The Pleistocene Savannas of Minneapolis

In a wonderful TED talk (see link below), Dennis Dutton (professor, and co-founder of Arts & Letters Dailyexamines the theory of beauty from an evolutionary perspective:

Dennis Dutton, A Darwinian Theory of Beauty

According to Dutton, “beauty is one of the ways that evolution encourages us to make the most adaptive decisions for survival or reproduction.” It does so by sustaining our interest in objects that might not otherwise seem to have a direct benefit to us, a baby’s face for example.

In his talk, Dutton shares an example to demonstrate his theory that beauty is a universal human experience:

“People in very different cultures all of over the world tend to like a particular kind of landscape. A landscape that just happens to be similar to the Pleistocene savannas where we evolved. This landscape shows up today on calendars, on postcards, in the design of golf courses and public parks, and in gold framed pictures that hang in living rooms from New York to New Zealand. Its a kind of Hudson River School Landscape featuring open spaces of low grasses interspersed with copses of trees, the trees are preferred if they fork near the ground, that is to say if they’re trees that you could scramble up in a tight fix. The landscape shows the presence of water directly in view or evidence of water in a bluish distance, indications of animal or bird life, as well as diverse greenery, and finally, a path or a road, perhaps a river bank or a shoreline,that extends into the distance, almost inviting you to follow it. This landscape type is regarded as beautiful even by people in countries that don’t have it. The ideal savannah landscape is one of the clearest examples that human beings everywhere find beauty in similar individual experience.”

Hudson River School, Asher Durand White, Mountain Scenery

Hudson River School, Asher Durand White, Mountain Scenery

The cave-man psyche seems to be alive  and well in the minds of Minneapolitans,  if the following two images are any indication. These maps were created using Zillow (an online real estate marketplace). The first map shows all of the homes currently for sale starting at a price of $350,000. The second map shows homes for sale less than $240,000.  A clear picture emerges:


Homes for sale, price starting at $350,000


Homes for sale, less than $240,000

Most people don’t need to be informed about Minnesotans’ preference for watery outdoor landscapes. But I think it is useful to keep in mind that the desire for this type of landscape is extremely powerful–in this case, at least $100,000 powerful. And if this were a Zillow map of Central Park, that figure would be a lot more extreme.

When designing the city of Minneapolis, its important to consider how powerfully important it is for some people have this “ideal” landscape as part of their habitat.

If Minneapolis hopes to compete for density–then there needs to be an awareness that aesthetic preference is one of the strongest motivations people have when deciding where to live. Its basically why suburbs like Eden Prairie exist (Eden Prairie has more green space per capita than most of the Metro area). Investments in jobs, transit, and education are extremely important, but if Minneapolis wants to compete as a city, we must also preserve and expand our “Pleistocene Savannas.”


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