>Time for Walkies

>Those of my readers who happen to live in larger cities are well-aware of the infinite number of opportunities available to get out and about and meet people after work. Here in Washington, for example, there are lectures, receptions, discussion panels, exhibitions, screenings, and so on, on a daily basis; one could easily have somewhere to go every night of the week, if so inclined. I attended such an event last evening, and will be attending another this evening.

Usually these events are somewhat disappointing apart from seeing old friends and making one or two new ones. We mill about at the cocktail hour before the talk, and exchange pleasantries or are introduced to people via mutual acquaintances, an exercise which is sometimes rather painful. As the unnamed, older preppy gentleman at the bar of JG Melon’s explains in Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan”, “The acid test is whether you take any pleasure in responding to the question ‘What do you do?’ I can’t bear it.”

At first I had declined the invitation to last evening’s talk on Islam, since I was somewhat suspicious of the speaker’s thesis. Although I eventually agreed to attend, due to my friendship with the organizers, I should otherwise have followed my first instinct given some of the content that was aired. (Let it never be assumed that bad manners are to be expected solely from those on the Left.) Yet that being said, such events are often a source of joy for the flâneur, for we find ourselves dropping in on a bit of conversation and then dropping out again, with no requirement that the conversation later be continued.

The flâneur of course, for my readers not familiar with the term, is not someone who particularly loves the Spanish custard known as “flan”, or has a preference for flannel trousers (though this particular flâneur enjoys both.) Rather, he is an educated man who enjoys being out and about in his city, observing what is taking place, and commenting on it. While it is predominantly thought of as a 19th century concept, epitomized by figures such as Charles Baudelaire and others who went about in Paris strolling the boulevards and popping in here and there, I have always seen it as a more universal concept with respect to city life, even if not strictly adhering to either Baudelaire’s (or later Walter Benjamin’s) theories on the subject.

To that end, one can make the passing observation – which you are welcome to reject, of course – that in London both Samuel Peyps in the 17th century and the great Dr. Johnson in the 18th century were of this type, though of course neither was particularly interested in issues such as fashion or personal vanity. And Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist, with his ever-ready camera and keen eye as he wanders the streets of whatever city he happens to be in, is clearly one of the 21st century. None of these gentlemen would be caught dead taking a turtle for a walk, of course, but their pleasure in city life, in observing the people and places and how things change over time – sometimes in a matter of days or weeks – is something that urbanism encourages, at its best, in direct contrast to the kind of fortress mentality which characterizes suburbia.

We know from things such as census results and population studies that, in American cities like Washington which have experienced a renaissance of their downtown core, there has been a correlated resurgence in the number of people moving into town, rather than out of it. These people tend to be educated professionals in their 20’s and 30’s, most of whom actually grew up in the suburbs, who are turning their backs on lawn mowing and cul-de-sac hockey matches in order to benefit from the many amenities which urban centers have always offered, including events such as those I attend. They are willing to forgo square footage and acreage in order to live in a community where one cannot help but run into one’s neighbors and interact with passersby on a daily basis, in order the reap the rewards of city life.

Of course, these people are comparatively young, in the scheme of things. A good percentage of them will probably find themselves constrained by their circumstances and the arrival of children to leave the city when they must choose between being a parent and being a hipster. Yet not all of them will leave, I wager, and it will be interesting to see what the net effect of Generations X and Y living the majority of their adult lives in urban centers will have on the appearance and functionality of cities in the future.

At the present time, most 20- and 30-somethings do not have either the political power or economic means to exercise serious control over the development of the cities where they live. For now, that power remains in the hands of the Baby Boomers, who turned the modest Levittowns of their parents’ generation into the hideous suburban sprawl of McMansions and other atrocious architectural nightmares adding to the ruination of the countryside. Yet as more and more younger people reject the hypocrisy of the “me” generation which led to the decimation of the inner city, it is very exciting to contemplate what might happen as that older generation begins to slink off to Florida and Arizona, where they can mull over the mess they have made of things in their homes constructed of plastics manufactured in China.

