Smelling the flowers with Shanghai Flaneur

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: June 8th, 2011 | Updated: June 29th, 2011 | Comments
We've all taken aimless walks through the city where we live, be it home sweet home or a one-night stand in a foreign country, and we invariably learn something new. Nothing replenishes the soul as much as unplugging and just walking through the streets and meeting someone new, smiling at the guy who sells you your daily fare or seeing a new little element of your neighborhood. Imagine taking this random act and organizing it, ever so slightly, to actually produce that desired result—discovery—over and over again. That's the concept Katja Helkoetter stumbled upon while sitting with friends and colleagues and listening to them tell stories of their discoveries while strolling. Katja spent eight years as a representative of the city of Hamburg developing projects for cultural exchange in Shanghai. During those years she found that the best success came when projects and discussions left the conference room and ventured out into the wide world. This realization and the stories that she heard from colleagues slowly gave birth to Shanghai Flaneur, a cultural society with a walking habit. "Shanghai Flaneur grew organically out 0f a network established over years working in the field (of knowledge exchange)," explained Katja. "It started as an experiment, more or less, of what can be done in the urban space to exchange knowledge."

Stopping to smell the flowers...

Flâneur, for those who might not know, is a French word that describes a person who walks aimlessly, yet with purpose. Sort of like a one-word distillation of the old Tolkien phrase, "All who wander are not lost". And that could be the goal of Shanghai Flaneur—to combine the wonder and serendipity of walking through an urban space with the purpose of gaining (and exchanging!) knowledge. But let's allow the society themselves explain who they are: "To get to the heart of a city, you need a good pair of shoes. Charles Baudelaire used the term flâneur to describe someone who walks through the city to experience it. And nothing beats being shown around by those who've been walking the streets themselves for a while.
With varying backgrounds - architecture, history, business, photography, China studies - the Shanghai Flaneurs represent something like a walking think-tank on the city." ( Ah yes, a walking think tank. That's the ticket.

... with intent!

Flaneur doesn't just stroll around and then talk about it. There are clear and distinct walks with experts ranging from architects to historians to photojournalists and more explaining this, that or the other nuance of the city of Shanghai, the culture the city is set within and how that culture and society interacts with the world at large. You can choose from public walks that meander through the city space, leaving you with a deeper understanding than when you began; tailor made programs that take into account you, your organization and your goals and fits them within the framework of a walk through town; corporate tours including topics as far ranging as forgotten villages within the concrete jungle to the blues in Shanghai; and educational programs that transform a simple walk into an "awareness raising urban field trip" for students and adults alike. One such educational walk that sticks in Katja's mind brought German and Chinese high school students together for a project that took them across the city searching for the hidden history of the Jewish community in Shanghai. Such a program takes two disparate groups of people and has them learn about a third group, while traversing an urban space that none of them are entirely familiar with. These are the types of field trips kids remember for a lifetime. Do you remember history class? Or do you remember the scavenger hunt with your best three buddies through a museum of historical art (that's my personal contribution, thank you very much)? This is pedagogy as well as cultural exchange and a bit of exercise. To get in on the action, check out Shanghai Flaneur's website and contact Katja yourself... you never know what you might discover flaneuring all over town.
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