How walking smart can enhance our sense of place

Feb. 1, 2010

By JoAnn Greco
For PlanPhilly

As Jennie Germann Molz strolled the Boston Public Garden, a voice encouraged her to literally stop and smell the roses. While she waited to cross a Harvard Square intersection, she heard the sound of sirens. Were these sounds real — or were they coming from the earbuds she had plugged in?

For Germann Molz the disorientation was all part of a research project, but for many of today’s urban walkers — loaded down as they are with iPhones and Flip Cameras, GPS devices and Kindles — the issue is a daily dilemma. Do we miss out on the real while tuning into the virtual? As we become more “connected” — a term whose use “shifts between the technical and the social, almost imperceptibly,” according to Germann Molz —are we growing more isolated?

Germann Molz is making a career out of asking such questions, and she came to Drexel University the other day to share her musings with a handful of students, tourism officials, and techies. If we can do anything anywhere and with anybody, she posed, “does “place” no longer matter?

To find the answer, she downloaded several state-of-the-art audio tours and apps that use mobile technologies like augmented reality and global positioning. Donning headphones and walking shoes, this assistant professor of sociology at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., chose nearby Boston and Cambridge as her stomping grounds.

The tours she took were narrated by homegrown celebrities or stakeholders (such as the president of the Friends of the Boston Public Garden) who shared personal insights as they led listeners on walks around “their” city. The degree that listeners were encouraged to interact with their surroundings varied from that gentle rose-smelling nudge, courtesy of a tour from Audissey (http://audisseyguides.com), to an intense scavenger hunt from Urban Interactive (http://urban-interactive.com). Unlike the others, the latter tour used an entirely fictional narrative, but it incorporated information embedded in real sights — a mural, say — to encourage walkers to move through the city.

Although Germann Molz’ work primarily examines the social aspects of such tours —  she says she often felt disconnected from her husband while listening to them — this technology raises questions for those concerned about the experience of place itself.

As with museum audio guides, the tours provide extra insights from “experts” on the subject. But in doing so, they discourage independent exploration and serendipitous discovery — two of the hallmarks of urban sauntering. In theory, one could even listen to them without actually embarking on a walk.

On the other hand, that’s not their intent. Available for no or low cost to consumers, these tours are actually the visions of local tourism agencies and city attractions who hire companies like Audissey and Urban Interactive to research, write and produce them.

And that’s why so many local cultural nonprofits showed up for the Drexel seminar. Veronica Wentz, new media director for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. listened intently. “People have a zillion ways to experience the world — that’s what hit me over the head after I left,” she laughed. “For now, GPTMC is interested, we’re looking around. We’re trying to get a better sense of how people are using mobile. We can’t ignore it.”

Joan Saverino, director of education for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, said she is currently exploring how to make a new initiative, called PhilaPlace, mobile-ready. “Technology has evolved so quickly in the last few years,” she said, “and we’re excited about bringing these tours to wider audiences.” Launched this past December, PhilaPlace is an interactive website (www.philaplace.org) that presents virtual tours of two neighborhoods, Northern Liberties and South Philadelphia, through maps, essays, storytelling and scanned archival material.

sites-planphilly-com-files-urbaninteractive_kiosk-jpeg

The Fairmount Park Art Association came, too. This summer, it plans to unveil a tour (accessible for free by cell phone, audio download, or as streaming audio on the fpaa.org website) that will guide walkers to sculptures along Kelly Drive and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, providing inside stories from more than 100 individuals. For example, sculptor Mark di Suvero will talk about the process behind his distinctive red welded steel works — “you have to control a puddle of liquid steel” — such as “Iroquois,” outside the Art Museum. A preview is here.  (http://www.fpaa.org/HPP2009.html)

“This walk is different from both the museum-style curatorial approach and the narrative historic walk,” said Penny Balkin Bach, the Association’s executive director. “It’s aimed toward nuggets of discovery — it will encourage spur-of-the-moment encounters with works of art.”

And so, the ability to dig more deeply into the stuff of a city seems the greatest potential offered by such “smart” tourism — at least if it’s not dumbed down.

“These are all projects that show how new technologies can enhance the urban experience,” concluded Germann Molz. “They’re locative, on-demand and interactive,” she continued. “They blend the real environment with the virtual world and are inextricably linked into a new landscape of the city. They’re connected, they’re intelligent, and they’re sensuous.”

And in a time when it’s increasingly easy to experience “reality” by not actually getting off of our butts, that’s not a bad thing.

Germann Molz’ presentation, “Smart Tourism: Locative Media, Mobile Technologies and Tourist Epistemologies in the City,” kicked off a speakers series at the school’s new Center for Mobilities Research and Policy (http://mcenterdrexel.wordpress.com), which studies how travel, transport, migration, borders, and mobile communication are linked into one over-arching framework.

Contact JoAnn Greco, ASJA, SATW, at  www.joanngreco.com
Check out her new online magazine, TheCityTraveler at www.thecitytraveler.com

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.