On the Training of Community Observers

By John McDonald, Extension Intern

Naugatuck Greenway
Naugatuck Greenway

We have all heard or perhaps spoken the phrase “a fresh set of eyes”, meaning to obtain a second viewpoint or return later to a situation to see what has been missed due to fatigue or overstimulation. Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan makes the distinction between visitors and tourists, for whom a landscape is novel and usually provokes an immediate response, and residents, who may be dulled by familiarity or are too deeply invested in their environment to remain objective. As Tuan (1974) discusses “generally speaking… only the visitor has a viewpoint; his perception is often a matter of using his eyes to compose pictures. The native, by contrast, has a complex attitude derived from his immersion in the totality of his environment” (Tuan, 1974, p. 63). Jacobs (1984) also recognized the primacy of the visual modality when he explained that by simply looking at the built environment it is possible to realize “something of its history, the social and economic changes which have taken place, who lives there now, whether there are major problems that may exist, and whether the area is vulnerable to rapid changes” (Jacobs, 1984, p. 32). However, visitors are often bound for a specific destination and notice little beyond their narrow route, and tourists’ viewpoints can be skewed, as they are on the lookout for places of historical significance or entertainment value. All too frequently, cityscapes become a collection of theater props, as the large-scale environment is reduced to a simplified orientation schema known as a cognitive map in which landmarks figure prominently but lesser elements are usually eliminated (Lynch, 1960).

Everyone, visitors and residents alike, can become purposive observers and gain a deeper knowledge of the communities they investigate. The best mode of transportation for this sort of inquiry is walking. When we step outside of our cars, we are struck with what amounts to a sensory barrage. Stilgoe (1998) refers to what lies beyond our technological cocoon as “unprogrammed awareness that at times becomes directed serendipity” (Stilgoe, 1998, p. 2). It is a valid point to ask how it is possible to move from our initial confusion to the state of mind which facilitates a more thorough exploration of our environment. Hiss (1990) offers an explanation in what he refers to as simultaneous perception, which he describes as “the only internal mechanism… that can combine the responses of all our sense [including] any change in our surroundings which our senses can register” (Hiss, 1990, pp. 13-14). Simultaneous perception, then, involves all our senses working in conjunction. Sounds and smells can be as powerful cues as visual stimuli when navigating the built environment as anyone walking past a musical festival or bakery can attest. The process of using our senses in concert requires effort at first, but becomes increasingly automatic with practice. The combination of simultaneous perception and mental focus promotes the greater awareness which can allow us to see both familiar and unfamiliar landscapes in a new light. We cease to become informal observers and become students of our communities.

While the senses and mind are to be focused, it is essential that the journey be relatively unscripted. Machen (1924) notes the bipolarity of the workaday mindset and the state of idleness which facilitates the process of wandering, or the casual and curiosity-driven engagement of the environment that often serves a prelude to a deeper form of exploration (Machen, 1924, pp. 12-13). One of the central concepts of psychogeography is the derive, or “drift”, a day-long pedestrian odyssey in which individuals travel at whim through the urban landscape, guided subconsciously by the city’s form, the goal of which is to arrive at a novel and genuine experience (Debord, 1956). Observers should be encouraged to wander their target communities, the only directive being a brief manual instructing them to make note of infrastructure, amenities, and public services. This minimally directed approach has been used with the First Impressions program, created in 1991 by Andy Lewis and James Schneider of the University of Wisconsin-Extension, which has been applied with great success in a variety of communities (University of Wisconsin-Extension, 2015). It stands to reason that maintaining a certain level of spontaneity while offering a framework for analysis can enable each observer to record their personal vision of the town or city, while still retaining some objectivity.

In order to achieve a fuller understanding of the environments which we study, we must reflect upon what our senses record. It is the individual and unmediated product of these reflections that can be of great value to community developers. Although qualitative data will be tabulated and quantified and the aggregate output will be studied, it is nonetheless true that each unique perspective has something to offer. Service learning is a trend in education wherein students are encouraged to reflect upon their experiences of performing community service activities. Eyler (2002) states the case that reflection can have many benefits. Particularly, students are able to link their experiences to previous knowledge, creating the basis for a more in-depth analysis (Eyler, 2002, p. 520). Ong (2000) further suggests that knowledge is constructed in context (Ong, 2000, p. 5). In this sense, reflection in situ is most effective for community observers. Observers should be prompted to reflect upon the nature of their experiences in the target communities and to make connections between the various characteristics that they have observed, thereby arriving at a more comprehensive account of these places.


Debord, G. (1956). Theory of the derive. [K. Knabb, Trans.] Internationale Situationniste, 2.

Eyler, J. (2002). Reflection: Linking service and learning – Linking students and communities.Journal of Social Issues 58(3), 517-534.

Hiss, T. (1990). The experience of place. New York, NY: Random House. Print.

Jacobs, A. (1984). Looking at cities. Places 1(4), 28-37.

Lynch, K. (1960). The image of the city. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Machen, A. (1924). The London Adventure. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Print.

Ong, R. (2000). The role of reflection in student learning: a study of its effectiveness incomplementing problem-based learning environments. Centre for Educational Development.

Stilgoe, J. (1998). Outside lies magic. New York: Walker and Company. Print.

Tuan, Y. (1974). Topophilia: A study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Print.

University of Wisconsin-Extension. (2015). About the First Impressions program. Center forCommunity and Economic Development.