Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Paleo Places - Chapter 3

Chapter 3:  Paleo People

The so-called Paleo period is key to understanding our reactions to environment for a couple major reasons.  First, we evolved into modern homo sapiens sapiens during this time, and secondly as you will see in Chapter 1, this thin veneer of civilization that you see around you aside, man has actually spent the vast, VAST majority of his time on Earth living in Paleo environments.

Modern Man, or homo sapiens sapiens, evolved on the African savannah around 200 thousand years ago.  The Agricultural Revolution that led to the widespread advent of the first towns and then cities happened about 10 thousand years ago.  These numbers – 200 thousand and 10 thousand are important…look at the ratio between the numbers – 20:1.  This ratio means that Man has spent almost twenty times as much of his existence as a hunter-gatherer as he has in towns and cities.  To look at it another way, Man has spent 95% of his time living is small bands – and then only the past 5% living in Agricultural, and very recently, Industrial cities.

Man evolved on the African savannah and his likes and dislikes and ways of doing things evolved there too.  Are we talking about instincts?  Not quite.  There are characteristics common to all groups – even isolated groups –  of humans.  Fire-making is one such characteristic.  Everyone all over the planet does it…but, you couldn’t really call fire-making an instinct.

In his book by the same name, Donald Brown calls these characteristics “Human Universals.”  I have included Brown’s list of Human Universals in the Appendix of this book.  It is fascinating.

Brown’s Human Universals are a great place for us to start our quest for, and understanding of, what humans really need and want in their built environments.

In subsequent chapters of this book we will be developing a running list of “Characteristics of Paleo Places.”  The aim of this chapter is to convey that Human Universals do exist, and that they do have Paleo roots.  Along the way, we are going to take up a detailed discussion of the human need for art, citing a book, “The Art Instinct”,” by Dennis Dutton.  But, for now, I want to share what he says about the Paleo roots of some of our societal characteristics in this quote from “The Art Instinct.”

“…the Pleistocene itself – the evolutionary theater in which we acquired the tastes, intellectual features, emotional dispositions, and personality traits that distinguish us from our hominid ancestors and make us what we are – was eighty thousand generations long.”

This last by Dutton, where he points out that this phase of our development lasted 80 thousand generations, re-emphasizes just what a long, important period of societal evolution we are discussing.

Another important source that will be cited throughout this book is Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate:  The Modern Denial of Human Nature.”  With reference to the Pleistocene/Paleo period, here is what he has to say, “These ways of knowing and core intuitions are suitable for the lifestyle of small groups of illiterate, stateless people who live off the land, survive by their wits, and depend on what they can carry.  Our ancestors left this lifestyle for a settled existence only a few millennia ago, too recently for evolution to have done much, if anything, to our brains.” 

The take away is that although we now live in modern settings, our reaction to these towns and cities is still Paleo.  We must deconstruct what will work in a built environment. We can do this by developing a list of “Characteristics of Paleo Places” and then making sure those characteristics are present in our modern towns and cities. 

Paleo Places - Chapter 2

Chapter 2:  By Way of Background

Before I explain my epiphany, a few  definitions are probably in order…  First, Neo-traditional towns.  This trend is also referred to as “New Urbanism.”  One of the leaders of this movement, Andres Duany, was actually the designer of Celebration, Florida.  

These New Urbanists believe that the land use patterns that developed after WWII are not sustainable.  When the soldiers came home from the war and spawned what was to become the Baby Boom, America needed a place to house all those new families. Developers started buying and sub-dividing big tracts of land outside of the cities. Once the roof tops were in place, commercial developers started to build shopping centers, and later shopping malls, to meet the consumer demands of this new population. 

This type of spread-out development would not have been possible at earlier points in history because the land uses were so geographically separated.  Dads were commuting into the cities for work; the shopping centers were miles away from the homes. But, the economic boom that followed World War II had made auto ownership available to many families.

Over time, it started to become apparent that these new land use patterns were not the panacea that they had first seemed to be. Traffic had become a nightmare. The abandoned city centers began to die. Childhood obesity even became a problem, in part because American children were driven everywhere!

Enter, the New Urbanists. They espoused the idea that tighter Pre-World War II development patterns had been better. And, they set about trying to re-create them. 

Some characteristics of a New Urbanist, or Neo-traditional, development include: 
Streets in a grid pattern, including alleys for garbage cans etc. - as opposed to the meandering streets of suburban subdivisions.
Old-fashioned front porches on houses.
A “walkable” downtown area that pedestrians can reach from their homes, and that is dense, so pedestrians can easily walk from shop to shop.

This movement is sweeping the country – and beyond.  Prince Charles has actually been involved in a Neo-Traditional development – Poundsbury – in the United Kingdom.  Everyone is jumping on the New Urbanism bandwagon.  But, is it a good idea?   I do not think that it has been studied nearly enough given both the financial costs involved with constructing entire towns, and the long-term social implications associated with where we live and raise our kids.

