Walking is not just exercise. 

In the first lockdown we remember how the roads were quiet, the birds were singing and the weather was great.

Amidst all the fear the big outdoors was the only place we could go, limited to where we lived.  

It was the only safe place to make contact with others.

Exchanging a nod with someone, or a smile, or a big ‘hello’, became a monumental social gesture.

walking on road with green fence and trees

Walking involves the movement, pace and rhythm of putting one foot in front of another.

That shift of your body propels you forward, towards and past a changing landscape.

It is an action that engages your body, arms and legs and brain. Almost unconsciously it puts you step by step somewhere else – away from the place you have just been.

As humans we were designed to walk, rather than sit all day.

And as I walk random thoughts come and go,  idly connecting me to where I am, and what I can see, smell, touch and sense. 

I am looking down at the patchwork pavement, staring ahead and gazing all around.

Walking helps me see things in a new way.

For me, the  steady, meditative  rhythm of walking is calming and grounding.

Walking helps to replaces stinking thinking with more positive thoughts. When I am out walking I see and notice things more: sunlight through the trees, texture, colour, pattern, form and space. And design.

Walking is a creative pause.

All the time I’m walking I’m thinking…and talking to myself – sometimes even aloud.

About how one street leads to another…..How the pavements are chopped up by repairs to various underlying pipes… How this area was once countryside and is now ‘the suburbs’Why are there no shops?

I live in a new-ish development situated beside a large 1950’s housing estate.

It is an area that lies on the edge of  working farmland, close to the leafy suburbs of a more prosperous and well-to-do area. 

In the space of just one mile the housing style and stock and landscape changes radically. The lifestyle and demographic may seem worlds apart but it is all walking distance in the same localised district.

As Belfast city expanded it extended into the green fields and domain of the industrialists who lived in the hills in large country piles.

A few of these homes still exist, but most have gone. Their existence, however, is still referenced in street names, or random gatehouses.

As the city grew, these new places, streets and neighbourhoods became a sprawled mix of housing developments.

This is suburbia.

How did it come to be?

Post-war, to accommodate the crowded working class from slum areas in Belfast a large public housing estate was built. A radical, well-considered design it introduced new ideas about community, space, fresh-air and family.

For people moving from the inner city it must have felt like they were moving to the middle of nowhere. But, the success of the estate proves that people have has benefitted from living where they have closer relationship with nature.

The estate was built with amenities including schools, playgrounds, a Church, green space, community centre and a parade of shops. But now, ever since the superstore was built nearby, the parade of shops lies empty.

Although they do not have a driveway each home has a small garden front and back, hedged, fenced or walled in. When it first opened few people would have owned a car. But that is not the case today.

While I am out walking I absorb environmental clues as to who might live there.

The flicker of daytime TV, a cat sitting in the window, football nets and a trampoline in the garden.

But also: grab rails, ramps, birthday decorations, a garden bench, a greenhouse and.. cooking smells

Many of theses homes are now privately owned and the owners have added improvements: sunrooms, porches, new windows and doors.

Like most public housing estates in Belfast this is a segregated community of one particular religious group.

Every year, flags commemorating the Orange tradition are erected on the main road. These go up on 1 June and (mostly) come down at the end of August.  

Every lamppost on the main arterial routes  flutters with one or more flag: Union Jack and  Red Hand of Ulster. And also the flags of the predominant paramilitary organisation of the area. 

Their presence marks these streets as a territory; this is a visible declaration of place in terms of cultural tradition.

And then there is a point along the road where the flags stop.

We have reached the area of detached private homes where they streets were planned and built for the middle class.

Designed and created by developers, architects and builders in the ’50’s ’60’s and ’70’s, ’80’s theses are a mix of bungalows, semi-detached and three-storey detached.

There are also neat rows of double fronted family homes with red roofs, neatly clipped hedges, tidy driveways, freshly painted fences, and blue/white lobelia bordering the lawn. 

At this stage I am very aware that unless people are walking to the park they have to drive – everywhere. From here, it’s a long way to the nearest shop… or even coffee shop. This is not a 15 minute suburb.

Owner occupiers put their own stamp on their home and garden.

You can see how people extend their homes outwards and upwards to upgrade, modernise and make the most of the plot and space.

They add value to their home by design introducing new ways of updating old floorpans.

Further on past the park, the homes are all large, bespoke private homes

Designed more than a century ago they are set in large, mature landscaped gardens with two or three shiny cars at the front.

As homes they project a certain status, grandeur, presence which adds character to the leafy streets. Set in extensive grounds the houses are private – only just glimpsed from the road.

I’m thinking..

What a gorgeous house……I wonder what it is like inside?

Who lives in a house like this?

What do they do for a living… How many rooms does one family need? Who looks after the big garden?

As a des res area the people who live here clearly have the money and time for the upkeep.

In every city, and country, and everywhere I go I get that feeling of house envy. Standing on the outside a beautiful home will always inspire my curiosity to know more about what goes on inside.

I wonder what it would be like to actually live there.

What it is like inside that room, this room…. pulling into the driveway knowing this is ‘my’ home….

Random thoughts from a vivid imagination.

It is just a bitter-sweet dream.

There will always be a distance and difference in quality, style and space in how other people live – even people who live just a mile apart.

A beautiful home appeals directly to my sense of aesthetics. I recognise how this home would a very nice living experience: a large space, different rooms, light, modern interiors, quality fittings. Where everything works.

Clearly, rich people have a very different lived experience of home and design.

Walking in suburbia exposes different qualities of design – as a lifestyle and way of living.

While we may always be on the outside  – physically and socially – a beautiful home projects an aspirational lifestyle. It gives us something to think about.

Every home we pass offers an opportunity to appraise, critique and learn from the owners’ design decisions.

Nice front door… horrible colour … that extension works well…I wouldn’t have gone with those windows… seamless garage extension.. that would make a good doer-upper...expensive curtains…..dirty doorstep…

The houses on my usual walking routes are by now all very familiar to me. 

I see ‘For Sale’ signs going up, new house extensions being built, fences replaced new, landscaped gardens, new houses built on old.

From many years of walking I can see in some houses where carers are coming and going… then up goes ‘For sale’ sign… and then new, younger occupiers living in that house.

People move on… people move in… and a house in an area where people want to live will be re-designed.

The pandemic put a halt to our social interaction. But it can’t stop us interacting with other people’s homes – from the outside.

Who lives in a place like this?

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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