Thursday, April 12, 2012

Richard Louv challenges the environmental establishment brand -- Where's the vision?

Landscape architecture month is off and running with a strong focus on landscape and its impact on public health and active living. The Horticultural Society of New York launched its observances with a screening last night of Olmsted and America's Urban Parks, a feature written by Rebecca Messner. (Messner's film has been shown on public television and, as of this writing, is available to watch in full on It's difficult to capture all Olmsted's accomplishments in a one-hour film, but Messner clearly focuses on the public -- and personal -- health impact of landscape design. She attributes Olmsted's childhood experiences in the countryside as critical in his intellectual development; she asserts how the experience of nature repeatedly aided his personal emotional health; she emphasizes his work with the U.S. Sanitary Commission; she contrasts him to Calvert Vaux, who is described as an artist, whereas Olmsted as a public servant. Messner certainly is in sync with the portrait provided a while ago by Professor Thomas Fisher on The Design Observer Group website, "Frederick Law Olmsted and the Campaign for Public Health."

The Olmsted celebration, however, often masks the public health message in the hagiography. The sincere appreciation of the Olmsted park and his urban planning can get in the way of a contemporary understanding of the issues. As amazing and admirable as Olmsted is, it's hard to get past the 19th century costumes. (Full disclosure: I'm not immune to Olmsted worship.)

So it was with relief that the name Olmsted did not even come up, one night later, at Richard Louv's lecture at Columbia University, sponsored by the Columbia Landscape Design Program. An echo of Olmsted did, however, resonate through one of Louv's concepts which clearly engaged the audience: the necessity for creating "de-central parks" throughout urban areas. The concept is that Central Park-type developments have been a great benefit to cities, and will continue to be. But the creation of such large central "natural" spaces is practically impossible in 21st century urban setting; the land on that scale just isn't there. "De-central parks" can still be created -- pocket parks, "button parks" (even smaller), roof gardens, green roofs, urban/vertical farms, green walls, schoolyard gardens, etc. With sufficient native plants, the de-central parks provide new arteries for the recovery of biodiversity and the air/water/experiential benefits of nature.

Richard Louv
Richard Louv, a journalist long acknowledged as a distinctive voice on environmental topics, and best known for his promotion of the concept of Nature Deficit Disorder in Last Child in the Woods and other books, spoke urgently to the youthful Columbia University audience about the fact that the average age of supporters of the Nature Conservancy is 65. He cited other statistics indicating declining interest in environmental topics by younger Americans --- and he provided this explanation: the concept of "sustainability" and others such as "carbon footprint" that are used routinely by the mainstream environmental groups, have become dispiriting. These concepts imply the that the best we can do is to "sustain" -- not get any worse than we already are; no hope for something better. He challenged the environmental movement with a major public relations fail (my characterization, not his) saying that the American environmental establishments fails to provide a counter view to all the dystopian visions of the future (the future as Mad Max or Hunger Games).

Louv recounts all the ways in which the experience of nature has been shown to have positive effects on children with attention deficit disorder, to promote creativity, to enhance physical and emotional healing in hospitals, etc. Yet the environmental movement has not successfully, in a compelling way, created a positive vision of a future. A positive vision of the future not just rescued from environmental degradation but enlivened, empowered, and enriched by new opportunities for all of us to experience a better life in nature.

Not one just to complain, Louv makes his own effort to create this new future vision of nature-enriched life with his newest book, The Nature Principle (2011, now in paperback). The book (according to his website) "shows us how tapping into the restorative powers of the natural world can boost mental acuity and creativity; promote health and wellness; build smarter and more sustainable businesses, communities, and economies and ultimate strengthen human bonds."

Richard Louv is a journalist, not the landscape designer-public servant that Olmsted was. Yet Louv's vision of a promising future in part made possible by landscape architecture is pure 21st century Olmstedian, without the nostalgia.

Friday, April 6, 2012

"I wouldn't want an information diet that depends on what's trending on Twitter." David Carr

David Carr
New York Times' The Media Equation columnist, David Carr, is interviewed at The Verge, April 3rd, about his evolving concern for wanting to know the source his information.

If Twitter -- or the internet for that matter -- provide us with "everything," do you really have a sense that you know what's "going on"? Even if you have and take the time to stand in front of the fire hose of reportage? On the other hand, are the six stories on the front page of the print New York Times really the most important events in the world on any given day (or reported in a timely way)?