To me, New Urbanism smacks of “casting about.”  Post World War II sprawl was “bad,” so we “cast about” for something better.  Pieces of pre-war cities were, of course, still around to serve as examples.  They seemed better than the new parts of town – the sprawling new ‘burbs..  Also people have a tendency to mythologize their own childhoods, which were likely spent in a more Mayberry-esque place than they are now lining.  And so, “BOOM” New Urbanism was born, and Neo-traditional towns came on the scene.

Then, almost immediately, the muttering started.  My son, Josh, was not the first person to call Celebration “creepy” or “scary.”  As a planner, I was always intensely interested when I heard this kind of talk.  In an old Tampa weekly, I had once seen Celebration described as Marie Antoinette’s court, where rich people were playing at being shepherds and milkmaids.  I took this criticism as a hint of a problem; a piece of a puzzle…  The article was pointing at a certain “fakeness” about the place.  But, I wondered when I got Josh’s impressions – why did “fakeness” beget “creepiness” and “scariness”?

Again, as a planner, I really wanted to understand why these emotions were coming up for people in relationship to these urban environments.  Creepy and scary are, of course, words associated with the primal emotion FEAR.
As I said earlier, my son and his friends certainly did not running screaming out of Celebration, Florida.  The place is not overtly terrifying.  It evokes more of a not-quite-tangible under-current of something...disturbing.
Andres Duany and company, the designers of Celebration also designed Seaside, Florida.  Not at all coincidentally, Seaside was chosen as the set for the movie, “The Truman Show.”  

 Caption:  Seaside, Florida...the perfect setting for the dystopian movie, 'The Truman Show.'

Caption:  The Post Office at Seaside.

“The Truman Show” is a movie about a man who is being tricked.  Unbeknownst to him, he is living on a television sound set in a fake town – Seaside.  His friends and family are all fake, and nothing is as it appears to be.  Seaside is creepy.
These were the concepts that I was pondering on that fateful dog walk with Jazzy.  I could certainly understand why people associated new towns like Celebration and Seaside with fakeness.  But, what was the connection between fakeness and those feelings of creepiness, apprehension, and, yes, fear that I had repeatedly seen and heard with reference to Neo-traditionalism?

Here's what I figured out.  Fear is a primal emotion.  It was hard-wired into man - and actually into his evolutionary ancestors - at the dawn of time.  As I mentioned earlier, I had been collecting old site plans and pictures of old cities - Roman, Medieval, etc. - trying to distill a set of elements common to all civilizations.  But, part of my epiphany was that I was not looking far enough back in time!  Not nearly far enough!

I suddenly realized that in order to find out what type of environment man was hard-wired for, I had to go back to the time of his hard-wiring in the Pleistocene Period.  (Note that I use the terms Pleistocene and Paleo relatively interchangeably in this book, but that the distinction is explained in the next chapter.)

The second part of my epiphany was a hypothesis about the how to connect the dots between the fakeness of Neo-Traditional developments and the creepiness/fear/apprehension that people often describe in relation to them.  As I walked my dog, I imagined very early humans walking - maybe with a dog that looked similar to our wolf-like Jasmine(!) - and coming upon the encampment of another group of people.  

Imagine you are part of the group too.  We come upon this little settlement, and something seems "off" about it.  Something does not look right.  You cannot put your finger on exactly what the problem is.  Things seem to be staged;  there seems to be some kind of trickery afoot...

And, we are walking right into the middle of it.

In this century, and in North America and Western Europe, most of us can move pretty blithely through our days - walking through cities, towns, shopping malls or subdivision without the fear of ambush by other groups of people or of animal attack.  But, that has not always been the case.  For our distant ancestors, walking into a settlement where things seemed unnatural or as though there was some deliberate attempt at trickery could have been the prelude to an attack!  

And, my thesis is that walking into these types of environments today sets off the same alarm bells that would have sounded for our "Paleo" ancestors - albeit the bells are now muffled and much quieter and faded by time.  So, that now what we feel is something...creepy, or vaguely unsettling.

Our response to our environment is Paleo.  And, in the case of an overly staged or deceptive-looking environment, our response is anxiety, uneasiness or fear.   I ran Jasmine back from the park and tossed her leash onto the floor of the laundry room and started to read everything that I could find about our Paleo roots!

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Paleo Places - Chapter 1

Paleo Places

If you are unable to understand the cause of the problem it is impossible to solve it.

  -Naoto Kan

Banners and Awnings

As I mentioned earlier, my initial skepticism toward New Urbanism/Neo-traditionalism was that it seemed to be yet another “Planning Bandwagon” on to which we all would leap. 

