31 Days of A Sense of Place :: Day 27 ~ Casinos, Abattoirs, and Gardens

A sense of place(2)Welcome to Day 27 of 31 Days of A Sense of Place.

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Last week on Science Friday, Ira Flatow’s guest was Colin Ellard, who recently (Sept. 2015) published Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life. Ellard is a cognitive neuroscientist who studies how “city grids, storefronts, and streetscapes shape us.” He leads volunteers outfitted with sensors on walking tours through cities around the world to see how they navigate public spaces and how they respond physiologically and emotionally to them.

In a book excerpt on Las Vegas casinos, Ellard writes about humans’ “deep affinity for curves.” He says,

“We are attracted to visual displays that contain gently undulating curves and we are repelled (and perhaps even a little frightened) of displays showing sharp edges. Such preferences, written into our DNA and predating our earliest experiences, also extend to the kinds of feelings that we experience during our own movements from one place to another. We much prefer taking a sweeping, curved route into a building or a room rather than a straight-line approach, especially if the straight approach requires us to make a hard turn from one direction to another.”

19robinslaneentryway18Aug2011

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Casinos are designed with curves to keep gamblers wandering. One guru of casino design, Bill Friedman,

“describes the power of the curved entryway, but also prescribes other important physical elements that he predicts will increase the cash yield of a casino. For one thing, he urges that casinos take advantage of a property called ‘mystery,’ long known by environmental psychologists to increase the appeal of a scene or place. Formally, mystery is defined as the likelihood that further investigation of a scene will yield new information. The classic example of mystery is the appearance of a winding forest trail, which leads the viewer further into the scene by promising that new vistas lie just around the next corner. Although far from the bucolic pleasure of a country walk, Friedman argues that the same kind of physical arrangement of spaces in a casino — a set of partially occluded scenes that invite the viewer inward — can exert the same magnetic pull on casino patrons.”

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Longwood Gardens, May 2011
Longwood Gardens, May 2011
Jekyll Island (GA) bike path, Sept. 2013
Jekyll Island (GA) bike path, Sept. 2013

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This sense of mystery, the expectation that “further investigation of a scene will yield new information,” is part of natural terrain in many places, and can be designed into the making of trails, private gardens, pocket parks, playgrounds, botanical gardens, zoos, interiors and exteriors of other public and private spaces. Curves let us discover a space gradually, allowing us to process the space bit by bit, as they also offer a sense of flow that keeps us moving, that “invite the viewer inward.”  So we are kept in motion, but it’s motion at a sensory pace that’s gradual enough to let us take in our surroundings and process what we take in as we go.

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park along the Riverwalk, Wilmington, DE, June 2013
park along the Riverwalk, Wilmington, DE, June 2013
Forsyth Park, Savannah, GA, Jan. 2011
Forsyth Park, Savannah, GA, Jan. 2011

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I wonder whether our preference for curves over straight lines is related to some kind of optimism or hope, also shared by other animals? We don’t necessarily know where we’re going when on a winding path, yet we prefer this concealment — even though we are heading into the unknown, even though we might get lost — over a clear view of what’s ahead. Do we assume or hope for some kind of reward, which, as Temple Grandin’s studies with farm animals — who also prefer circuitous routes rather than straight lines when going to slaughter — show may not be the case? Or perhaps it’s not related to optimism at all but that the possibility of getting lost gives us an alertness that benefits us, makes us more aware of our surroundings, more conscious and engaged with the place, which makes us better predators, less likely prey, and gives us a sense of being shiveringly alive in the here and now.

I also wonder whether we like following curves, which don’t require us to make any decisions other than to follow them (no “hard turns” from one direction to another, as mentioned above), because it reduces the need for decision-making. I wrote in 2008 about how exhausting decision-making is, and how the more often we make decisions in a given time period, the more likely we are to make worse choices as the brain tires and basically says, “Oh, whatever!” Perhaps we subconsciously choose, when we can, paths that, once we’re launched on them, don’t require us to decide. Curves decide for us.

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Most garden designers talk about the value of curves: voluptuous curves, curvilinear and circular forms, curves and serenity, the curvy garden and optical illusion, and the vital edge of biodiversity that curves increase.

As Andrew Crofts writes in Secrets of the Italian Gardener, “Garden design is all about concealment and surprise.”

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Twin Lake Villas Trail, NH, November 2014
Twin Lake Villas Trail, NH, November 2014

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If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads. — Anatole France

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It might be fun to notice how you feel — comfortable, uneasy, curious, inspired, anxious, peaceful — in the spaces you inhabit this week. How do you feel in the grocery store, the library, a park in your town or city, your own garden or yard, inside a school building or hospital, in an airport or train station? Apart from your reasons for being in this space, is there something about the contours of the design that might influence your mood? As you look around, do you see curves or straight lines, attempts to conceal and reveal or a wide open view? Are you curious about parts of the space that you can’t see? Do you feel you have to make a lot of decisions about where to go next? Does anything about the space repel you?

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Thank you, Ruth, for the tip!

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Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.

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a sense of place(1)This project is a bit like Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird, in that I’m writing about a sense of place from vantage points that may not obviously connect with each other. I’m not going to attempt to tie them together. In the end, these 31 days of looking at a sense of place may overlap, contradict, form a whole, or collapse like a flan in a cupboard, as Eddie Izzard would say. That remains to be seen. Thanks for stopping by.

3 Comments on “31 Days of A Sense of Place :: Day 27 ~ Casinos, Abattoirs, and Gardens

  1. Pingback: 31 Days of A Sense of Place :: Introduction | A Moveable Garden

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