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According to the the Arbitron National In-Car Study published in 2003, Americans spend an average of 15 hours per week in a car as either a passenger or a driver. That means that for a little more than two hours a day our view of the world around us is confined to the size of a windshield and a side-view mirror. There’s no ambiance of the environment to take in. Instead there’s the monotone of upholstery, there’s the sight of black tar and the back of another car, and the air conditioning minding a comfortable temperature. Within the car we’re separated from the symphony of life that surrounds us and subject to the tedium of a static environment.

At least, that’s what I got to thinking when watching Rob Forbes’ talk from the 2006 TED Conference:

Forbes is the founder of Design Within Reach, and currently is focused on Studio Forbes, which, according to the ‘about’ blurb on studioforbes.com, brings attention to good design. He’s also an advocate of biking in the urban landscape, and of shifting away from individualist automotive transportation toward more efficient mass transportation systems akin to the urban landscapes of Amsterdam, Venice, and many other cities in Europe.

He’s a self-described avid walker and on his leg journeys throughout the world in cities like Amsterdam, Berlin, Chicago, San Francisco, &c., he’s photographed instances of serendipitous design out of utilitarian cityscapes. One of my favourite photos highlighted in his talk was of the scaffolding at a construction site in Buenos Aires, which was reminiscent of the neoplasticist works of Piet Mondrian. A large gallery of curious instances of beauty are on the Studio Forbes website.

Things like the Mondrian-esque scaffolding and the unfortunate red fire hydrant in Havana are precisely the types of things that can elude the average driver. Of course, most people won’t look twice at scaffolding on the side of a building, even on foot. Most people don’t take notice of the beauty of form and colour in bouquets of French breakfast radishes at the market, or the composition of petals on a masoned floor. To see this type of incidental design takes a particular attention that many of us don’t have the time to pay for. It’s that sort of rushed mentality that urges us to be generally inconsiderate of the world around us, and urges us to get in our fast cars to get to our next destination in as little time as possible, be it work, be it home, the grocery store, wherever.

America was founded on utilitarian principals and it has served a lot of good. Utility and productivity has driven America to prosperity in the few decades since the West Indies were colonized. And utilitarianism has pervaded the modern American psyche, and surely will for years to come. But, despite the US being the richest and most productive country in the world, according to a study by the World Values Survey, it ranks as the 16th happiest country–behind Denmark (1), Columbia (3) and New Zealand (15). It isn’t a particularly bad thing being the 16th happiest country in the world, but considering the US is ranked first when it comes to productivity and wealth, it’s a little disappointing.

According to a 2006 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, the romantic allure of cars is on the decline. They say more people consider driving a chore, fewer people go joy riding, less people consider their cars to be anything more than a means of getting from place to place. Over the past decade there have been countless stories in the news about drivers’ frustrations over gas prices, traffic, commute times, instances of road rage, &c. Times have changed since the Model T, the Industrial Revolution, and the eventual fulfillment of Henry Ford’s dream for an automobile for every person. Maybe people desire the opportunity to slow down a little.

I don’t suggest the absolute abolishment of the individual’s automobile (though nice it would be), as there are a lot of things that can’t practically be seen without an automobile (the expanse of Highway 1 along the Pacific coast, for example). Rather, I suggest people stop every now and again, forgetting about any particular destination, to walk around and appreciate the things they zip by day in and day out. To create memories around the things that they pass void of wit or wisdom. Doing so might heighten one’s perspective, it may personalize one with the city or the land they live in, it may give people a reason to invest in the betterment of their own urban and natural landscapes, and may give a people more utils for which to measure happiness. Life is too beautiful to ignore, and there’s far too much of it too.

Adieu.

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