conduct a Dérive

It might seem silly to put effort into wandering around a city, but it’ll probably work out better if you prepare for it. Prior to stepping out the door, work consciously to clear your mind of any thoughts or judgments you may assign to the city. Open yourself to perceiving things as they are, not as you remember. Let your surroundings absorb you. Leave any and all expectations you may have at the door.

That’s pretty much it! Of course, remember to be safe and, if you’re walking at night or alone, consider pairing up with a buddy or letting a friend or relative know where you’re going and when you plan on being back. Otherwise, the city is all yours to explore.

Ross closes his article with the following: “Google has points A and B locked down. The challenge now is finding those portals of discovery.”

Finding those portals of discovery in a familiar city involves looking at it through an unfiltered lens, and a dérive just may be the perfect way to do it.

Cecilia Seiter
Cecilia is a freelance writer and contributor to Slow North. She writes largely about sustainability, especially as it applies to beauty, wellness, and the future of technology. She is a graduate of the journalism department at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and is based in Los Angeles, CA.