Becoming Indigenous

“When do we all become native to this place? When do we all become indigenous people?” – William McDonough

Ever wonder why America has such trouble with suburban sprawl, highway congestion, and keeping its urban centers viable? It’s a result of how we see “place” relative to other factors in society. We don’t respect it much; it is subservient to education and corporate employment.

For the last 60 years, “success” has meant going to a “good” college or university, getting one or more degrees, and then securing a “good” job. And we have told our children that they need to get good grades and engage in an array extracurricular activities in order to get into those good schools. The logical conclusion is that our children should fear the inverse outcome: not getting the good grades, not going to a good school, and ultimately not securing the good job. So the message is one of struggle: the world requires you to conform to its standards — you, the aspiring student, are expected to make sacrifices in order to be rewarded. And those rewards are held up as the make-or-break difference between the “good life” and an average life as a postal clerk.

And so the deadening chain of sacrifice and compromise begins.


When a promising 16-year old student tells her guidance counselor that she wants to study marine biology, can she really mean it?

When she is answered that she should consider a list of 5 schools, 4 of which are scattered across the country, is this even helpful?

A young person is rarely able to comprehend the specific nature of their vocation, much less make a choice about where they want to live to pursue that alleged vocation. So, what this mechanism really represents is a great geographic randomizer that spews people around the country while racking up student loans, disconnecting people from their indigenous roots and fueling the education industry.

Once the degrees are completed, the job hunt begins. Graduates and corporations engage in bizarre mating rituals, each trying to convince the other that they are the ones who got the better end of their devil’s bargain. And so the newly-minted worker starts to do what the corporation asks. When an “opportunity” comes up in a new city, the worker is enticed to rip up their roots, divorcing them from whatever local connections they have — trading them in for a 10-year thank-you watch, a 4.5% raise and a moving allowance.

A transplanted worker can’t know a new place deeply. Their immediate needs are straightforward and purchased: a house to store their possessions, proximity to shopping, services, and restaurants. If they have or want children, they also want good schools. Of course, good schools are hard to come by, and that scarcity means that the houses with the best schools cost the most money, and so the compromise is made and the choice is made to settle in a place that they necessarily have no connection to. They like it. It’s nice. It solves their need. And they have no idea where they live.

And so they don’t (really, deeply) care about where they live. They don’t care when a new shopping center is built, destroying an ancient stand of trees and filling a stream with runoff. (Oh look, we’re getting an Anthropologie and a P.F. Chang’s — I hear the lettuce wraps are great.)

They don’t care when new roads are built to service the very subdivisions they inhabit, leading to more traffic.

They don’t care when public transportation projects continue to go unfunded, because public transportation would require a 30-year budget process (longer than the attention span than most itinerant residents) and significant urban density.

And they don’t care when the city-centers in their megalopolis rot due to white flight and a failure to invest in urban infrastructure.


  • People should aspire to grow where they are planted.
  • If they cannot grow where they are planted, they should at least plant themselves someplace they can grow.
  • What someone does for a living should not necessarily determine where they live.
  • Place is not fungible.

Why are so many successful people unhappy? And why are so many “less successful” people completely at peace?

People who have an opportunity to connect to place (to history, to extended family) are often the most at-peace and effective. Mike Rowe (of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs) gave a surprisingly good talk at the EG conference about the meaning of work and what it means to perform the tasks that others in our society will not. In many senses, these are the people who have chosen to commit themselves to a place.

If You Want to be Green, Choose a Place to Love

If you really want to do good for your environment, it is not enough to commit yourself to unbleached paper towels and driving a Prius. In fact, both of those things represent environmental harm and disconnectedness. Paper towels? Spill less stuff, and use washable towels. A Prius? The energy required to build and dispose of its batteries is immense. An inexpensive high-mileage gasoline vehicle that you keep for years and barely use does much less harm than a Prius you drive 75 miles every day for 7 years.

The things that lead to the most efficient behaviors (commuting less, sharing resources, maximizing time efficiency) all derive directly from maximizing the relationship to the place where you live.

And so the ways you can make the most difference — and be the most green — have nothing to do with what you consume — they are derived from the design of your life. Is your life designed in such a way that you can become indigenous?

When you become indigenous to a place, you enable it in all kinds of new ways. Engagement is contagious and leads people to recognize themselves in others — and in you. Where before, kids were encouraged to follow their hearts by going to MIT (and thus launching the great chain of place-divorce), they realize they can follow their hearts by being a part of the schools (and culture) in their own backyard — which offer a rich, world-class experience. And so they stay. And they care about their cities, parks, and forests. And they go on to enrich their cultural institutions, entrepreneurial climate, and their urban centers. If you don’t think you have the kind of world-class culture you want to see in your backyard, start building it now by reaching out to others who want to see the same thing.

