Watershead, Fall 2004
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The Great Outdoors: Why Humans Need Open Space
By Ron Bottorff

Why do those wonderful images on television of Africa's Serengeti Plain make us feel so serene and so connected? Why are people willing to pay so dearly for houses with a view? Why do we feel so enraptured when taking in the Death Valley landscape from Dante's View?

There is a fundamental reason behind all of these facts: Humans love the great outdoors. We have a fundamental need for open space. When it is absent, as in the inner cores of our large cities, we seem to have difficulty keeping our lives on an even keel and keeping our youth away from harmful activities.

Homo sapiens is a creature of the open savanna. That is where we began and where we developed over many hundreds of thousands of years. Open space is in our genes, in our hearts, and in our souls. We are part of the savanna and it is part of us. We still need it to remain whole.

Edward O. Wilson, the well-known Harvard naturalist, author, and pioneer of sociobiology and biodiversity, puts it this way in his book, "The Future of Life": "Studies conducted in the relatively new field of environmental psychology during the past 30 years point consistently to the following conclusion: people prefer to be in natural environments, and especially in savanna or park-like habitats. They like a long depth of view across a relatively smooth , grassy surface dotted with trees and copses. They want to be near a body of water, whether ocean, lake, river or stream. They try to place their habitations on a prominence, from which they can safely scan the savanna and watery environment. With nearly absolute certainty, these landscapes are preferred over urban settings…" He further states, "Almost the full evolutionary history of the genus Homo, including Homo sapiens , and its immediate ancestors, was spent near these habitats…If that amount of time, about two million years, were to be compressed into a span of seventy years, humanity occupied the ancestral environment for sixty-nine years and eight months, whereupon some of the populations took up agriculture and moved into villages to spend the last 120 days."

So, it is no mystery why we feel such a need for open space. Southern California, one of the most urbanized regions in the country, surely has a greater need – which can only increase over the next few decades as our population continues to expand.


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