When I was a grad student at Ball State in the 80’s, we often joked about all the cities that were then jumping on the Downtown Convention Center Bandwagon.  Downtown convention centers were supposed to save downtowns. Everyone was doing it. Hell, Gary, Indiana – A steel city crippled by the closure of steel mills, and now bereft and crime ridden – had recently put in a downtown convention center.

When I graduated and started working in Florida, “nodes” were the new Planning Bandwagon. The logic was that “strip commercial” was bad. To combat strip commercial, retail would be forced to locate at nodes (intersections of major roads), and not to be strung out for miles along a given corridor. 

While the land planners in Tampa were forcing commercial developers to build within a prescribed number of feet of major intersections, the government transportation planners were busy prohibiting driveways too close to the same intersections. The disconnect illustrated by the land planners forcing development into areas that did not meet the transportation planners’ driveway spacing criteria is, of course, just a detail when we are discussing “big picture” urban planning trends. But, it is a very telling detail. All of these “movements” or planning bandwagons represent huge financial investment on the one hand, and high-stakes social experiments, on the other. People are living, dying, and raising kids in these places we are building, and it seems as though we are jumping on and off of these Planning Bandwagons without enough thoughtful consideration – especially given the enormous repercussions of these decisions. 

The next Planning Bandwagon presents a great case in point for discussing repercussions and unintended consequences. The Florida Growth Management Act of 1985 contained a mandate for a thing called “concurrency”. As the name of the act implies, Florida was trying to manage rampant growth. And concurrency was going to be part of that growth management package. Simply put, concurrency meant that public facilities – think road capacity – had to be available “concurrently” with the actual construction of the development. In other words, if you were going to build, say, a subdivision you had to do a study to see what roads your traffic would impact. If your forecast showed that the roads you would impact did not have adequate capacity to handle 

your traffic, you could either down-size your project or mitigate your traffic by making some type of improvement to the transportation system. 

Now, we come to the unintended consequence. Florida had, and has, major traffic congestion. Generally speaking, the traffic is worse in the cities and gets better and better when you get out of the cities. It did not take long before developers started commissioning “due diligence” traffic studies before they even closed on properties to ascertain what their transportation impacts and associated cost would be. Markets demanded that they look for low cost properties to develop, and the properties with lowest associated transportation concurrency cost were generally outside of the cities. This made rural areas even more attractive to developers and increased urban sprawl! 

As I write this, some current Planning Bandwagons include trolleys and the Neo-traditional villages with which we began. Is there a trolley system being constructed in a city near you? Trolleys are returning to cities across the United States.  I guess that my opinion on trolleys is…that I don’t have a blanket opinion on trolleys!  Trolleys are neither inherently appropriate nor inappropriate.  Every city, every neighborhood is certainly different, and so each situation must be carefully studied to see what, if any, benefits a trolley could offer.

In fact, this illustrates the very essence of the point that I am making about Planning Bandwagons.  One size does not fit all. Maybe a trolley in Tampa is a great way to connect the cruise ship terminals in Channelside with the tourist attractions in the old Cuban cigar town of Ybor City.  But, does this mean that a trolley is a good idea in Cincinnati?  Maybe it is.  Maybe it isn’t. Downtown pedestrian malls (built during that Planning Bandwagon in the seventies and eighties) did not flourish as intended in many cities.  Similarly, bringing trolleys to downtown areas is a modern Planning Bandwagon.  

Is “Paleo Places” another Planning Bandwagon?  

I don't think so.

It is as different from the bandwagons as inductive reasoning is from deductive reasoning.  Trying out different ideas that look “cool” in an architect's rendering to see how they work out is inductive planning.  Developing a set of criteria (Characteristics of Paleo Places) of what humans need in an environment in order to thrive, and then working to include those elements in the environment is a deductive, logical approach to urban planning.

Chapter 1:  My Epiphany

“Celebration is the devil,” sniffed my then twenty-eight year old son, Josh.  We were all living in Tampa, Florida, at the time, and he and some friends had gone to Orlando to visit their old high school buddy, Jose.

While there, they had checked out the little Neo-traditional town that Disney built – Celebration, Florida.  And, now Josh, my eldest, was calling to commiserate.

He continued, “We got out and walked around the little downtown area.  Jordan said it was straight out of “The Stepford Wives.”  I haven’t seen that movie yet, so I couldn’t comment.  But, I did think it was pretty creepy.”

In addition to a motherly interest in the views of my son, I also had a professional interest in what Josh had to say about Celebration.  I am an urban planner.   And, at that time I had worked as both a private and public sector urban planner for about 25 years.   I had also been collecting notes, thoughts, anecdotes, clippings and fragments of ideas for at least that many years toward writing what I jokingly referred to as my planning manifesto.

