Lessons From the Forest

By Tiffany Owens Reed

My husband and I have birthdays one week apart; he jokes this means I technically get two birthdays, since I’m the one most likely to plan celebratory escapades and the one with a head full of ideas of things to do. He’s not wrong, but I try to be considerate and plan two distinct days with our unique set of preferences in mind. For myself, it usually involves a trip to a new city, thrift shopping, matcha sipping, interesting food, and live music. For him, an ideal day would be one spent in nature or a low-key dinner with friends.

After asking what he’d like to do for a few days leading up to his 41st, I began desperately throwing ideas his way. In my opinion, an uncelebrated birthday is just not an option. One morning, I scanned around Texas on Google maps, seeking inspiration, when my finger landed on a patch of green to the East: “Davy Crockett National Forest! We’ve never been, we wanted to go last spring!” His eyes lit up and I knew I had a winner. We would pack sandwiches and drive East, listening to Lord of the Rings along the way, one of his springtime traditions.

After a birthday breakfast, a trip to the store, and a quick baking of sourdough bread for sandwiches, we packed up and headed for highway US-7. British voice actor Rob Inglis filled the car with tales of hobbits and wizards as we settled in for a wonderfully scenic ride. Fields full of yellow flowers, cows, goats, and green pastures rolled past our windows. Before long, the shorter trees of Central Texas gave way to the stately pines of the east. We rolled through a few small towns, including Marlin, Kosse, and Centerville before arriving in the town of Crocket and eventually pulling into the parking lot of the national forest.

When we arrived, I was struck first by the comforting grandeur of the pine trees and the lake. Having spent part of my teen years in Raleigh, North Carolina, I’ve always had a fondness for tall trees; the sense of enclosure is comforting and the smell of pine reminds me of my senior year running cross country through trails by Lake Johnson.

But I was also struck by the immediate sense of place that the forest park delivered through extremely gentle, non-intrusive design. With modestly wide lanes, plenty of signage, and endless natural beauty, it became clear that we had shifted between environments designed around different priorities. The highway’s goal was to move cars as quickly as possible. The purpose of the park is to preserve and amplify natural beauty and ensure visitors can enjoy this environment peacefully. Every single design decision advanced these goals and, with the exception of a few teens singing along to Kacey Musgraves from a parked pickup truck, most visitors obliged without any enforcement from forest staff.

After cruising around for 15 minutes to get a feel for the park, we chose a parking spot and set out for our walk, pressing on for 2.5 hours through Loblolly pines, across a few rickety bridges and a surprising number of gnats before returning to our car and making sandwiches by the lake. The entire time, there was no question in our mind as to where we were or what type of behavior was expected of us. Without anyone having to tell us, we know to not speed, to drive slowly, to clean up our trash and to look out for other visitors on foot or bike. None of these expectations felt random or burdensome; they all fit within the spirit of the place, thanks to a few simple design choices.

This ability to enforce norms through design is an important lesson we can apply to our downtowns and neighborhoods. Spaces like these demonstrate how our design choices foster certain kinds of relationships and behavior. They also provide a much-needed reminder of how impressively adaptable humans are to new expectations, given they are presented in a coherent fashion and organized around what’s considered a compelling goal. Recapturing faith in our own adaptability is desperately needed to help cities embrace more human-centric, resilient patterns.

Countless communities struggle to implement great ideas for making their cities great because of fear about how people might respond. The thought of repurposing underutilized parking, removing a lane from a stroad, or installing traffic-calming measures on residential streets can stall for years or fail entirely because of a deep fear that such changes will lead to unmanageable public outcry, and perhaps political backlash. Sadly, in many cases the ideas die or, in the best case, take many more years longer than they should to actualize.

Forests and parks seem to suggest that such fear need not govern our imagination. Humans are actually quite adaptable to reasonable limits imposed through design. We can see the same principle at play in other environments where the purpose of the place puts a limit on some aspects of our autonomy: college campuses, shopping malls, airports, and amusement parks are some other examples that come to mind. Rarely do we see visitors protesting the lack of door-to-door car access, the expectation of walking, mixed-use buildings, or density.

Granted, when applying such design principles to a destination that hasn’t been designed that way from the start, the stakes seem extremely high and passions are likely to boil. But this usually has less to do with inherent problems with the design itself and more to do with our own aversion to change and an impressively limited ability to perceive our own adaptability.

So what’s to be done? I’d propose three things.

First, better-city advocates, those of us who want safer, more human-centric, beautiful cities, should find a compelling story to tell that shifts attention from the changes themselves to the end to be achieved. If traffic-calming will make it easier for kids to ride bikes, tell a story about kids riding bikes, not about losing a lane and having to drive slower. Give people something to be for, rather than to be against.

Second, find ways to use paradigms and language that people already understand. Calling your downtown a “campus” or a pedestrian-only zone a “mall” might make it easier for the idea to grow roots. Folks already have mostly positive associations with such terms, associations that make it easier for them to envision what it might be like to inhabit such a space.

Third, as  much as possible, create a holistic vision. Advocating for piecemeal design features without coherency can make your neighbors feel like they are being imposed upon by someone with a “cause” rather than participating in a meaningful and beautiful vision for shared life. Bike lanes on their own are a cause. Bike lanes that connect an entire neighborhood to 3–5 relevant destinations through a nature-centric route…that’s a coherent vision tied to a greater good.

Perhaps one of the most redemptive aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic was how it revealed to us our own adaptability. Seemingly overnight, we adjusted to social distancing, masking, take-out only, long queues at the grocery, attending places of worship online, pop-up outdoor dining, and streets suddenly closed to cars. Improving our cities requires not shrinking back in fear, but courageously presenting new visions of life that bet on this impressive capacity to adapt.



This post was previously published on STRONGTOWNS.ORG and is republished under a Creative Commons license.



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