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Log cabin

In my mind, my hometown will always be a city of 24,000 people. It’ll also be supported by three major manufacturing companies. And it’ll always have a certain, intangible something. Of course, today West Bend has 5,000 more residents despite the demise of all three manufacturers. And every time I return, that certain something isn’t quite the same either. It’s like waking from a dream I can’t entirely reconstruct.

Read more at the new Per Square Mile.

Mos Eisley, the wretched hive of scum and villany

George Lucas hates cities. At least that’s what I gather from decades of watching and rewatching the original Star Wars movies.

The Star Wars movies are famous for hewing to archetypal stories—hero sets out to save galaxy from evil warlords, hero confronts his (familial) past, hero grapples with his role as a savior. And the movies’ portrayal of urban agglomerations is similarly archetypal, drawing on a long tradition of damning the city while praising the countryside.

Let’s start from the beginning…

Read more at the new Per Square Mile.

Gold L.A.

The U.S. Census released a report on urban population on Monday, and in it was a perhaps-unexpected fact: Of the ten most densely populated cities, seven of them are in California. Indeed, California’s showing was so strong that the great bastion of urbanism in the United States — the New York-Newark metro area — just barely made the top five.

John King, the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic, interviewed a number of experts about California’s unique status. Among them was Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. One of Christensen’s quotes caught my attention, so I followed up with him via email to explore why California is such a hotbed of urbanism. Our correspondence follows:

Read more at the new Per Square Mile.

Mos Eisley, the wretched hive of scum and villany

George Lucas hates cities. At least that’s what I gather from decades of watching and rewatching the original Star Wars movies.

The Star Wars movies are famous for hewing to archetypal stories—hero sets out to save galaxy from evil warlords, hero confronts his (familial) past, hero grapples with his role as a savior. And the movies’ portrayal of urban agglomerations is similarly archetypal, drawing on a long tradition of damning the city while praising the countryside.

Read more at the new Per Square Mile.

Office in the woods

Note to WordPress.com followers: Per Square Mile has moved to a private host. Your old WordPress.com follows and email subscriptions won’t work as WordPress will not share that information. Head over to the new Per Square Mile for the latest.

There’s a scene in the movie Office Space where Peter, the protagonist, unscrews part of his cubicle and ceremoniously pushes the wall over, sending it and its shelved contents crashing to the floor. With a satisfied smile, he pats his desk a few times, kicks back, and enjoys his new view.

As I write this, the view out my window isn’t much more than Peter’s. Just a handful trees—no mountains, no idyllic nature scene, nothing that would make Ansel Adams jealous. Just one scrubby street tree and a couple of canopies poking their heads above the adjacent apartment building.

But according to Rachel Kaplan, an environmental psychologist, those few trees are far better than nothing at all. Kaplan has documented numerous cases in which workers reported feeling happier and more satisfied with their jobs because of the view they had out their window. Even views of parking lots—so long as they had trees or some other landscaping—were enough to brighten some people’s days.

Kaplan has made a career out of studying how views of nature affect various parts of people’s lives, from patient recovery times to worker productivity. Currently, I’m interested in her research on the latter topic. Staring out at a busy street is better than no view at all, but sometimes I feel antsy and distracted for no apparent reason. I’ve wondered if a more bucolic view would focus my efforts and lift my spirits. Coincidentally, Kaplan’s research suggests that’s exactly what would happen.

Kaplan says windows give people the opportunity for short restorative breaks. After hours spent staring at a computer screen or hammering through some repetitive task, a brief diversion or daydream is sometimes all that’s needed to push through the rest of the day. Allowing ourselves a short mental break boosts our happiness, which also increases our productivity.

But restorative breaks are more effective, according to Kaplan’s research, if they include gazing upon a natural scene. There’s something irreplaceable about nature. Not just greenery—office plants had a small positive effect, but one that paled in comparison to a natural view. Just adding a few natural elements to a windowful of buildings or parking lots raised employee satisfaction by a significant amount. Workers with nature views reported feeling less frustrated, more patient, and more satisfied with their jobs. Perhaps improbably, they also felt their jobs were more challenging and expressed greater enthusiasm for their work, despite the fact everyone surveyed had relatively similar jobs. Furthermore, workers with nature views also reported fewer ailments than those without.

