Everyday Art: Swept Yards

Every morning, my brother, who is a Peace Corps Trainee in Malawi, sweeps his host family’s yard. “The yard is a semi-public space,” he tells me. “Anyone can come in as long as they announce themselves.” But what’s up with the sweeping? I ask. Why not just plant the yard? The yard already contains a separate garden, he explains, but it’s important to sweep because of “the pattern it [sweeping] leaves. Gotta have the yard looking nice.”

Chicken in a yard
Yard patterns (and bonus chicken) in Malawi. Photo courtesy of Calvin Zehnder.

Continue reading “Everyday Art: Swept Yards”

Free land? Move to Russia. Or Iowa.

Want free land? The NYT reported this week on a new Russian land give-away program designed to boost human population in the country’s remote eastern provinces. The program, which is open to both foreigners and Russian citizens, promises each applicant a hectare of free land for personal or agricultural use. It’s part of an ongoing government effort to prevent Chinese influence in Siberia, but Vladimir Putin and his advisors have a lot of ground to cover. Literally. At 2.4 million square miles, with a population density of just 2.6 people/sq mi, Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District is 24 times larger than Wyoming, the least-populated state in the U.S. (2.4 people/sq mi).* Although parts of the region have developed a small industrial presence (sea cucumbers, anyone?), the boggy taiga and dense spruce forests have so far proved unappealing to potential settlers.

Russian ad
This illustration on the program’s website  advertises the opportunity to work one’s own land

Other world governments have tried their hands at free land projects before, with varying success. In the United States, the Homestead Acts encouraged cultivation of the American midwest from the 1850s to the 1930s. Anyone who has read Laura Ingalls Wilder or Willa Cather will know that homestead life was often a brutal enterprise; in My Ántonia (1918), Cather writes of “burning summers” and “blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and gray as sheet-iron.” And let’s not forget the locust clouds that descend on the Ingalls family farm in On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937). Another devastating side effect of American homesteading was its contribution to the decline of indigenous peoples—a disturbing result of many 19th-century land programs, including Canada’s 1872 Dominion Lands Act and Australia’s 1861 Crown Lands Acts.

But what about today? Does anyone—besides Putin—really think free land is still an appealing idea? Yes, as it turns out. In the United States, the Desert Land Act has encouraged the economic development of arid and semi-arid western lands since 1877. The program, which is still active, limits plots to 320 acres, and requires grantees to secure an adequate water supply for irrigation within four years of land receipt. Considering that water rights are a continuing headache for the west, this irrigation requirement strikes me as both expensive and unsustainable. Why not offer land to people willing to build solar farms? Just a thought.

Here are a few more places where you can receive free land in the U.S.:

For a more exotic setting, consider Pitcairn Island, the British Overseas Territory. This Pacific island settled by British mutineers from the HMS Bounty will give you land to build a house, garden, orchard, or pretty much anything. They just really need more people. http://www.immigration.pn/FAQ.php

pitcairn island
Promotional image from the Pitcairn Island immigration website

Finally, if the Russian Far East still seems enticing, I leave you with this travel website’s description of Vladivostok, one of the region’s anchor cities:



*population data as of 2010 census

The Great Dismal Swamp

Continuing our summer wetlands theme, this seemed like a good time for a post about the Great Dismal Swamp, which plays a crucial if complex role in the history of the eastern United States. It’s a true borrowed land—a space that humans have inhabited for centuries, but have never quite tamed.

For some, this wildness has been a curse; for others, an asset. George Washington wanted to drain the swamp. Escaped slaves took refuge in it. Though it’s been logged and drained—the modern swamp is about an eighth of its original size—the Great Dismal remains a dark, shifty place that’s difficult to navigate. When I first visited the swamp this winter, I was struck by the waist-high grasses that carpet most of the landscape’s higher ground. There’s no way to tell if the waving stalks index a gust of wind, or the movement of a body.

Continue reading “The Great Dismal Swamp”

Literary ha-has

When people modify landscapes, their interventions often reflect ideas about what to reveal and what to conceal. Beautiful vistas prompt the construction of scenic overlooks; drainage ditches cue the strategic planting of trees. It’s no secret that landscape architects structure environments in ways that achieve certain behavioral, social, and ecological effects. But people who write about landscapes do this, too. A description of a place is also an argument about how to experience that place. What has the author decided to say—or not say?

Continue reading “Literary ha-has”

Desire paths: visualizing haste and delay

I live near a shopping mall complex, and sometimes I feel like there’s not much to say about my local landscape. But the other day, I saw something that reminded me people don’t stop interacting with their environment just because it’s planned and suburban:

Desire path

Students of landscape architecture will recognize this eroded trail as a desire line, or desire path. These paths appear when pedestrians (or cyclists, cows, etc.) establish alternatives to constructed routes, usually in search of a shortcut—or a path where none exists.

Desire paths may exist in physical space, but they also represent flows of information. Some landscape planners interpret desire paths as evidence that an existing design has failed to meet human needs. Others celebrate crowd-sourced routes as the best way to begin designing cities and public transportation systems. Even in the digital world, our desire for efficiency drives us to scan webpages in distinct patterns. No wonder that desire paths are a touchstone for architects, web developers, and others interested in user-centered design.

In suburban and urban areas, however, certain pedestrians can create paths that halt movement and reflect more aesthetic—or self-absorbed—desires. Matthew Tiessen writes that the “Meanderthal” who frequently stops to text, take a photo, chat, or admire a scene is “a new species of urban flâneur … the proverbial stick in the spokes [that brings] the urban dweller’s expectations of mobility to an abrupt end.” Meanderthals trace individualized desire paths when they obstruct the flow of traffic, oblivious to the wants and needs of fellow pedestrians. They also pose a special design challenge: their paths aren’t always visible or consistent. The Meanderthal only halts routes when there are other people to halt.

How might urban designers anticipate and divert these Meanderthal paths? And should they? For me, Tiessen’s article also raises a broader set of questions: which desires do we physically inscribe on our landscapes, which ones do we keep hidden, and why?