Reviewed in the United States on August 15, 2010
The author summarizes in the last sentence of the last chapter a major theme repeated throughout the book (particularly in the second half): "Our future together depends on finding ways to understand and to feel the deep truth of [the] connection between person and place." "Locateness" is a fundamental gift that the periphery gives us"--it is attractive and restorative to the human psyche. Contact with nature and with natural space is good for our mind because we have a deep genetic connection and attraction (biophilia) to the natural world. And our inability to make connections between different types of space - the indoors and the outdoors, the urban and the rural- has a basis in the makeup of the human mind and the way that we engage with space.
Humankind's increasing failure to live up to this picture paints a bleak future in the mind of the author. For example, because spaces are completely separated by enclosures, we have difficulty connecting the warm security of our living rooms with the toxic foam floating down a river in the parkland (or the litter we throw out on the ground by the fast food restaurant) just outside of our doors. Remote control garage doors openers allow commuting homeowners to drive directly from the office to the interior of their living space without making any contact with the outside world. But I found myself sometimes challenging this hypothesis: are things really so bleak? And are the fixes he proposes all good ones?
In the discussion of virtual reality Ellard notes some important issues. "We are surprisingly quick to accept virtual spaces such as chasms or cliffs as the real thing." Dual awareness, similar to lucid dreaming, is the norm. What longer term chronic exposure to highly immersive virtual settings will result once "Avatar" like helmet-based virtual reality scenarios find themselves in peoples' homes in a few short years? Understanding how we are affected by these transformations in how we live in space is perhaps no less urgent than the challenges presented by climate change. We know from history that, all calls for prudent forethought notwithstanding, whatever we can make, we will make. So we need to try to anticipate and influence outcomes for the better while we still have the chance.
Nevertheless, some of the proposed fixes to getting reconnected with spaces in this book seem a little far-fetched. In order to reaffix ourselves to outdoor spaces, we should intensively utilize virtual reality and so-called "ubiquitous computing" (the so-called inverse of virtual reality, which grounds us to the larger environment by monitoring in the background selected variables in a "gentle" way that do not demand our full attention). For example, the author's laboratory, RELIVE (Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments), has as a goal the design virtual structures whose size and shape adapt over time to reflect the preferences and interest of the observer, as measured by their movements and physiological state. They are even brainstorming how to design responsive architecture-- virtual buildings that can sense movements and even the physiology of their occupants, adjusting their properties accordingly to yield maximal comfort. In order to save humanity and get a fresh fix on reality, in order "to guard against the scary image of the future of living in ways functionally equivalent to brains in jars jacked into computer terminals", we must reassert the importance of the "where" into our lives" by proactively using newly available and emerging technologies like GPS, Google Earth, devices which emit different sounds in different places, and so called "geo-coding" techniques to tag our activities, snapshots, phone calls, and blogs with precise latitude and longitude information in order to re-root us to reality.
In the area of personal application, it seems fare more easier and practical for me to reconnect with my surroundings by re-committing to getting out in the neighborhood on my bicycle, sitting out more on the front porch, visiting the local park and school track, and even walking over to the office instead of driving. It would be good also to get out and camp again for the first time in years! These are all solutions to which the author would applaud. On the opposite end of the spectrum, in order to make more solid connection with my environment, I should perhaps read less (!) unplug myself from my mp3 player, the TV, and the computer, all in order to proactively reconnect with my surroundings
As someone who believes in the Judeo-Christian worldview as related in Genesis 1, I believe God has created me not just for a relationship with the created world around me (the author's point about reconnecting with spaces has some validity), but, just as importantly, also with Himself and with the PEOPLE around me. So I wonder if the proposed solutions to reconnect with spaces through the use of technology miss the greater problem and will only serve to isolate us further from one another as we exist in a "one person shell" created by headphones, the Ipod, and before that, the Walkman, cell phones, and automobiles (Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence, p. 6-8). The continuing invasion of technology into our daily lives results in human autism: nominal communication in actual isolation.
Enough for criticizing the philosophy of the book. The first half, which discusses how various creatures, including humankind navigate is itself worth the read! Ants count their steps, pigeons and sea turtles detect magnetic fields, seafarers supposedly detect ocean swells with their testicles or by other unknown means, other peoples apparently connect themselves to locations using stories and songs. Scout bees use waggle dances, some bird species remember up to 80,000 different cache locations in a single fall season, etc. captivating. I would have liked if the book had emphasized this section more fully, as I felt it was the strength of the book. Finally, I found the following ideas to be food for further thought:
* We Have Inaccurate Maps in Our Heads: Force of gravity (we are upright creatures) and the line of horizon leads us to neatly categorize things in term s of verticals and horizontals. Most people flounder through a highly schematized version of physical space that has only a weak relationship with the real world. We prefer to be in positions that give us some visual cover (refuge) but from which we can look out over large vistas of space (prospect.
* Our House Plans and Urban Planning: It is the quality of space, rather than its quantity, that influences our behavior. An integral connection supposedly exists between the design of the English home and their enviably successful way of life: true courtesy lies in the very absence of conspicuous marks of it.
* Space Syntax Analysis: simple diagrams of rooms and hallways collapse info about the sizes of the rooms represented by dots, or hallway lengths represented by lines, but they make highly accurate predictions about how people explore spaces and how well they are able to locate themselves. The comments about food court, grocery store, and casino designs were enlightening but I would have liked it to have been fleshed out further.
* Aggregate Behavior of People: though knowing the functional organization of a space (where the stores, washrooms are, etc.) can enhance our ability to predict movements through that space, the organization of the space is a much stronger predictor of our movements that what kinds of functions are served by the space. For example, many businesses are successful precisely because of where they choose to locate. Skilled architects and designers can bring people together or keep them apart with the same precision that a skilled potter employs to make a jug designed to meet out single drops of precious oil, as they attempt to do in designing casinos, etc.
* When it comes to urban planning, the same feature that draws people into public spaces (the desire to be near and to observe others) ironically seems to actually repel them from mass rapid transit systems. Car provides a sense of continuity and security from the private spaces of home all the way to the spatial threshold of the workplace.
* We supposedly abuse the environment in the US because we view land as a private economic resource while in Europe land is owned more with the understanding that one will be a good steward of the land for the common good. Early suburbs in America were designed from the beginning to be free of mixed use. Public spaces were entirely absent. Today it is the same: winding roads encourage privacy and discourage pedestrians. They are designed to facilitate cars, not walking.
* Lack of quality public spaces make social contacts in suburban settings difficult. As one is less likely to make chance encounters with neighbors on the street (ditto inside halls in office buildings), one has to work harder and in less natural ways to build social networks.
* Average house sizes have ballooned from about 900 sq. feet in 190 to more than 2,400 sq. feet in early 21st century, while family size has decreased. But the move away from courtyard homes (traditional in Taiwan where I live) has moved us further away from our connection with space.
* Few public spaces are successful, possibly because they are all prospect without refuge.
* Whether in public spaces in the real world, or in cyberspace, Jane Jacob's dictum "life attracts life" holds true. One of the surest ways to boost a feeling of presence in a virtual world is to share that world with other people.