Acknowledging our topophilia

More geographic confinement during COVID-19 can help remind us of our important attachments to place(s):

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

There is a word for love of a place: topophilia, popularized by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in 1974 as all of “the human being’s affective ties with the material environment.” In other words, it is the warm feelings you get from a place. It is a vivid, emotional, and personal experience, and it leads to unexplainable affections. One of my fellow Seattle natives made this point to me when he said he hated the rain in Boston but not Seattle. Why? “Only Seattle rain is nice.”

In his book A Reenchanted World, the sociologist James William Gibson defines topophilia as a spiritual connection, especially with nature. Oladele Ogunseitan, a microbiologist at the University of California at Irvine, demonstrates topophilia by showing that people are attracted to both objective and subjective—even unconscious—criteria. My friend’s affinity for the “Seattle rain” is probably fueled by what Ogunseitan calls “synesthetic tendency,” or the way particular, ordinary sensory perceptions affect our memory and emotions. If the smell of a fresh-cooked pie, the sound of a train whistle at night, or the feeling of a crisp autumn wind evokes a visceral memory of a particular place, you are experiencing a synesthetic tendency.

It is worth reflecting on your strongest positive synesthetic tendencies—and the place they remind you of. They are a good guide to your topophilic ideal, and thus an important factor to be aware of as you design a physical future in line with your happiness. It is notable that one of the world’s most famous happiness experts, Tal Ben-Shahar, left a teaching position at Harvard University several years ago, where he had created the university’s then-most-popular class, to return to his native Israel—because he felt the pull of his homeland…

You probably have your own Barcelona or Minnesota, somewhere that has a highly topophilic place in your heart. Perhaps you sometimes daydream about going back—but then you snap out of it. Moving is a huge commitment, and not one to be made on a synesthetic whim. The cost of a big move is prohibitive for many people who might like to find a new home. Even if work and family circumstances make it possible, the idea of starting a new job, making new friends, changing schools, facing the DMV—it’s too much for many.

This is more than an acknowledgment of the importance of places in our lives; this encompasses all of the senses. One quick example: there is a home near us that has a line of four or five of the same kind of trees along the sidewalk. When I run by there, the smell alone is enough to transport me to a familiar family vacation spot where that smell is more common.

The argument here helps push back against a more recent narrative in human history that suggests people can and should be mobile. While people not too long ago might have been anchored in a relatively small geographic area for a lifetime, people today are more used to moving for jobs and travel across longer distances. Of course, as is noted above, such mobility might lead to loving a new place or an unexpected place. But, if people form these attachments to places, how do they then respond to mobility? Perhaps mobility can reinforce topophilia; you do not know how much you like places until you are away from them.

This also highlights the material world in ways that we sometimes ignore. Our environments matter, even if we are in an age of screens, private spaces, and lots of driving. There can be a lot of focus on this within private spaces – think decluttering trends or an emphasis on layouts and design in homes – but less emphasis on public or community spaces. To put it in the terms of James Howard Kunstler, are our collective environments worth paying attention to?

Midwest has the world’s straighest roads

One man set out to find the world’s straightest roads and he found them in the Midwest of the United States:

McCann writes:

“Using OpenStreetMap (OSM) data, I was able to see how bendy or straight the roads are all over the world. One theory I had was that Europe, where current roads are based on older roads that predate cars, would have more bends and curves than the USA, where current roads were (in many places) only put in in the last 150 ? 100 years, and probably put in directly and dead straight.

“The Mid-west USA and Canadian prairies have the most straight roads. Nearly all of the roads there are straight. This broadly matches my theory.”

For anyone questioning McCann’s methods, rest assured he used an actual “bendyness ratio” defined as the “length of the road divided by the straight line difference between [its] end points.” He didn’t think to abbreviate this ratio with a mathematical symbol, but I would suggest ||/?.

The project, which McCann launched some time ago but is now featured at Maps Mania, has its shortcomings. One is potentially incomplete road data in OpenStreetMap, another a technical issue with split “ways” that McCann delves into on his site. Still, it appears to paint an accurate picture of the Midwest, land of unbending, endless-feeling roads (red-orange areas mark hotbeds of straightness):

A lot of this is due to the fact that it is possible to have straight roads on flat land. Yet, these straight roads may be helpful in other ways. Back in graduate school, I wrote a paper about cognition in cities and some have argued that having a grid system – often aided by having flat land (see San Francisco for an interesting application of a grid on numerous hills) – is helpful for navigation (it is easy to tell directions) and better for traffic (multiple options in a grid rather than having some roads that are used more heavily). Think the Manhattan grid. Having this grid may even allow city dwellers to use the landscape as extended cognition where they don’t have to cram so much into their brains because they can offload information onto the grid. In contrast, I was recently in the western Philadelphia suburbs where the roads tend to follow the topography. It took me a number of visits before I knew which roads went where as they tend to twist and turn in ways that make sense. Of course, the Midwest roads may not be as scenic as those dipping and turning around hills, forests, water features and other natural phenomena. Some of the early wealthy suburbs like Riverside, Illinois intentionally had such curved roads on the flat landscape in order to highlight the landscape. Such curved roads in neighborhoods can also slow down drivers who have to be a bit more wary.