All of this leads to the most efficient use of resources in the place where you live. Isn’t that green?

How Do You Become Indigenous to Your Place?

Commit yourself to it. Attend events and meetups that you find interesting. Start events and meetups that you would like to see. Reach out to the bright minds in your own backyard. They are there, but they don’t know you are yet. Say hello. Work on ideas and projects that matter and have consequences. Start a business. Help someone. Be a mentor. Read history, and understand why your place is the way it is.

Place is not just another consumer choice. Place provides context for human interaction; it is the basis of our humanity. Only through connectedness to place do we enable the fullest range of human expression and of human being.

As we enter into a new economic cycle (I’ll stop short of calling it a new era), it is clear that economic activity based on flows and cycles is going to receive more attention than old school approaches of resource-rape and infinite expansion through leverage and buried externalities. For businesses based on closed cycles to maximize profits, they need to limit transportation of inputs and wastes, and that points towards fundamentally local and regional businesses. Local production and consumption is an inescapable imperative of the emerging business cycle.

If you have children, teach them about the place where they live. Talk about the future in ways that help them understand how (and why) they might make a life where you live now, without locking them down or sounding creepy — just make it a viable option. Start thinking about your family home as a family seat, not just a house that you buy or sell as an investment. If you’re not living in a home you would want to pass on to your children (or which they would not want), consider making that final move to a place that you may keep for a long time.

For some, keeping the same residence (be it apartment or house) is not always an option, or sensible. So if you can’t connect to a particular piece of real-estate, what can you do to connect yourself to a city?

In either case, you can’t become indigenous to a place without a multi-generational mindset.

The Constraint of Place

Anyone who does anything creative will tell you that constraints actually improve your work. All of this talk about becoming indigenous and attaching multiple generations to a place can sound confining and perhaps even suffocating — or worse yet anti-American (think about why that is for a minute). But, as a constraint it may actually be freeing.

Isn’t it central to our capitalist-consumer culture that each generation should be free to make its own choices about where to live and why? Why should our children be burdened by our choice of house and where to live? Isn’t it only a burden if it isn’t a very good choice?

But what if a constraint to place was something that actually enabled creativity? What if the choice of one generation was a reasonable choice for the next? If you were going to keep a home in your family for 10 generations, what kind of home would that be? Why don’t you live in it now?

This is not to say that it’s not acceptable to move if you need to move, or to even enjoy multiple places. A 19th-century worldview, of wintering in one place and summering in another, can make a lot of sense, assuming you fully connect to both places. Become indigenous to two places rather than a consumer (and destroyer) of many.

Conferences represent some of the worst excess and abuse (and neglect) of place. Why travel to a multitude of destinations to stay in hotels, eat bad meals, and talk to people who are only marginally better than the people you would find in your own backyard (if you’d only take the time to locate and develop them). Yes, conferences represent the only forum to connect with certain people, and it will be a while before the activity in your backyard can be as rich, etc.  Blah. If you fully engage with the people in your own backyard, your appetite to travel to conferences will be substantially lessened.

The Future Is Local

I am not the first to suggest that the economy of the future will have a big local component. Certainly that is true. However, we’re not just talking about switching to buying local garlic, squash, and milk here. Just as you can’t take and pile “new media” ways of doing business onto the newspaper industry, we can’t expect to reorient our economy to local production cycles without also adopting very different sets of behaviors.

I believe that new communications and organizing tools will cause these fundamental transformations:

  • Restaurants will morph into dinner parties and gatherings
  • Reverence for MIT, Harvard and Wharton will morph into localized study groups and self-education
  • Desire for more possessions will morph into “conspicuous asceticism”
  • Cars will be stigmatized as a mode of transport and, among those who care, valued as design objects only
  • National/Global Conferences will be seen as carbon-tacky and time inefficient (a day lost traveling in each direction? why?)
  • 7-14 day Vacations will become less common than poly-local living (these are the 2-3 places I want to live in)
  • Hotels will fall out of favor relative to house-swapping and “couchsurfing”
  • Cities will receive continued (and renewed) attention as McMansion-laden suburbs deteriorate and are stigmatized
  • Homeschooling will emerge among progressive communities (not just the religious right) as a way of avoiding the dysfunctional public school system
  • Public Schools will see new levels of engagement from their communities, as people are better able to communicate and organize outside of traditional PTA-like structures
  • Food will be a focus of local living, with community supported agriculture and Internet enabled food-swaps
  • Coworking will continue to develop as a way for people to connect and collaborate locally
  • Local Conferences will flourish as people build critical mass around shared interests using network tools
  • Mass produced consumer goods will see a lessening of popularity relative to artisan-produced goods with local connections
  • Consumption will give way to communion, and participation in cycles of use
  • Tools like iTunes U and Google Books will enable a lifetime of personal learning and one-on-one sharing

