Saturday, May 5, 2007

Urban Campus--People & Nature in Place

Writing is keeping me mostly indoors this weekend. I’m hurrying to catch up on a couple of projects, and this morning I attended a children’s book writers’ brunch. Luckily, the latter event was held at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. Founded in 1867, it’s a small, liberal arts college perched on a hill overlooking rural (but rapidly suburbanizing) countryside. My college-hunting elder daughter might say the architecture is “too red brick-y,” but the pastoral landscaping was a welcome respite from the classroom today. My relief outdoors reminded me of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted’s belief in the restorative power of natural scenery. As he put it, “The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration of the whole system.”

Which brings me to a recent post by my blogging mentor over at Talk-Lab. The Speeker argues that cars, among their many detriments, divide our communities, and it’s time to redesign cities to look and function more like car-free college campuses. McDaniel’s grounds exemplify that ideal. We left our cars behind and climbed uphill to a separate space, with lawns for Frisbee or picnics, shaded benches for chatting, and nooks for admiring sculpture or views of the Catoctin Mountains. Just one road would have disrupted the paradoxically tranquilizing and enlivening atmosphere that students, faculty, and visitors find so valuable to learning and enjoying a day.

Which brings me to a recent book by my grad school advisor, Stephen R. Kellert: Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection(Island Press, 2005). A sociologist, Kellert goes beyond the laudable efforts of other authors who advocate “green” building technologies and materials to focus on the need to design buildings, neighborhoods, and cities that bring humans into contact with nature. Kellert accepts E.O. Wilson’s contention that humans have an evolutionary need for natural experiences, and here he presents research and theory elucidating how our lives are diminished by a built environment that ignores these needs. His aim is to ensure that good ideas, such as The Speeker’s, to improve our cities, go further through what he calls “restorative environmental design.” In Kellert's view, redesign is not an aesthetic or technological issue but a fundamental need for individual health and social function. And reading Kellert’s visionary work, I’m reminded that Aldo Leopold attended high school on a campus designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Coincidence?

No comments: