An extract from Psychogeography and Psychotherapy: connecting pathways

An extract from Psychogeography and Psychotherapy: connecting pathways

Introduction by Chris Rose

Walking together can take different forms. It may be companionable – sharing an appreciation of the surroundings, discussing subjects of mutual interest; argumentative – one in front of the other, a long way apart or squeezed together on a narrow pathway; playful or earnest – inventing or recalling stories about the location; thoughtful, provocative, bouncing ideas from one to the other. These are my hopes for this book, for it seems to me that that psychotherapy and psychogeography have a mutually enriching relationship – one that has not been widely acknowledged but can open productive, new areas for theoretical, experiential and professional exploration. As the two of them walk together through the different chapters here, they bring the possibility of a wider and richer vision for all concerned.

As a psychotherapist, I know a lot more about one partner in the walk than the other. However, as is always the case, as we get to know someone, we realise that the labels we use are too limiting and inadequate to capture the reality. Psychotherapists and psychogeographers might seem very distinct categories from a distance, but each label incorporates an enormous variety of people, practices and ideas.
Psychogeography sprawls across many traditional academic demarcations and, like psychotherapy, is a model of multidisciplinary cross-fertilisation. This makes a concise definition difficult, and that flexibility is perhaps one of its strengths. There are many varieties and definitions of psychogeographies (eg. Richardson, 2015), but here I want to introduce psychogeography via those pathways that first attracted me, in the hope that, along the myriad routes, there will be something that resonates with each reader.

There seems to me to be two key elements to the definition. Psychogeography is concerned with the effect of geographical location on emotion and behaviour; this is tied to an emphasis on walking, paying critical attention to the (generally but not exclusively) urban landscape and the power structures that have shaped it. There has been much written about the impact of the ‘natural environment’ and its part in therapy, so the bias towards urban living provides a helpful balance, while acknowledging that the boundary between ‘natural/rural’ and ‘man made/urban’ is by no means straightforward.

Psychogeography pays attention to the shaping power of the environmental context on human existence, and it is this awareness of context that is shared with psychotherapy, particularly systemic and group versions. Group psychotherapy, for example, pays sustained and concentrated attention to the power of the relational environment that both clients and therapists inhabit and make. It is the context of others that shapes who we are and who we in turn shape. In groups, especially long-term ones, we witness the process whereby members insistently draw out and co-create their familiar relational environment until, we hope, they are liberated by a growing capacity to understand and challenge these replays of ingrained patterns.

Any account of being human that reduces an individual to a singleton in a world of singletons is missing the point. We are who we are in the context of others, and this is itself situated in a physical, environmental context. Our relational experiences are the raw material from which our selves are constructed, and so too are our experiences of the wider environment. This systemic thinking forms the major highway between psychogeography and psychotherapy. Identity is tied to place. The environment is not the backdrop; it is woven through our identity.

Who we are and where we feel at home are bound together. The word ‘home’ itself conjures geographical location, emotional resonances, attachments, images, memories and more. It straddles the external and internal landscape in a way that demonstrates the permeable boundary between the two. We each, according to Fitzgerald and Rose (2015), inhabit: ... not an ‘objective’ space, but our own cognitive map of place and space, freighted with affects and memories, with its risks and hazards, its threats and lures, its familiarities and alien places, its locales of sanctity, solidarity, support, and much more.

We find ourselves attracted not only to particular people but to places too; like a fingerprint, we have a unique patterned response to our environment created through our experience. Certain landscapes, streets, atmospheres, colours, sights, sounds and smells resonate, and can teach us much about our own selves, if we pay attention. Spatial metaphors abound in the psychotherapeutic vernacular. A safe space, where you’re at, stuck in a corner, deep in a hole, falling through space – we so often turn to geography to find words for our experiences, so we should not be surprised that the geographical environment shapes our identity. Exploring our own relationship to place can be a rewarding pathway to personal development.

Therapists working with older people, and especially those with dementia, will recognise the way in which places remain embedded in even the most fragmented of memories. Andrea Capstick (2015), using walking interviews, finds that communication thought to be meaningless can accurately reference particular places in the past. She challenges the act of locating ‘amnesia’ solely in the individual when it is as much to do with living in a society that undervalues and forgets its own past.

