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Office in the woods

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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

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Map of photos taken in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota

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Cities were, for thousands of years, distinct and easily identifiable entities. You were either in the city or in the country. Medieval cities took this to the extreme, building walls to make explicit the distinction. Johann Heinrich von Thünen systematized the idea in 1826 when he sketched a hypothetical map that, when simplified, looked like a bow-and-arrow target. The city sat in the center and was surrounded by rings of successively less valuable farmland. It was all very orderly and very German. And for a while it did a good job describing the relationship between the city and the hinterland.

Then came the railroads and automobiles that shot holes through von Thünen’s well-organized bullseye. And in places where two cities were less than a few dozen miles apart, even the boundary between the two became blurred. Today, it’s not uncommon to find metropolitan areas with two, three, even four major cities anchoring them.

Von Thunen's model of land use

Multi-city metros would seem to be a many-headed monster, riddled with contrary opinions and paralyzed by indecision. But that doesn’t alway seem to be the case. As far as labor productivity is concerned, multi-city metros—or polycentric metros, as the literature calls them—may have a distinct advantage. A study of all metropolitan areas in the United States with populations above 250,000 by Evert Meijers and Martijn Burger shows that productivity is higher in metros with more than one city. The effect is especially pronounced among smaller metro areas.

Meijers and Burger speculate that’s because smaller cities tend to have smaller problems—less traffic, lower crime rates, and so on. By splitting the problems up among a few cities, polycentric metros can host a large population without experiencing the problems of a similarly sized, monocentric metro.

But the advantages of multi-city metros diminish as the entire area’s population grows. It’s as though the larger entity needs one place to focus its efforts. So a metro area with two cities, each one-half the size of London, wouldn’t necessarily be more productive than London itself.

Multi-city metros also fall short on other critical parts of city life—cultural and leisure opportunities. Cultural outposts like opera houses and art museums benefit greatly from larger populations, which typically contain more benefactors, both wealthy and otherwise. The same goes for sports teams. Every city would like one for themselves. Say Ft. Worth wants to build an art museum. It’s probably not going to attract some donors from Dallas, who would rather see one built in their city. Chicago doesn’t have such a problem. Monocentric metros don’t have to worry about sharing.

As cities’ borders swell, multi-city urban agglomerations are probably going to be more and more common. Even within existing metropolitan areas, smaller cities could rise to prominence. Minneapolis and St. Paul, for example, have had to contend with the rise of Bloomington. The key will be for leaders to learn to work together, coordinating efforts rather than stepping on each other’s toes.

Sources:

Meijers, E. (2008). Summing Small Cities Does Not Make a Large City: Polycentric Urban Regions and the Provision of Cultural, Leisure and Sports Amenities Urban Studies, 45 (11), 2323-2342 DOI: 10.1177/0042098008095870

Meijers, E., & Burger, M. (2010). Spatial structure and productivity in US metropolitan areas Environment and Planning A, 42 (6), 1383-1402 DOI: 10.1068/a42151

Map of the Twin Cities by the inimitable Eric Fischer.

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