I believe we are already seeing the effects of most of these forces — some more than others. But this is not hippie pie-in-the-sky, smoking-weed-in-the-commune stuff. Notice all of this is free of ideology and any trace of the culture wars. These are facts and a simple observation and meditation on what’s happening in society already today.

And notice that each and every one of these forces is rooted first in a connection to place. These things are only enabled when you combine current people-connecting technologies (networking tools) with a specific location. Once these new ways of being start to supplant the old structures (which is going to happen, no matter how you feel about it) they are going to be hard to reverse because they represent fundamentally more stable ways of being.

Once people do finally become indigenous to their place, why and when would that stop?

Thank you to my son Thomas for providing the illustration for the very reasonable price of $4.


I spent the last two months in Europe — mostly in Berlin, Germany. While I was there, I had the opportunity to use a bicycle as a primary mode of transportation, and it was a great experience. I looked forward to biking because every trip was a revelation: about urban design, road planning, and building on a human scale.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to bike from my home north of Annapolis, Maryland into the city. This is a trip I’ve made on previous occasions and I’d found it underwhelming for a variety of reasons. But with an extensive (and positive) biking experience under my belt in the last few weeks, I’m now able to articulate the reasons why the experience of biking is so much different between the US and Europe.

First let me briefly describe my biking experiences in Europe. Besides incidental daily biking to execute routine tasks, in one two day period I biked from Berlin’s center (Mitte district) to Potsdam and back. Potsdam, as you may know, is a city roughly 27km to the west of Berlin. The following day I biked extensively around Berlin’s northeastern suburbs (Weißensee, Pankow, Schloss Schönhauser). Here’s where I went:

View Larger Map
August 30, 2008

View Larger Map
August 31, 2008

This turns out to be well over 50 miles (80km) and a really significant trip by most non-athletes’ standards. I am a healthy person, but like many Americans (and people in their 30’s), I am carrying around a few more pounds than I’d like. Regardless, I found these two days of bicycling (and the subsequent time I spent doing much shorter daily trips) to be relatively easy, enjoyable, and for the most part, effortless fun.

And I did it on a 3-speed beach cruiser.

To be fair, some of this is because Berlin is mercifully flat; its geological history left it scrubbed flat and sandy by glaciers long before the first urban planners showed up, and certainly before World War II decimated the city, leaving it open to reinterpretation by modern eyes. However, the experience of urban biking in Berlin is entirely pleasant — even on some of the city’s busiest, high-traffic streets llike Kufurstendamm and Unter den Linden — because care has been taken with urban design to incorporate bicycles into the city’s rich and multihued transportation fabric.

Every time the “bicycling context” changed (for example, when road conditions dictate a switch from cycling in traffic to cycling in a road-based dedicated lane, to cycling on a sidewalk-based dedicated bike lane), the signage was very clear. When you are in traffic, cars accept your presence; some bike lanes are shared lanes with buses.

Deadly potholes are nearly nonexistent. Sidewalks almost all have ramps to the road surface, and are wide, with easy access to shops and services. Bike racks abound, and locking bikes to signs and fences is commonplace and accepted practice. Bicyclists can easily obey traffic rules by either a) following the signals that apply to car traffic, or b) using dedicated signals that apply only to bicycle traffic, which are typically installed where car traffic signals don’t make sense for cyclists.

Dedicated directional signage for bicyclists is everywhere; you can follow your way into Mitte from anywhere around Berlin by following route signs placed just for bicycles.

In short, the cycling experience or UX (as we tech design geeks might call it) has been considered. You get the feeling that every mile of road in Berlin was traveled on bike by a qualified urban planner who took notes and then went back and obtained budget to make all infrastructure improvements necessary to support a pleasant and well-reasoned bicycling experience. Incremental improvements were then made over the years, evolving into what is today an entirely civilized mode of transportation used by professionals, students, children, and senior citizens to execute the very human business of their daily lives.

Let me tell you about my short trip to Annapolis with my wife.

