Friday, July 26, 2013

What We Miss When We View Life through a Windshield

While heading to Thanksgiving dinner a couple of years ago, I was wool-gathering as I drove into a small North Valley town.  Or perhaps I was listening to the conversation of my passengers.  In any case, I was driving safely, but my mind was drifting.

Suddenly, I had no idea where I was.  Through my windshield, I could see a McDonalds, a chain hotel, and a chain tire store in a grid without topographic relief.  No help there.

It took only a few seconds to reconstruct that I was entering Marysville on Highway 70.  I was back on track in time to make the turn required to continue toward my destination in Chico.  No one else in the car was even aware of my temporary displacement.

But the episode reminded me of the extent to which we can become detached from our surroundings when we drive.   With the windows up, we miss the aromas of fresh-mown hay, a Mexican restaurant, or a petroleum refinery.  With a radio playing, we miss the birdsong or the sound of a bat striking a ball.

And with our towns increasingly filled with franchises that one could find anywhere in the country, the wealth of visual clues are also diminishing.

We’re increasing the challenge to our brain of remembering where we are.

The science of how we experience a place and guide ourselves through it is still evolving.  Emily Badger of Atlantic Cities writes about the current thinking on mind maps.

Although the knowledge in this area of neurology remains limited, some of the available data is fascinating.  Such as the fact that we have neurons that recognize specific places and only fire when we visit that place.  Nor is their recognition limited to visual clues.  Smell and sounds can also affect place recognition.

Or the fact that we’re programmed to be space-dependent in our reactions to stimuli, accepting the sound of running water in a bathroom, but reacting quickly to the same sound in a living room.

Or the fact that we have a biological imperative to know our current location and to be able to find the way to our destination.  From my reading elsewhere, heart attacks are more likely after people have driven long commutes.  Perhaps heart attacks are tied to the anxiety of imposing long periods of stress on our location-determining neurons because we haven’t yet evolved to riding in vehicles.

Like others, I’ve often noted that that I see more details of my surroundings when I’m on foot.  I’d always ascribed that fact to the slower pace of pedestrian travel.  But perhaps it’s also tied to my neurons being exposed to additional data when I’m not sealed in a car.  And even in a car, I love driving through a small town with the windows down on a warm summer evening.

My wife and I have a small fountain in our frontyard.  It doesn’t make much noise, but the small trickle is often audible.  Of all the homes on the street, folks tend to chat with friends in front of our home.

The lingering is fine by us.  We want people to enjoy what my wife has done with the frontyard.  But I wonder if the sound of the fountain isn’t a part of the reason people stop, perhaps supplemented by the aroma of flowers during many months of the year.

It’s unclear what the implications to urbanism will be.  But it seems likely that the science of mind maps will inform the next generation of urbanists about how to design places where we’ll have a desire to linger and to enjoy our communities.   Whether with fountains, flowers, or something else.  (I suspect that the developers of shopping centers are already far down this path.)

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

(Note: Photo is from


  1. I notice that when I walk to work versus bike, I interact more with the people that I pass - more smiles, more good mornings... Even though on a bike I do not have windows rolled up and music playing etc, it seems that there is a barrier people feel when they are on a sidewalk with the people that are on the street - whether biking or driving. I also notice that because of the greater level of interaction I have with people when walking, I often feel happier when I get to work, and always think upon arriving that I should walk more often. But, as with many people, time often gets away from me and halving my commute time is often a greater incentive than a potential improved mood.

    1. Taylor, I agree with you on both counts. Bicycling is more street-friendly than driving, but not as street-friendly as walking. And moods can be positively affected by non-vehicular transportation. Instances of sidewalk rage are less common than road rage.

  2. Dave, I too would credit Kathleen with attracting passersby to linger in front of your house. Her design invites pausing and seems to emanate the affability of the occupants. Besides the burbling of the fountain, the shade of your trees bids a pause. Although the fence precludes use of the bench, I think it makes it easier for a person to linger without feeling intrusive despite the close setback — and you can lean on it! We're re-landscaping our front yard and I also want to invite folk to tarry. I scouted out your home for ideas!

    1. Barry, thanks for the kind words about my wife's landscaping. I've shared them with her.