Desert-ants

Two favorite themes are intertwined in Jonah Lerner’s review of Collin Ellard’s You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon But Get Lost in the Mall in today’s Times Book Review. One theme is the wide variations in human navigational skills. I know brilliant people who have no “map sense”—they get lost easily, find cities without grids challenging and are heavy users of navigational tools like Garmin. There are other people who can’t map their world per se but if you put them on the ground and ask them to find their way to a place they have been to before, can sense their way as if by intuition. Then of course there are people like my basketball-playing son Clate who makes it his business to know where every player is on the court at any point in time (as well as where they will most likely be in the next two seconds) who can draw an accurate map of anywhere he’s been.

Another theme: The design of urban spaces. Isovists. Human-centered design. The nauseatingly disorienting design of malls and casinos (windowless, narrow and confined.)

And I am amused that the book has a different title for its Canadian audience—Where Am I?—which says something about the American discomfort with the need to ask for directions.

This book sounds like a must read.

From Lerner’s review:

The book begins with a highlight reel of animal navigation skills, which is just another way of showing us how far we’ve fallen. Ellard argues that the human talent for abstraction — we can easily imagine places and spaces that don’t exist — comes with a hidden cost, which is that our mental maps of the physical world have become sparser over the course of human evolution. Unlike insects, we can’t keep track of the patterns of polarized light; unlike loggerhead turtles, we don’t pay attention to magnetic fields; unlike geese, we’re not very good at path integration, which is why we have to write down directions that involve multiple turns. Ellard takes great care in explaining the experiments that revealed these astonishing biological talents. He describes, for instance, the research of Rüdiger Wehner, a Swiss scientist who glued tiny stilts made of pig hair to the limbs of desert ants. Because the insects with longer legs consistently overshot the nest and got lost, Wehner demonstrated that ants have an internal odometer: they carefully count their steps when searching for food. (This is only one of the reasons the microscopic ant brain is such a miracle of navigation. Ants can also find their way back from 20,000 body lengths away, which is equivalent to a human being able to remember an uncharted route more than 22 miles long.) The chickadee is no less impressive: it can store food in nearly 80,000 different locations and then find the secret cache as easily as we find the fridge. Humans, meanwhile, can’t even keep track of the car keys.

And yet, just when I started to get really jealous of desert ants, Ellard points out that it’s possible to improve our feeble spatial brain. He describes seafarers from the island of Puluwat in the South Pacific who navigate the open ocean using subtle swell patterns. (Interestingly, the Puluwatese say the best way to monitor the swells is with the testicles, which are exquisitely sensitive to the movements of the boat.) The Inuit, who inhabit a featureless, snowy terrain, rely on the direction of the wind, which can be used like a crude compass. The Bedouin, in contrast, journey across the desert by following the movement of stars; nothing is consistent like the night sky.

The second half of “You Are Here” bears only a tangential relation to the first, shifting focus from feats of navigation to the design of public spaces. It’s a testament to the charm and confidence of Ellard’s writing that the reader is willing to follow along. It also helps that Ellard has a knack for distilling obscure scientific theories into practical wisdom. Why, for example, do we gravitate to certain places inside the house? The answer, it turns out, has a lot to with what architects call isovists, the region of visibility from particular vantage points. People prefer locations with sweeping views, especially when those views include doors and windows. The best architects intuitively understand this psychological preference, as they construct spaces that naturally lead us from one expansive isovist to the next.

The transparency of a space also explains the design of traditional casinos, which tend to have low ceilings and cramped aisles. As Ellard notes, such layouts “explicitly work against good wayfinding” and make it as difficult as possible to escape the tempting slot machines. In recent years, however, casinos have begun to reconsider their confusing interiors. Instead of trying to disorient gamblers, they’ve started to envision the casino as a playground for adults, with vaulted ceilings and expensive decorative textures. The goal, Ellard writes, is to make us feel “that we are in an inviting, spatially intelligible and perhaps even restorative environment.” So which alternative is better for business? According to one team of Canadian researchers, the playground casinos make people more likely to indulge in excessively risky behavior: because we feel excited, we spend more money.

One of Ellard’s best chapters focuses on urban planning. He starts by picking on an easy target: the massive, concrete public housing projects that were, once upon a time, championed by visionaries like Le Corbusier. (The architect wanted to replace much of central Paris with residential skyscrapers and highways.) Sadly, the modernist dream quickly turned into a grim dystopia, as the inhuman scale and “poor arrangement of space served to break down social networks.” The end result was isolation, litter and crime.

Ellard’s hero is the activist and author Jane Jacobs, who championed wide sidewalks, short city blocks and mixed-use zoning. According to Ellard, the advantage of such a setup is that it creates vibrant streets that reflect the needs of human beings, and not just their cars. Furthermore, because life attracts life — people want public places that are filled with other people — these organic neighborhoods create a positive feedback loop of livable density. We don’t need to print out directions because most of what we need is nearby.

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