The Kalu Yala Blog

The Tempo Of Places

March 23, 2012

by Courtney Frazee
Posted In: Designing the Village, The Creation of a Culture, Wandering Thoughts

One of my favorite Radiolab episodes – “Cities” – explores how certain cities get their individual personalities. The hosts begin with a basic conceit: there’s no scientific metric for measuring a city’s personality. So much of the human-scale details that determine an individual experience within an urban center are left to chance. But two physicists and prominent social psychologist Robert Levine are interviewed during the program who have studied certain quantitative measurements of cities that they believe collectively describe what drives city life. To these guys it comes down to one category – what really contributes most to the feelings we get in certain place is our perception of time.

Dr. Robert Levine of CSU Fresno, argues in his book The Geography of Time, that every culture has its own unique set of temporal fingerprints. The sense of disorientation we feel upon traveling, he suggests, can be primarily attributed to another culture’s relationship to time; to examine these differences, he explores three measures: pedestrian walking speed over a distance of 60 feet, the time it took postal clerks to fulfill a standard request for stamps, and the accuracy of 15 randomly-selected bank clocks in main downtown areas. Using this data, he and his team derived a standardized metric for calculating the tempo of life for 31 cities worldwide, which was then used to study which factors correlated strongest to variances in tempo.

Morning on the Cinta Costera

Not surprisingly, the number one determinant of tempo is economics. The more robust and healthy a city’s economy, the faster it will operate. A related factor, industrialization, is a close-second. Levine notes an irony of this relationship: the richer and more industrialized cities are, the less leisure time there is available per citizen – ironic especially in light of the many modern time-saving inventions available to citizens with larger disposable incomes.

The three other factors that contribute to a city’s tempo are as follows: population size, climate, and a culture’s basic values. The first two were not surprising to me – bigger cities have faster paces of life, and hotter places are slower. This seems intuitive; the physical geography of a larger city requires that we navigate a greater area to go about our daily functions, and replicated on a large-scale, faster solutions to transportation, such as subway or train, must be developed to support these movements. Secondly, the greater anonymity of a living in a larger city engenders fewer spontaneous encounters with friends and acquaintances, leading to less time spent socializing and more time moving. Regarding climate, we may ask ourselves, is it the nicer weather that leads to living life more languorously, or do fewer possessions required to survive in cold climates (less clothing, simpler houses with more porous relationships to the outside) allow for life to operate more simply?

The last value listed – culture’s basic values – particularly interests me as I think about Kalu Yala. Levine notes that individualistic cultures move faster than those that value collectivism. Collectivist cultures prize and emphasize affiliation and collaboration, while individualistic cultures alternatively focus on achievement. It’s not difficult to see how the prominence of individual achievement can lead to a “time-is-money” mindset. Productivity, rather than social relations, takes precedence, effectively speeding up the pace of city-wide operations.

So, what do we do with these correlatives? How do we engage them in a way that asserts more control in the planning of a community over its ultimate “feeling”, or personality? Throughout this semester, we’ve established certain values that we hope will eventually be incorporated into the vitals of the Kalu Yala community. We’ve talked many times about how there is a strong connection between the measurable, quantifiable, visual aspects of a community – the physical fiber of its design – and more abstract values that we intrinsically understand to be important. Levine’s research, while sometimes vague and general, asks the right questions for further study and considerations:

Right now at this stage in planning, it’s not the quantifiable data that we should be focused on – it’s asking the right questions, an analytical exercise that’s more often than not more difficult, and more crucial, than remaining comfortable with the measurable data that’s already there. Valuable connections between our statistics are conceived by gaining an greater confusion with how our statistics are operating in relationship to each other.

One Response to “The Tempo Of Places”

  1. I love that Radiolab episode. Everyone should give it a listen.