People with outdoor jobs in natural settings—park rangers and park maintenance staff—had it best of all. They said their jobs were less demanding, lower pressure, less frustrating, and so on. It’s possible that such jobs are actually less demanding and lower pressure, but given how nature affects office workers, I wouldn’t be surprised if being immersed in nature plays an important role.

Alas, as a writer I don’t have many excuses to work outside. But I shouldn’t complain too much. My three trees are certainly better than Peter’s view before his renovations and far better than many people who work in windowless caverns.

Photo by Jeremy Levine Design.

Source:

Kaplan, R. (1993). The role of nature in the context of the workplace Landscape and Urban Planning, 26 (1-4), 193-201 DOI: 10.1016/0169-2046(93)90016-7

Related posts:

It’s not the yard that matters, it’s the view

Managing landscapes for aesthetics

Thinking about how we think about landscapes

Bubbler in a city park

Note to WordPress.com followers: Per Square Mile has moved to a private host. Your old WordPress.com follows and email subscriptions won’t work as WordPress will not share that information. Head over to the new Per Square Mile for the latest.

The United States is not run by godless Communists. Neither is most of the rest of the world. In fact, the godless Communists that do remain are not all that Communist anymore. I bring that up because command and control economies can dictate what development happens where. Land conservation under such a system is technically easier, even if the actual results in Communist nations like the Soviet Union weren’t that inspiring. Land conservation in the free world is a trickier game, one played with carrots and sticks as opposed to edicts and directives. Here, money is your best friend.

Conservation organizations have focused on preserving big tracts of land, and rightfully so. Big buys are often more cost effective and easier to manage. But they’re also becoming trickier to execute in a world dominated by curving cul-du-sacs and one acre lots. If we want functioning ecosystems in these places, we need to focus on land conservation within the subdivision, not along its borders.

Luckily, the carrot seems to be working in those places. A study of subdivisions in Maryland between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore shows that developers have been incorporating more open space into their subdivisions. That’s not because they’re interested in land conservation. Part of it is a bit of command and control—Maryland’s Forest Conservation Act forces developers to conserve a modicum of forested land—but it’s also simple economics. Developers can sell lots and houses at higher prices if open space is nearby. Because proximity matters, that open space typically needs to be within the subdivision.

To developers, though, that open space is fungible. It can exist either as public parks or larger private lots—both raise prices. The Maryland study also found that minimum lot sizes—which governments typically use to preserve open space—can push developers away from shared open space toward larger lot sizes.

This poses a problem for maintaining healthy ecosystems. Like many laws, the way the Maryland Forest Conservation Act is interpreted matters. People can uphold the letter of the law—maintaining forest cover—without changing their usual habits—mowing their entire lot. The result is something that looks like a forest from above but doesn’t function like one.

In a perfect world, everyone would happily tend a few thousand square feet around their house and leave the rest to nature. But that’s not always the case. People will spend all Saturday mowing acres of grass and grumble about it afterwards. That’s because for many people owning a country manor is more alluring than owning a chunk of the great outdoors. You can fight that mentality by increasing minimum lot sizes to the point where mowing it all becomes completely unreasonable,¹but the closer you get to a metro area, the less tenable that becomes.

There’s also no guarantee that laws dictating minimum lot sizes will remain in place. As the city creeps closer, pressure to further subdivide will mount. Open space preserved in private lots could easily disappear.

Parks, on the other hand, tend to stick around. Unlike large lots, they’re seldom subdivided. Instead, they tend to become institutions. People like their parks and are loathe to lose them—no one wants to see their neighborhood park disappear. So let’s put that to use. Instead of—or in addition to—minimum forest cover and minimum lot sizes, let’s institute minimum park sizes. Everyone will benefit. Developers will be able to sell lots at higher prices. Kids will have playgrounds. Adults will have walking paths. And because big parks often have big natural areas, ecosystems will have a better chance at surviving. It’s a solution that’s a bit more command and control than current vague regulations, but everyone will benefit. It’s also more carrot than stick. Even if you don’t particularly like carrots, it’s better than getting hit with a stick.

