what makes for a good urban exploration mindset

A good route is not enough for urban exploration. It’s a good start but without an exploration mindset you’ll have trouble connecting with and immersing yourself in the cityscape.

If you’re set on exploring Singapore, my routes are guaranteed to offer plenty to see, but you’ll have to do the seeing yourself. And that can be surprisingly difficult. I can vouch for that from personal experience. Rarely do I manage to take in enough of the environment during my first run through it, to be able to retrace my steps next time without getting lost. Some are way better than me in this, but even they can only take in so much. It takes most of us at least a couple of runs on the same route to see enough for a grounded feel for that part of the place. And even on a thoroughly familiar route it only takes some conscious attention to really look around from a couple of particular vantage points to notice something that had escaped you so far.

It’s the arts, most relatable maybe street photography, that shows what there is to see for those who really look (have a look here and here).

Mmmm, that may all be the case, but so what?

Well, we all know that the simplest changes of focus can wipe our doors of perception clean. The more obvious examples are looking up at what’s above our normal line of vision, be it building facades, trees or whatever, or turning around and looking at what’s behind us. Anyone who runs the same route both ways experiences two very different itineraries.

The point is that consciously paying attention is not so easy for most – myself definitely included. Our evolutionary default is switching to automatic pilot as quickly as possible to free up our very limited resource of conscious attention for something else. That’s why it matters a lot how you approach your city run. Unless you make the run about the city (rather than ‘training’, ‘exercise’, etc. – all very legit motivations to go for a run, don’t get me wrong) and run it like a street photographer walks it, you’ll miss out on most of what the urban habitat has to offer.

This also means that it helps to know stuff about the city, and about things in general. An urban run will never be the same as a guided walk, but the kinda info and stories that make a well-guided walk such a pleasure and open your eyes to interesting, amazing, aspects of the cityscape (whatever the specific focus – historical, botanical, architectural, geological, you name it) is obviously going to make it easier for you to notice things on your run.

My experience, and I doubt this is a very personal quirk, is that knowledge, attention, seeing, and interest are in a strongly positive feedback loop relationship. When you have no clue, and don’t see much if anything amazing, it’s not easy if not impossible to be genuinely interested to explore let alone attentive to what is out there when you do. But a kernel of knowledge, confirmed by some amazing sights caN foster curiosity, and get you rolling.

It also helps to have a sense of the lay of the land, the feel for directions, for how neighbourhoods connect to each other, for what city info has to say about what is considered interesting, the kind of mental geography that you’ll acquire by studying the map.

Three great map resources for this are:

The URA map – which among many other views has a conservation areas and buildings layer, and an architectural excellence layer

The HDB map – which allows you to see when HDB complexes were build, and (amenities nearby) can be made to show hawker centres (only the big ones) and recent heritage like SIT complexes, and early HDB developments

Maps.me – app that shows trails in beyond the official ones, not always current but very helpful when exploring green areas

In summary, knowledge makes paying attention and seeing easier. And seeing will become its own motivation for exploration. Those who see, normally want to see more. This also means that my, or basically any route, are to be taken as suggestions that you are invited to vary upon. You’ve entered the right mindset when you ask yourself what diversion, addition, change would make it a better route for immersing yourself in this cityscape. And enjoy finding answers to that question.

Share them with me!

In case nothing of the above makes much sense to you let me try to get my thoughts across using an analogy. Having the ability to see is something different from actually seeing what is out there, like being able to move doesn’t mean one actually does. It is not so easy to grasp how blind we often/normally are to our surroundings. The illusion that we see what is there to see is pretty strong. It is easier to grasp how little of our movement potential we actually express. Seeing those who really move makes us aware of our own stiff, rythmless, and limited bodies. But our eyes are as blind as our bodies are sluggish. Enjoy some bodies who aren’t.


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