Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Neurological Underpinnings of Belvedere Part 1

Bret and I moved here February 2008 and immediately began building our home in Belvedere. We stood on the land where our house is now and Josh Goldschmidt said to me, "You gotta like people if you are going to live here." I knew I wanted to live in Belvedere from the moment our realtor, Jim Duncan told me about it. I immediately saw I could live connected to people and to nature, and the design had amazing child and nature potential. To me, it was The Answer. To what? . . . I am about to tell you.

Then began the interviews with the press. So interesting. Erika Howsare of Cvillian and the Abode called me New Urbanist. I had no idea what that was. It seems it is a design approach to living where houses are close together and in connection with shared green spaces. It was walkable. Its design allowed people to walk to area restaurants and shops in the Town Center. Street design was shifted to focus on pedestrian population as well as cars. I was something, I was New Urbanist. Then came the discussion about LEED and "green." So I researched labels and criteria for environmentally correct building. This EarthCraft focus seemed to be what everyone wanted to talk about. But that is not what attracted me to Belvedere.

I knew that humans are hardwired to connect, and that our culture does not do a good job supporting this notion. Just the statistics from the study Hardwired to Connect are daunting:

  • Scholars at the National Research Council in 2002 estimated that at least one of every four adolescents in the US is currently at serious risk of not achieving productive adulthood.
  • According to another recent study, about 21% of US children ages 9 - 17 have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder associated with at least minimum impairment. These rates appear to reflect actual increases in these problems, not changes in methods or rates of treatment.
  • Despite increased ability to treat depression, the current generation of young people is more likely to be depressed and anxious than was its parent's generation. Source
  • High levels of anxiety, or neuroticism, are not only problems in themselves, but are also associated with major depression, suicide attempts, alcohol abuse, marital problems, and a wide variety of physical ailments, including asthma, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcers.
The study details the rise in suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety and disease in children over the last several decades despite a rise in material wellbeing. It states:

. . .US young people not only appear to be experiencing sharp increases in mental illness and stress and emotional problems, but also continue to suffer from high -- we as a commission believe unacceptably high -- rates of related behavioral problems such as substance abuse, school dropout, interpersonal violence, premature sexual intercourse, and teenage pregnancy. p. 9

The study also says that while children are 50% less likely to die from unintentional injuries, cancer, and heart disease since 1950, they are 140% more likely to die from homicide or suicide (which is the third leading cause of death of youth in the country). Again, I quote:

More and more, what is harming and killing our children today is mental illness, emotional distress, and behavioral problems.

Our neurological systems are designed to need contact and social interactions with other human beings of multiple generations. I found this study through a seminar I attended by Allan Schore, one of the leading thinkers in the science of attachment. Part of my training is to help people understand their attachment styles that are divided up into secure, insecure, and disorganized attachment. More specifically, it is how our early connections affect our health and perception. It is a well researched scientific field starting with psychoanalyst John Bowlby.

In his latest book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about how it was precisely this social connecting that supported the health and wellbeing of a whole town in Pennsylvania. The first chapter relates the story of a population of Italian immigrants that did not have much heart disease, the leading killer among adult populations in the United States.

In Roseto, virtually no one under 55 died of a heart attack, or showed any signs of heart disease. For men over 65, the death rate from heart disease in Roseto was roughly half that of the United States as a whole. The death rate from all causes in Roseto, in fact, was something like thirty or thirty-five percent lower than it should have been.

What was the secret of this populations health? Researcher found out it was not the diet, the physical exercise level, the soil, or anything else. The secret lay in the village culture of the town:

What Wolf slowly realized was that the secret of Roseto wasn't diet or exercise or genes or the region where Roseto was situated. It had to be the Roseto itself. As Bruhn and Wolf walked around the town, they began to realize why. They looked at how the Rosetans visited each other, stopping to chat with each other in Italian on the street, or cooking for each other in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town's social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to Mass at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. They counted twenty-two separate civic organizations in a town of just under 2000 people. They picked up on the particular egalitarian ethos of the town, that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.

What supported the health of the Rosetans was their connection to each other in relationship and proximity
. To me, Belvedere's design supports human connection: the narrow streets, the grid-design with alleys and narrow lots, the wide sidewalks, the shared green and public spaces. It allows for what is natural and healthy for humans to flourish as opposed to rural living the way I had been in Vermont. I felt very isolated and disconnected up there. I craved connection and community.

When Jim said "neighborhood" and "nature," I said yes! That is what I want. Proximity to nature also has many benefits. Combining close knit community connections with nature is a one-two punch for health. Part 2 of the neurological underpinnings of my neighborhood will detail just how nature supports human development and how Belvedere does and will do just that.

1 comment:

Frank Dukes said...

This is so thoughtful - I look forward to your blogs as we look forward to our move here this summer.