¹ Though there will always be exceptions—near where I grew up, one guy mowed 18 acres. He had to buy a bonafide farm tractor so it wouldn’t take him all week.

Photo by JD Hancock.

Source:

Lichtenberg, E., Tra, C., & Hardie, I. (2007). Land use regulation and the provision of open space in suburban residential subdivisions Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 54 (2), 199-213 DOI: 10.1016/j.jeem.2007.02.001

Related posts:

Flyways and greenways

An ecology of gardens and yards

Wilderness housing boom challenges conservation

Note to WordPress.com followers: Per Square Mile has moved to a private host. Your old WordPress.com follows and email subscriptions won’t work as WordPress will not share that information. Head over to the new Per Square Mile for the latest.

A subtle shift occurred on the Internet recently. Maria Popova unveiled at South by Southwest a project she’s been working on for the last year called the Curator’s Code. Popova—a serial aggregator on her site and on Twitter—is hoping to encourage content aggregators to give a little back to the original source through links that trace the origin of the work. The site isn’t much—it’s a plea for transparency coupled with a few tools to facilitate citations—but Popova’s idea has made a palpable splash.

The Curator’s Code is only a start, but I’m happy it’s out there for two reasons. One, I’m a writer. I want my work to be spread as far and wide as possible, but I’d also like to be noted as the original source. And two, I started dabbling in aggregation—sharing, really—two months ago when I launched the Linked List. Before that, I thought a lot about what it means to be a responsible and ethical aggregator. In the process, I developed my own code of conduct which I think does more to respect original content than the Curator’s Code.

The entire point of the Linked List is to send people out to other sites. That’s it, really. I view the Linked List as a themed Twitter account without the character limit. If you think that way, everything else follows naturally: Don’t copy too much of the original article. Don’t summarize it, either. Get people to click the link. Even the design I chose for the Linked List emphasizes outbound traffic. The headline—often the most visible link in the post—is a link to the article itself. The permalink to my post—the infinity symbol just to the right of the headline—is almost an afterthought. Everything about the Linked List is meant to send you away from Per Square Mile. (Just don’t forget to come back!)

Oh, and there’s one more principle I follow—don’t be a dick. When I’m crafting a Linked List post, I think to myself, Would I be OK with my work being shared in this way?

That’s an easy question for me to answer. I’m a writer, and I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of some, ahem, aggressive aggregation. Take my article on income inequality in the Roman Empire. Russia Today repackaged it without a link (an oversight they later corrected). Business Insider and the Huffington Post excerpted a small paragraph and summarized most of the rest. I have no idea how much traffic they got from their versions, but I do know that among the three of them I received well under 1,000 hits.

Fortunately, not all aggregators are created equal. From that same post, Matthew Yglesias on his blog at Slate pulled one factoid from my article, added a quick take, and sent me over 1,000 visitors. On other posts, the editors at Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Daily Dish have sent me a few thousand readers by tastefully excerpting. And I have great respect for John Pavlus: Where Gizmodo and Business Insider were happy to copy and post one of my infographics—sending me around 1 percent or less of the traffic their posts received—John not only asked permission to use the image for a post at Fast.Co Design, but he interviewed me for his piece.

It would be great if “overzealous aggregation” meant the sort of effort that John put into his post, but it doesn’t. The Curator’s Code is a first step, but it’s not a complete solution—it would be easy to use the “via” and “heard through” links as a license to over-aggregate.

I signed a pledge to honor the Curator’s Code, but I’m also sticking to the principles I outlined above. They may not be perfect and they may not work for everyone, but I think they’re good signposts for when I’m working on the Linked List.

What do you think? Do Linked List entries catch your attention enough to send you away (and then hopefully return)? Am I striking the right balance between aggregation and original content? Does the Curator’s Code go far enough? Or do my principles do more to respect original content?

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