Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Providential Attentiveness

In 1984 and 1985, as Durham, North Carolina, where I live was taking actions to improve roadside appearance by banning billboards and creating an appearance overlay to further protect appearance along a soon-to-be constructed segment of I 40, research gathered since the mid-1970s was being field-tested to calibrate safety cut-zones.

Since then, studies have been piling up that reveal benefits from trees and other scenic view-sheds that extend far beyond aesthetic benefits or even the health benefits of trees there.  These benefits include removing air and water pollution in addition to regulating climate.

While the gray infrastructure of highways is considered essential to economic development – which includes tourism - the green infrastructure of trees and vegetation is increasingly being proven just as essential to not only tourism but the renewal that spurs human creativity and innovation.

For instance, a study published in 1995 by researchers at Cornell and the University of Michigan founds that natural views were associated with better focus and paying attention.

Failure to focus and pay attention is the cause of the great majority of roadside fatalities, 60% due to alcohol and much of the remainder due to young drivers who are many times more likely than the general population to run off the road.

The national standards for safety zones that states are supposed to follow in managing roadside vegetation have often re-tested since the 1970s and 1980s, in an attempt to protect these populations from themselves.

The policy is 30 feet where there are guardrails and otherwise 40 feet, undulating for exceptions around assets such as bridges to no more than 50 feet. This varies with travel volume and speeds above 65 miles an hour or on steeps hills or around curves.

However, studies show that trees and natural views also improve attention and focus.  This is the opposite of what is intended by outdoor billboards for which the North Carolina legislation has recently enabled the sacrifice of thousands of acres of trees so they can be even more distracting, over the objections of 8 out of 10 voters.

Last December, researchers at the University of Kansas and the University of Utah published a study showing that exposure to nature provides a cognitive advantage including attention restoration, improved concentration and increased creativity and problem-solving ability.

Last month, researchers at universities in Edinburgh published a study using mobile EEGs (electroencephalography) that revealed that traversing green spaces lessens brain fatigue.4f5e06e3bd2e4

There are similar studies that show the danger that the few seconds of distraction it takes to read a billboard pose a significant danger for drivers.  The owners of the companies that own these distractions (increasingly hedge funds) are caught in a conundrum.

On one hand, they try to persuade advertisers that they are indeed distracting and get read by drivers.  Then on the other, they use copious campaign donations to help persuade lawmakers that they aren’t (a technique called “legalized corruption.”)  *AHEM!*

Over the past several hundred years in America, there have evolved at least four different worldviews of the relationship between nature and humans.  The one dating to the 1700s and 1800s is that through “Providence,” nature has been put here to be exploited by humans.

It is still deployed today by some to justify desecrating roadsides.  But could it be that the intent of this “Providence “ is not just so we can create blight and desecration to benefit only out-of-state billboard companies, now found useful by only a fifth of one percent of the population?

Could it be that the “Providence” so intended is for trees and nature to serve as a means for human reinvigoration and attentiveness including a far greater form of resulting economic vitality than sheer exploitation??

Is it possible that by sharpening the senses, trees and vegetation are not only safer than purposeful distractions such as billboards but a means of helping us drive more safely as well as think more clearly and creatively?

Is it possible that when this benefit from trees is factored into maintenance expenses along with those related to removing air and water pollution, providing climate control and preventing erosion, that the greatest expense to society of all is cutting them down?

It is not only possible, it is probable.

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