The destruction of memory lies as much in the outer world with its demolition sites, road widening schemes, bomb damage, slum clearance and gentrification as it does in the ‘damaged’ brain of the person with dementia. (Capstick, 2015: 212)

Here again is that systemic understanding that locates who we are amidst where and when we are and were. This interconnectedness plays out in the therapy room too. What is said is linked to where it is said; to disclose our most intimate feelings we need a sense of emotional and physical security that derives in part from the place we are in. In our own therapy rooms, we may attempt to create spaces that are containing but not intrusive, calm but not cosy, interesting but not over stimulating. However, most of us work have also worked in spaces that we have no control over, that are hostile to the task in hand: rooms full of desks, cupboard-sized spaces, consulting rooms with hospital beds and screens, stained carpets, noisy corridors and so on. Neither patients, clients, students nor therapists can fail to be aware of the powerful intrusions from the physical environment. Once we begin to explore this, along with the possible resonance with previous environments, we will probably be led into a consideration of power: who controls this space, who decides its usage, and who is excluded from the decision-making, for example. This way it becomes even clearer that it is not only who we are that is profoundly shaped by place, but that place involves power.

Psychogeography brings our attention to the ways in which the spaces we move through and inhabit are controlled by particular interests. Gated communities, CCTV cameras, car- dominated routes, huge parking areas, gentrification, regeneration, lighting, signage, street furniture, graffiti, litter; places where men may walk but women avoid; no-go zones and threatening streets. The more we question the ways in which our environments are designed, built and used, the more we become aware of the values and interests that are shaping the terrain. Thinking about this on an everyday walk in our own areas may be an eye-opening exercise.

Looking around at our streets, it’s startling when you first notice it: like waking from a dream and forgetting where you are. A moment of disorientation as your eyes make sense of the shadows and see the room for what it is.
After that, it’s unmistakable: our streets are not our own. From the parked cars that line the roads to the traffic that speeds along them, in many of our cities we are second-class citizens if we’re not inside a motor vehicle. (Laker, 2016)

This is one reason why psychogeographers walk rather than drive. Walking can bring us into contact with the environment in a visceral and attentive way. Walking allows time to look closely, to think and to explore. Walking in a psychogeographical sense is not the same as a stroll or ramble: it is observant, analytic, and self-reflective. Psychogeographers find unfamiliar routes; individually or as part of a group, they wander without preconceived ideas of destination and record the subjective experience in a multitude of styles. The kinaesthetic qualities of movement combine with reflection and analysis in a way that can disrupt our habitual responses and open us to new appreciations and energies.

Whether we walk or not, we psychotherapists and counsellors recognise its potential. As therapy, or part of therapy, it is used in many different formats: in groups or alone, with mindfulness, with or without therapists, in conjunction with other interventions or on its own. Walking appears to have an effect that is unrelated to energy expenditure or exercise per se, and is often recommended as a component in the treatment for depression (Robertson et al, 2012).

There is a substantial body of research looking at the impact of space on mental health. Laura McGrath (2015) examines the impact of different types of space on people with mental illness, and argues that experiences of distress, rather than being determined by static internal processes, are contextualised. Those deemed to be ‘mad’, who once would have been in the designated space of an asylum, are now ‘in the community’. A similar redesignation of space has happened with looked-after children and those with special needs and disabilities. Losing the allocated space of the asylum, special school or children’s home and becoming part of the ‘community’ creates a context that often belies the warm connotations of the phrase. For many, the reality is surveillance rather than support, and some find themselves literally excluded to the least attractive margins of available public space – rough sleeping in derelict areas, underpasses and pavements.

Osborne (2015) writes about the milieu – the space we live in, ‘cut from’ the environment material available. Cities, he suggests, are overlapping series of diverse and contradictory milieus:

... milieus for some and not others, milieus for the rich, milieus for certain kind of business enterprise, milieus for consumption, and so on but not a single milieu of any sort. And for the excluded and dispossessed, cities are indeed simply environments.

It seems to me that therapy cannot afford to ignore issues of space any more than it can ignore social justice. Psychogeography offers a radical, subversive, challenging critique of space that psychotherapy can benefit from.

In addition, if offers fun. Winnicott would certainly have applauded the playfulness and creativity that psychogeography embraces. Walks may be directed by rolling a dice, for example, or following the gaze of a CCTV camera. Such walks are arbitrary, whimsical, free associative wanderings that allow unconscious processes the space to flourish. Critical psychologist Alex Bridger (2015) uses walking-based research methodologies derived from psychogeographical ideas, arguing that their playfulness can challenge routine behaviour and assumptions and promote creative rethinking about urban space. Psychogeography challenges the dominance of the cognitive in understanding the world, pushes against boundaries and conventions, honours the subjective experience – surely enough common ground to establish a mutually enriching relationship with psychotherapy?

These themes are woven through the chapters in this book, whether in the foreground or background. It is impossible to neatly group the chapters or impose a logical sequence on them. All of the authors write from and about personal experiences, so the chapters form a kind of group conversation. Themes are picked up and then interrupted, only to reappear later, intensified, clarified and challenged in the rich swirl of resonances.

Diane Parker is a dance movement therapist and brings a focused bodily awareness to her considerations of the interplay between therapy and psychogeography. Her chapter, ‘Outside in, inside out’, is a personal reflection on her work with two groups for people with complex mental health problems: one in a secure hospital setting and the other in a community centre. She explores the impact of the physical environment on herself as a female therapist, and on her client group, paying particular attention to somatic and gendered responses. She writes of the ways in which the women in her single-sex groups inhabit their bodies and the environment, and how this translates through creative movement and verbal expression.

Jane Samuels, in ‘Taking space’, argues that it is possible to create a personal relationship with the city, despite its alienating and sometimes hostile face. By ‘taking space’ in this way, there is a reciprocating sense of containment whereby the city ‘holds space’ for the individual. This is not a romanticised view of city life, as her description of the 2017 bombing at the Manchester Arena and her own personal narrative both demonstrate. However, she sees that forging relationships with places fosters a sense of belonging that can support self-actualisation, in the Rogerian sense.

‘Room to breathe’, the title of Chris Powell’s chapter, is also the name of a walking project he organises for people working in mental health. Here the archetypical lone, male walker of classic psychogeography joins up with others, and the classic analytic group picks up its chairs and heads outside. The physical wandering, or derive, is aligned with the process of free association, as a sort of internal dérive – a connection that will appear in various chapters throughout the book.

The group has its basis in applied group analysis, but meets four times a year, at different seasons, to walk in the Yorkshire Dales, where the presence of others deepens and amplifies the gains of both walking and being outside. A special group meeting was convened for the purposes of this chapter, and the chapter captures the participants’ reflections on the emotions, sensations and thoughts generated by this experience.

Benedict Hoff and Richard Phillips are engaged in another piece of action research, as reported in their chapter, ‘Mindfulness in the city’. Growing out of Richard’s research into curiosity and ‘taking notice’ – one of five ways to mental wellbeing endorsed by the government – they looked at the benefits of mindfulness in an urban environment. Participants in three workshops held in different parts of London were given some formal practice in meditation to develop the necessary skills of ‘taking notice’ before walking in the city. The outcomes point not only to a greater sensory attunement but also to an increased tolerance of the challenging aspects of the environment, suggesting that therapeutic landscapes are not necessarily located in attractive rural places but are a function of the ways in which we relate to them.

Liz Bondi writes from her experience as both an academic in human geography and a practising psychotherapist. In ‘Feeling my way’, she describes how her body-in-space reacts before, during and after a psychotherapy session. She explores the subjective use of her walk to and from the session, as well as the micro-geographies of the setting itself, and connects these to the internal landscapes experienced in the encounter with the client. She describes an intrapersonal and interpersonal relational web that flickers with glimpses and senses of place triggered by physical location and its memories.

In ‘Moving, loitering and resisting’, Morag Rose talks with me about the psychogeographical walking group she and others have established in Manchester. The Loiterers Resistance Movement is a fluid, assorted group that meets once a month to thoughtfully and peacefully wander through the streets, taking notice, and in so doing challenges the encroaching privatisation and commercialisation of the city. Intended as both fun and a prompt for critical analysis of the environment, with its overt and hidden agendas, these walks have attracted many people since they began in 2006. Morag explains its origins, influences and practices and her determination that the streets should be for everyone.

Phil Wood, in ‘The theory and practice of urban therapy’, challenges us to think of places as organic and sentient, capable of being hurt and damaged. Therapeutic planning connects urban policy and psychological wellbeing and requires a holistic approach untrammelled by professional or cultural demarcations. The introductory discussion of relevant theory leads into his personal experiences of working in the cities of Birmingham and Huddersfield, and takes us out of the UK into Rotterdam, Mostar, and Lisbon.

Karen Izod also deliberates on the multi-faceted relationship between place – here – and identity – who I am – while inviting the reader to tune into their own reactions and resonances as they read the piece. Her chapter, ‘Here is where I have a presence’, is a poetic, associative drift that finds itself in complex themes of place, attachment, loss and change. She writes about the unconscious transference of meanings from one place and time to another, and how the sensory experience of place is bound together with our earliest relationship with caregivers. It is a piece of writing that needs digesting over time, like the poetry it contains.

There are strong resonances here with Valentina Krajnovic, who is also thinking about the impact of place on identity. For her, the breakup of Yugoslavia meant losing both a home and a country, and she describes how she tried to build a new home in London while violence was tearing apart her former one. Walking through the city, she finds places that have particular significance, noticing the recurrence of the uncanny, the indistinct and the in-between. She links a powerful personal narrative with ideas from group analysis, including those relating to large groups.