For example: will there be a resurgence of the construction of entertainment venues such as concert halls and theatres? Anyone who has read of or seen images of early 20th century cities, including Washington, is well-aware that there were far more of such venues at the beginning of the last century than there are today, and if city populations continue to increase existing facilities cannot hope to accommodate all of the people who might like to attend a concert, play, or the like. Will trees finally come back to American cities after a many-decades-long absence, often blamed on Dutch Elm disease but in reality more due to inefficient planning designed to favor the automobile and not the human being? Take a look at an image of any major American city in about 1950 and you will see how much more pleasant a time the flâneur had in wandering his town before the attitude that “trees are our enemy” took hold – and it is an attitude which is still holding sway over city governments, no matter how supposedly “green” they are.

In any case, those of us who have the good fortune to live in the reviving American city, I would argue, have a duty not to hole ourselves up in our houses and flats as if we were still in suburbia but merely lacking a lawn. Going out to the numerous events offered of an evening allow us the opportunity to learn something and to meet people, but most of all to contribute to the fabric of a vibrant, urban life. There is nothing like the sense of comfort one feels in walking along a well-lit city street in the evening, looking at the people who are going to and fro on their way to an event, or meeting friends, running errands, and so on, particularly when compared to the almost funereal silence of suburbia – a place generally lacking the friendliness and simplicity of the countryside as well as the intellectual stimulation of the city.

Young women strolling the Gran Vía (1959)
by Francesc Català Roca
Col.legi d’Arquitectes, Barcelona

>The Spoon as Statement

>Yesterday after a day so full I did not even have time to blog, I met with some old and new friends at a certain spot I frequent in Georgetown, whether for a meal or just a perfect coffee. When our cortados were served a young lady in the party commented, as I have previously, that the teaspoons were far too large for properly mixing the ingredients in the demitasse cups. I commented that unfortunately Bodega did not seem to have demitasse spoons available, which was the only thing keeping the coffee experience there from being flawless. To this, she replied that I ought to carry about with me my own sterling silver demitasse spoon in some sort of an appropriate way – like a fitted case or velvet pouch – and produce it when the cortado arrives.

You can imagine that I find this idea, or perhaps this idiosyncrasy, rather appealing, since there is no point in serving very good coffee and not providing the proper instrument with which to enjoy it. One might as well set before a diner in a good restaurant a beautiful rack of lamb accompanied by a plastic fork and knife. The work can be done, but it is difficult and unpleasant, ruining the enjoyment of the dish.

Many of the flâneurs had odd little affectations that were in fact a practical application of their philosophical views. For example, it was fashionable for a time to keep a pet turtle, and take it for walks on a leash. It was the flâneur’s way of calling attention to the fact that life in cities was becoming too fast-paced, and that both the city and the quality of life for human beings living in it were suffering as a result. Taking the turtle’s pace meant that the details of life, from people to buildings, parks and sidewalks, were not ignored.

In my own family there are some elements of personal statement mixed with idiosyncratic behavior. One of my great-grandfathers was so convinced that the automobile was the work of the Devil to try and destroy human society that to the end of his life (well into the 20th century, I might add) he insisted in only traveling by a coach and four. As this seems somewhat impractical in scale, much as I concur to some extent with his views, perhaps for now I will stick to searching for the proper spoon.

>How the City Hurts Your Brain

>A really interesting article from The Boston Globe that addresses city planning, parks, and trees, courtesy of my friend Mike (thanks!):


How the city hurts your brain
…And what you can do about it
By Jonah Lehrer
January 2, 2009

THE CITY HAS always been an engine of intellectual life, from the 18th-century coffeehouses of London, where citizens gathered to discuss chemistry and radical politics, to the Left Bank bars of modern Paris, where Pablo Picasso held forth on modern art. Without the metropolis, we might not have had the great art of Shakespeare or James Joyce; even Einstein was inspired by commuter trains.
(Yuko Shimizu for the Boston Globe)

And yet, city life isn’t easy. The same London cafes that stimulated Ben Franklin also helped spread cholera; Picasso eventually bought an estate in quiet Provence. While the modern city might be a haven for playwrights, poets, and physicists, it’s also a deeply unnatural and overwhelming place.

Now scientists have begun to examine how the city affects the brain, and the results are chastening. Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it’s long been recognized that city life is exhausting — that’s why Picasso left Paris — this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so.