My book was supposed to cut through all of the planning and architectural trends and distill the pure essence of what people needed and wanted in a built environment.  People were just highly evolved animals, I reasoned; therefore, it must be possible to design and build an ideal habitat for them.  My thought was that there must be a set of definable elements that should be included in people's environments that would really optimize how they lived, ate, play, raised their children...

Some of the things that I had been investigating and collecting up to that point were pictures and site plans of very early human settlements.  I was trying to assemble a list of things that might be common to settlements across Asia, Europe, and the Americas -- things that I could point to and say, "These are the basic, instinctual things that people need in their cities and towns."   Things like houses, temples, open spaces...

Caption:  Celebration, Florida, is a New Urbanist town deliberately designed and built to look as though it were constructed in a by-gone era.

Caption:  Store in Celebration, Florida.

And, it was against this backdrop that Josh and I had our phone call about Celebration that day.  Josh used the word 'creepy' to describe Celebration.  And, it was not the first time that I had heard Celebration or other Neo-traditional, or New Urbanist, towns and villages described as creepy or scary.

I knew from Social Psychology classes that I had had in college, that feeling that something is creepy or scary, or having feelings of anxiety about something, all revert back to the primary emotion of Fear.  Sure, Josh and his friends did not run screaming out of Celebration, and it is easy to laugh and dismiss the undercurrent of fear, and I think that that is why nobody had addressed it head on up until this point.

But, I felt that if I could unlock what was causing that - albeit subtle -  fear reaction, that creepy feeling, then I could begin to distill how a person's environment affected him or her on a most basic, most primal level.  This is what I had been after - an idea of what people's most natural, most suitable environment would be like!

I put the leash on Jasmine, our husky/German shepherd, and started to walk.  I walked to the end of the block of our modern subdivision, past the almost matching pastel stucco houses around the corner and into the park.  The grass was rough St. Augustine - bred to withstand the hot Florida summers - but even so, patches of weeds and sand dotted the turf.  Plus, there was always the very real danger of fire ants, so Jasmine and I stuck to the bright, new sidewalks.  

She nosed around, and I pondered shiny new towns designed to look old, and primal feelings of fear and love.  And, just as we were passing the basketball courts, I got it!  It came to me!  I figured out what the key was to distilling man's environmental needs, and the idea for this book was born.

Read on...



Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Anyone Here? And, notes on using books as a reward during Work From Home Lockdown...

I have not posted since 2013 when my grandbaby came to live with me.

He's eight now.

Are any of my old blog buddies still around?

I am trying to stay off social media as much as I can, although I am drawn to it because I want to stay informed. But, I am starting to get depressed by all the death.

I have plenty of urban planning reports to write, and I need to work on the bills and the house and the grandson's home-schooling.

Starting today I get 1 point worth $1 for every 1 work task or 10 house tasks that I do. I can spend it on books. I am looking for comfort books at this point. Cozies. I am going to re-read some of my childhood books, and collect them for the grandkids - I am up to 5 1/2 grandkids, by the way.

Did you read any Lois Lenski when you were a kid? (Not to be confused with Lois Lowry.) My favorites were Strawberry Girl and Judy's Journey - but, there are a ton of them.

If you're still out there, comment below please and I will visit your blog! Do you have any other Cozy book ideas?

Friday, March 15, 2013


The steam rose on the square after the summer rain, and like ghosts, the people of the village drifted back. The sun blazed. Barefoot, Anton ran over the pavers jumping in warm puddles.

Photo Source: Berenger ZYLA/ BY-NC-ND

I prepared this post so as to participate in this weekend's Trifextra over at

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Trifextra - Welcome to My World

It's difficult for me to participate in Trifextra because I am adrift in a sea of half-done traffic studies. Dirty laundry clogs my engines, and dishes have piled up to create little reefs.

I have written this so as to participate in the weekend writing contest over at

This weekend, we are to write 33 words of hyperbole!

Picture source:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Trifect Entry - Amy's Story

Amy tried not to dwell on the fact that she was adopted. Of course, she knew. She had always known. For one thing, she was Asian - an almond-eyed exotic orchid in the middle of a family of blond American daisies.

Also, there were the snippets of memory. The little flashes, like scenes from old movies, would usually come when she was lying in bed trying to go to sleep. Amy had been adopted as a three year old. She was twelve now, but she had these vague memories. A smiling Chinese woman - her mother? Mountains. A fall into a cold lake.

Amy tried to suppress the memories. They made her feel lost and lonely, and then guilty, as though she were betraying her family here in America.

So, Amy always did her best not to think about China, until the day that she got the note, and the dragon came crashing through the door.


I have prepared this post so as to participate in the TrifectaWritingChallenge. click over and take a look! Anyone can participate, and it is a lot of fun and a bit of a writing work out!

This is paraphrased selection from a screenplay I am working on...