Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Economics Of Biophilia

Absurdly, nearly 80 years ago, the outdoor billboard industry argued that nature, including trees, should be sacrificed on its behalf along public roadsides because the billboards served as a much better way for the public to see art than in galleries or museums.

Failing to see the irony, outdoor billboard enthusiasts today argue that the huge, roadside structures are not distracting which to marketers should indicate that they are then worthless or obsolete compared to the other 3.6 million ads we each see per year in America.4f5e06e3bd2e4

Equally ironic, one billboard, as shown in this blog, warns that the distraction of texting while driving kills and then encourages drivers to text for more driving tips. Uhhh!

But the desire by the nearly 8 of 10 North Carolinians, including me, who find outdoor billboards a desecration are concerned not about the billboards per se but about the much more valuable commodities being sacrificed along public roadsides so billboards can try to be distracting.

It isn’t just the fact that roadside vegetation, beyond the safety clear zone of 30 to 40 feet is valuable in sequestering carbon or holding and then slowly releasing storm water or generating oxygen or increasing appeal to visitors and relocating or expanding businesses etc.

Numerous scientific studies are showing that exposure to nature, even if it’s simulated, sharpens attention, improves productivity and satisfaction, increases rates of learning, reduces stress and violence, enhances well-being, increases property values and even accelerates healing.

Those are the same reasons that office buildings, retail outlets, hotels, restaurants, homes and hospitals are using products such as those manufactured in southeast Iowa by Sky Factory to replicate skies and mountain vistas where they are not otherwise available.

The term Biophilia was coined in 1984 by Harvard researcher and sociobiologist Dr. Edward O. Wilson to describe the innate, primal connection we all have with nature.  He argued that humans hold a biological need for connection with nature.

It has been validated by neuroscientists studying the relationship of nature to stimulation of the parts of the brain related to pleasure and positive outlook.  Exposure to nature has even been linked to increased retail sales far greater than any generated by advertising.  Views of trees and landscape have also been linked with a 10% reduction in absenteeism.

Unrelated, I’m sure, to being one of the largest recipients of campaign contributions from the outdoor billboard industry, the current democratic candidate for governor of North Carolina recently wrote that he understood “the value of outdoor advertising to our economy.”

I’m not a lawyer like he or a politician but I do have 40 years of experience in economic development including the study of economic impact and advertising; and with all due respect, there is no credible  evidence or model showing that billboards have any net economic value to the state.

But there is plenty of clear and compelling evidence that nature, including trees and vegetation along roadsides, has a huge economic, social and public health value not only along roadsides but in any way it can be manifest.

An overview of this evidence has just been published in an excellent 43-page white paper, authored by Terrapin Bright Green, development practitioners and thought-leaders in what they term a transformation to a restorative economy.

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