“The mind is a limited machine,”says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study that measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short urban walk. “And we’re beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations.”

One of the main forces at work is a stark lack of nature, which is surprisingly beneficial for the brain. Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard. Even these fleeting glimpses of nature improve brain performance, it seems, because they provide a mental break from the urban roil.

This research arrives just as humans cross an important milestone: For the first time in history, the majority of people reside in cities. For a species that evolved to live in small, primate tribes on the African savannah, such a migration marks a dramatic shift. Instead of inhabiting wide-open spaces, we’re crowded into concrete jungles, surrounded by taxis, traffic, and millions of strangers. In recent years, it’s become clear that such unnatural surroundings have important implications for our mental and physical health, and can powerfully alter how we think.

This research is also leading some scientists to dabble in urban design, as they look for ways to make the metropolis less damaging to the brain. The good news is that even slight alterations, such as planting more trees in the inner city or creating urban parks with a greater variety of plants, can significantly reduce the negative side effects of city life. The mind needs nature, and even a little bit can be a big help.

Consider everything your brain has to keep track of as you walk down a busy thoroughfare like Newbury Street. There are the crowded sidewalks full of distracted pedestrians who have to be avoided; the hazardous crosswalks that require the brain to monitor the flow of traffic. (The brain is a wary machine, always looking out for potential threats.) There’s the confusing urban grid, which forces people to think continually about where they’re going and how to get there.

The reason such seemingly trivial mental tasks leave us depleted is that they exploit one of the crucial weak spots of the brain. A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren’t distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus. This sort of controlled perception — we are telling the mind what to pay attention to — takes energy and effort. The mind is like a powerful supercomputer, but the act of paying attention consumes much of its processing power.

Natural settings, in contrast, don’t require the same amount of cognitive effort. This idea is known as attention restoration theory, or ART, and it was first developed by Stephen Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. While it’s long been known that human attention is a scarce resource — focusing in the morning makes it harder to focus in the afternoon — Kaplan hypothesized that immersion in nature might have a restorative effect.

Imagine a walk around Walden Pond, in Concord. The woods surrounding the pond are filled with pitch pine and hickory trees. Chickadees and red-tailed hawks nest in the branches; squirrels and rabbits skirmish in the berry bushes. Natural settings are full of objects that automatically capture our attention, yet without triggering a negative emotional response — unlike, say, a backfiring car. The mental machinery that directs attention can relax deeply, replenishing itself.

“It’s not an accident that Central Park is in the middle of Manhattan,” says Berman. “They needed to put a park there.”

In a study published last month, Berman outfitted undergraduates at the University of Michigan with GPS receivers. Some of the students took a stroll in an arboretum, while others walked around the busy streets of downtown Ann Arbor.

The subjects were then run through a battery of psychological tests. People who had walked through the city were in a worse mood and scored significantly lower on a test of attention and working memory, which involved repeating a series of numbers backwards. In fact, just glancing at a photograph of urban scenes led to measurable impairments, at least when compared with pictures of nature.

“We see the picture of the busy street, and we automatically imagine what it’s like to be there,” says Berman. “And that’s when your ability to pay attention starts to suffer.”

This also helps explain why, according to several studies, children with attention-deficit disorder have fewer symptoms in natural settings. When surrounded by trees and animals, they are less likely to have behavioral problems and are better able to focus on a particular task.

Studies have found that even a relatively paltry patch of nature can confer benefits. In the late 1990s, Frances Kuo, director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois, began interviewing female residents in the Robert Taylor Homes, a massive housing project on the South Side of Chicago.

Kuo and her colleagues compared women randomly assigned to various apartments. Some had a view of nothing but concrete sprawl, the blacktop of parking lots and basketball courts. Others looked out on grassy courtyards filled with trees and flowerbeds. Kuo then measured the two groups on a variety of tasks, from basic tests of attention to surveys that looked at how the women were handling major life challenges. She found that living in an apartment with a view of greenery led to significant improvements in every category.

“We’ve constructed a world that’s always drawing down from the same mental account,” Kuo says. “And then we’re surprised when [after spending time in the city] we can’t focus at home.”

But the density of city life doesn’t just make it harder to focus: It also interferes with our self-control. In that stroll down Newbury, the brain is also assaulted with temptations — caramel lattes, iPods, discounted cashmere sweaters, and high-heeled shoes. Resisting these temptations requires us to flex the prefrontal cortex, a nub of brain just behind the eyes. Unfortunately, this is the same brain area that’s responsible for directed attention, which means that it’s already been depleted from walking around the city. As a result, it’s less able to exert self-control, which means we’re more likely to splurge on the latte and those shoes we don’t really need. While the human brain possesses incredible computational powers, it’s surprisingly easy to short-circuit: all it takes is a hectic city street.

“I think cities reveal how fragile some of our ‘higher’ mental functions actually are,” Kuo says. “We take these talents for granted, but they really need to be protected.”

Related research has demonstrated that increased “cognitive load” — like the mental demands of being in a city — makes people more likely to choose chocolate cake instead of fruit salad, or indulge in a unhealthy snack. This is the one-two punch of city life: It subverts our ability to resist temptation even as it surrounds us with it, from fast-food outlets to fancy clothing stores. The end result is too many calories and too much credit card debt.

City life can also lead to loss of emotional control. Kuo and her colleagues found less domestic violence in the apartments with views of greenery. These data build on earlier work that demonstrated how aspects of the urban environment, such as crowding and unpredictable noise, can also lead to increased levels of aggression. A tired brain, run down by the stimuli of city life, is more likely to lose its temper.

Long before scientists warned about depleted prefrontal cortices, philosophers and landscape architects were warning about the effects of the undiluted city, and looking for ways to integrate nature into modern life. Ralph Waldo Emerson advised people to “adopt the pace of nature,” while the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted sought to create vibrant urban parks, such as Central Park in New York and the Emerald Necklace in Boston, that allowed the masses to escape the maelstrom of urban life.

Although Olmsted took pains to design parks with a variety of habitats and botanical settings, most urban greenspaces are much less diverse. This is due in part to the “savannah hypothesis,” which argues that people prefer wide-open landscapes that resemble the African landscape in which we evolved. Over time, this hypothesis has led to a proliferation of expansive civic lawns, punctuated by a few trees and playing fields.

However, these savannah-like parks are actually the least beneficial for the brain. In a recent paper, Richard Fuller, an ecologist at the University of Queensland, demonstrated that the psychological benefits of green space are closely linked to the diversity of its plant life. When a city park has a larger variety of trees, subjects that spend time in the park score higher on various measures of psychological well-being, at least when compared with less biodiverse parks.

“We worry a lot about the effects of urbanization on other species,” Fuller says. “But we’re also affected by it. That’s why it’s so important to invest in the spaces that provide us with some relief.”

When a park is properly designed, it can improve the function of the brain within minutes. As the Berman study demonstrates, just looking at a natural scene can lead to higher scores on tests of attention and memory. While people have searched high and low for ways to improve cognitive performance, from doping themselves with Red Bull to redesigning the layout of offices, it appears that few of these treatments are as effective as simply taking a walk in a natural place.

Given the myriad mental problems that are exacerbated by city life, from an inability to pay attention to a lack of self-control, the question remains: Why do cities continue to grow? And why, even in the electronic age, do they endure as wellsprings of intellectual life?

Recent research by scientists at the Santa Fe Institute used a set of complex mathematical algorithms to demonstrate that the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory — the crowded streets, the crushing density of people — also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the “concentration of social interactions” that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists. The density of 18th-century London may have triggered outbreaks of disease, but it also led to intellectual breakthroughs, just as the density of Cambridge — one of the densest cities in America — contributes to its success as a creative center. One corollary of this research is that less dense urban areas, like Phoenix, may, over time, generate less innovation.

The key, then, is to find ways to mitigate the psychological damage of the metropolis while still preserving its unique benefits. Kuo, for instance, describes herself as “not a nature person,” but has learned to seek out more natural settings: The woods have become a kind of medicine. As a result, she’s better able to cope with the stresses of city life, while still enjoying its many pleasures and benefits. Because there always comes a time, as Lou Reed once sang, when a person wants to say: “I’m sick of the trees/take me to the city.”