Having mapped out, albeit briefly, the territory of the book, I want to consider the map itself. It seems that map-making is an activity that is wired into humanity. Carved about 4,000 years ago, the Bedolina petroglyph at Valcamonica in Italy is one of the oldest known maps in existence (Harmon, 2004). We constantly map what is around us – the terrain, routes, geology, seas, space – and what is within us – magnetic resonance imagery being the contemporary ‘scientific’ version of that. Maps are our attempts to orient ourselves in an environment and to grasp not only where we are but who we are.

We all travel with many maps, neatly folded and tucked away in the glove compartment of memory – some of them communal and universal, like our autonomic familiarity with seasonal constellations and the shape of continents, and some as particular as the local roads that we have all traipsed. (Hall, in Harmon, 2004: 15)

Psychotherapy has a close association with maps. As we ‘walk alongside’ the client, we travel through internal landscapes of desired utopias and feared hells in order to find new pathways through old and scarred territory. We examine and unearth buried cities and civilisations, patiently expose skeletons and artefacts, draw up timelines and map future projects. In my own experience, geography, geology, archaeology and cartography all meet in psychotherapy, and this shapes my concluding chapter, ‘Mapmaking’.

Throughout the book, the chapters are punctuated by sketches of different locations in different styles. These images of urban environments are not illustrations of the words but free-standing statements. The artists are all part of the community of ‘urban sketchers’ who draw on location, individually and in groups, recording people and places throughout the world. Like psychogeographers, they pay close attention to the urban environment, challenging our habitual visual snapshots of familiar sights and helping us to see in new ways.

So that is the book, and I hope that somewhere within it you will find riches and resonances. Of course, it has its limitations. This book presents a white, European perspective that is limited in its cultural and racial diversity, thereby inadvertently reflecting the history of both psychogeography and psychotherapy. There will be another book, I sincerely hope, that will break free from these limitations. This one is an imperfect and incomplete introduction to what I hope will become a far more diverse and creative exploration of the powerful bond between people and place.

As psychotherapists and counsellors, we recognise the ongoing struggle to relate at depth to the other; in our thinking too, we need to cross boundaries. Engaging with other disciplines is part of the process of expanding our cross-cultural communicative possibilities and understandings. Encountering psychogeography is like greeting an old friend and simultaneously discovering a stimulating, quirky, innovative and challenging new acquaintance. As Stephen Hall (2004: 18) writes:

(T)he most important thing a map shows, if we pause to look at it long enough, if we travel upon it widely enough, if we think about it hard enough, is all the things we still do not know.


Bondi L (2005). Making Connections and Thinking Through Emotions: between geography and psychotherapy. Edinburgh: Institute of Geography, University of Edinburgh.

Bridger AJ (2015). Psychogeography, antipsychologies and the question of social change. In: Richardson T (ed). Walking Inside Out: contemporary British psychogeography. London: Rowman & Littlefield (pp227–240).

Capstick A (2015). Rewalking the city: people with dementia. In: Richardson T (ed). Walking Inside Out: contemporary British psychogeography. London: Rowman & Littlefield

Fitzgerald D, Rose N (2015). The neurosocial city. [Blog.] Urban Transformations. www.urbantransformations.ox.ac.uk/debate/the c -neurosocial-city (accessed 25 March 2019).

Hall S (2004). I, Mercator. In: Harmon K. You Are Here: personal geographies and other maps of the imagination. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press (pp15–35).

Harmon K. You Are Here: personal geographies and other maps of the imagination. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Laker L (2016). Will car drivers ever learn to share the road with bikes? The Guardian; 28 September. www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/sep/28 (accessed 25 March 2019).

McGrath L (2012). Heterotopias of Mental Health Care: the role of space in experiences of distress, madness, and mental health service use. PhD thesis. London: University of East London. www.researchgate.net/publication/263964602

Osborne T (2015). Should we look to develop a renewed vitalism of the city? Comment. [Online.] Urban Transformations. www.urbantransformations.ox.ac.uk/debate/the-neurosocial-city/should-we-look-to-develop-a-renewed-vitalism-of-the-city
(accessed 25 March 2019).

Richardson T (ed) (2015). Walking Inside Out: contemporary British psychogeography. London: Rowman and Littlefield.

Robertson R, Robertson A, Jepson R, Maxwell M (2012). Walking for depression or depressive symptoms: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Mental Health and Physical Activity 5(1): 66–75.

Stein HF, Neiderland WG (1989). Maps from the Mind: readings in psychogeography. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.