I live near a McDonald’s. On the way out we stopped by for a cup of coffee. No bike rack at all. Competing with cars in a hot, blacktopped parking lot. Dash in and dash out for your life.

Back out to the Baltimore-Annapolis Trail, a hiking-biking path that connects (in the loosest possible terms) the two cities. It’s pretty — an old tree-lined railroad right of way, now paved. It’s a straight-shot downgrade run to the end of the trail, where it must now join with a highway in order to cross the Severn River into Annapolis (the associated railroad bridge was taken out of service in roughly 1950).

Once you’re off the B&A Trail, you’re on your own. Steep hills (unlike those on the trail, which had to accomodate rail locomotives) and traffic accompany you as you make your way across the hot pavement downhill to the river. As you zoom down to the Rt more. 450 Severn River Bridge, it rises before you like the great pyramids or a mirage in a hot concrete desert. Your speed — 25mph, 20, 16, 10, 7, 6 — slowly drops as you struggle to find the right gear that will keep you from being toppled over and blown into the slipstream of constant SUV’s careening over the bridge 20 miles above the 40mph speed limit.

The hot sun beats down and radiates off the concrete, and while you might try to steal a glimpse of the “scenic” Severn River splayed out alongside you on both sides, you’d best worry about your survival. You begin to think you will soon reach the peak of the 80ft tall bridge, and when you do, you realize that you’re exhausted from the climb, even in the lowest gear. You push ahead and let your stored energy zip you down the far side of the bridge, hurtling towards the US Naval Academy at speeds that seem unjustified.

But you quickly lose the 25mph you’ve built up and face yet another daunting hill up from the bridge, only now with no “bike lane” (which seems to be what they had been calling the shoulder along this stretch). You earnestly try to fit in with car traffic, after all of this exertion and changing speeds. Yeah, now you’re pretending to be a car with all the rules of the road that apply to them. No warning, no transition, no refuge.

We wanted to turn left down King George Street, past St. John’s College, and go grab a sandwich for lunch. So, we did our best to fit in with the car traffic and waited in the left turn lane, trying mightily to look impressive to the SUVs and trucks that surrounded us.

We made it down there and had lunch, then headed back, which is essentially the same experience, only somewhat more tiresome because the overall grade from Annapolis back north is uphill. After the bridge, my bike chain slipped off and had to be reset. The only comment on my mind by this time was a subtly nuanced, “this sucks,” and we headed back home, rather demoralized and feeling glad to be alive in the same way that prey must feel when they narrowly escape the jaws of a predator.

Bear in mind this trip to Annapolis and back was a total of 10 miles (16km); nothing compared to the runs I made in Berlin, but considerably more taxing emotionally and physically.

We Americans are too fat, and the best solution we seem to be able to come up with is to drive our SUVs to the gym, where we pay money year after year (a permanent health tax) to work out on idiotic machines and burn off the calories that industrial food production insists we consume. And this is exactly how America’s corporations want you. They create your problems, and then you pay them to try to solve them.

If we could simply incorporate human-powered transportation into our daily lives, we would feel better, live longer, and dramatically cut back on fuel dependence and on carbon output. For this to be possible, we have a tremendous amount of work to do not just in planning better bike routes, but in unraveling 75 years worth of toxic urban-suburban design and road building.

Don’t even get me started on what it’s like to try to bicycle in a city like Baltimore, where road surfaces, curbs, and lane markings seem to have last been considered in roughly 1953.

So. Bicycling is for bicyclists. It’s not supposed to be about anything. It’s not supposed to have a purpose. You’re just supposed to ride around in circles, or back and forth, on what my late father-in-law called the “Goddamn linear squirrel cage” of the B&A trail. Why? Because that’s what you do to exercise. Fair enough.

But, what if we could actually use it for something practical, rather than just as a drug delivery device for the endorphin-addicted madmen who careen along our highways, high as kites, helmeted and hunched in sweaty spandex, ignoring the world around them while they try to beat their last best time? Again, nothing against them — it’s a free country — but these cyclists bear little in common with most people who might want to use a bike for their everyday lives.

Another way to look at it: when I bike around central Berlin, there’s lots of stuff to look at (including a good assortment of cute girls in heels, many on bikes), many possibilities for places to stop off and get something to drink (coffee, beer, water, depending on time of day), and it’s flat and accessible. The experience here is quite different. Everything is a trek: a trial of man vs. car vs. pavement, a contest of wit and will between competing modes of transport, with little to soften the journey or add interest.

We have a lot to learn from the rest of the world with respect to our relationship with our own landscape, and we could start by making bicycling a more usable, more human experience for average people.