Like so many Big Questions relating to new digital technologies, the genuine importance of the issues and their relation to authentically urgent events make us forget that the issues are not new. Maybe we shouldn't be so breathless about asking them considering they've been asked before. And answered (although maybe not definitively).

There's lots of talk about "curation" relating to web sources of information without fully appreciating what we can learn from the analogy to art curation. In the art world (at least over the past two centuries) not just anybody can be a curator. (Yes, anybody can pick what they personally like, but that's not being a curator: so note -- just because you use Pinterest, you're not really a curator).

A curator selects an object for a collection. But the curator has also been selected, previously, by one or more persons or committees, who in turn had been selected back in the day. It's a kind of lineage system. Before the person becomes a curator, he/she has passed some tests of extrinsic and intrinsic qualities and accomplishments. The curator's choice represents a historical current of choices -- which reflect identity, perspective, discrimination (good and bad senses of the word). The true curator is not self-appointed. The curator has been picked by a community, by a history.

A curator also selects for a community: he/she picks what others (other curators, other selectors/experts) have picked -- or would pick if they had the chance or the inside track on getting the object. A curator selects, first or presciently, what others would pick or would've liked to have picked. The curator has a record of selecting what other selectors have and would select. This is one reason why provenance is important in artworks: a piece can have more value simply because it had been in the collection of another respected selector/curator.

I'm with David Carr. I am at the point at which I do, all the more, look for real curators for news and on the web. I want some curators that are entirely qualitative, like the traditional museum curator (described above).These are curators that have been selected (I don't hesitate to use the term:) by The Culture. And I also want some (non-human) curators such as the algorithms that sift through the internet fire hose and identify content thematic points of coalescence.

I definitely do not want the fusillade of anonymously sponsored political information that the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision blessed. Real curation is going on there, but it is the curation of The Secret Source. There's generally a reason why something is secret, and that reason generally doesn't have my best interests at heart. (See Chair and CEO of PRSA, Gerard Corbett's, New York Times letter to the editor on March 30th.)

In Aristotle's Rhetoric he distinguishes, in any argument, the Logical, the Emotional, and the Ethical Appeals. The first is the appeal to the mind: rationality, facts, logic. The Emotional Appeal is just that: getting the audience to feel a certain way -- compassion, outrage, disgust, regret. The Ethical Appeal is the value to the argument that accrues from the reputation of the Source (the writer or speaker). It's reputation. It's the implicit validation of being a real curator.

As the Queen of Measurement, Katie Paine, put it some time ago, all tweets are not created equal.

Monday, April 2, 2012

PR at the cradle of humanity

The edge of the Great Rift Valley in Kenya is not a typical "environment" for PR, but it is encouraging to know that PR can make a small contribution to the social, political, and environmental challenges there.

Do. Say. Feel. See. Fenton's PR research approach

In the past few years, we in the public relations research business have seen (not to soon) an emerging consensus against "the black box" -- the (supposedly) proprietary monitoring/measuring/analytical product that is better than the other guy's. PR professionals increasingly demand transparency and plain English from research. This is a good thing; it's going to make public relations more scientific, more professional, more thoughtful -- and more honest.

But it doesn't change the fact that PR research is hard; "results" and "insights" aren't often easily apparent from the metric. It would be nice if there were a black box. So the research companies and some PR firms are understandably struggling with not only how to do sound research, but how to present and communicate the product of research so that it is accessible and usable.

I recently came across one approach, which if not perfect, is quite impressive. Fenton has e-published (free PDF) about their approach to social/traditional PR research, placing various metrics under the categories of "do, say, feel, see." (As Aristotle taught us, the first step in intellectual endeavor is to create useful, meaningful categories.) In those four analytical buckets, Fenton puts the array of social and traditional media metrics -- but having the individual metrics in those categories explicitly acknowledges what the metrics tell us. This is what people have seen. This is what they said. this is how they've felt. This is what they've done.

As might be expected from Fenton, the scheme is designed for a non-profit organization, but it's clearly applicable how it could be adapted for a commercial or government organization, with the "do" metrics being adapted to the situation.

Fenton's approach isn't a black box, but it delivers a top line simplicity (in the good sense of that word). The approach is also transparent -- in the sense that it is easy to understand and open about its methodologies.

I would be interested to learn -- and I would hope -- if such a "packaging" of PR research is making it easier for Fenton to sell (literally) PR research. Lack of transparency in PR research has been an obvious obstacle to selling PR research: a black box may make a company seem mysteriously intriguing, but it's hard to price mysteriously intriguing. A fully transparent method and presentation of PR research should sell -- at least I hope it does.