shutterstock_111708683“Where would people go if given completely free choice?” That’s a question the eminent evolutionary biologist, E. O. Wilson, answered in his book, Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species. (I discussed biophilia in a previous Single at Heart post here.) Here’s his answer:

“…it seems that whenever people are given a free choice, they move to open tree-studded land on prominence overlooking water. Those who exercise the greatest degree of choice, the rich and powerful, congregate on high land above lakes and rivers and along ocean bluffs. On such sites they build palaces, villas, temples, and corporate retreats.”

There are two key components to those kinds of spaces, say scholars who study design and practitioners who try to create spaces that people will love. They are prospect and refuge. In Designing for Privacy and Related Needs, the authors explain:

“Prospect is the ability to see what is around us, a vantage point.”

“Refuge is the presence of a shelter, backup element, camouflage, or a symbol of security.”

Together, prospect and refuge function as “environmental conditions that provide the ability to see without being seen.” The design scholars cite examples such as tree houses, penthouse apartments, homes with great views, church towers, and castles. What’s so good about them?

“From these vantage points we can survey our surroundings, observe those who approach us before they reach us, watch activities without having to participate, and experience a connection to the larger world”(p. 51).

In choosing those sorts of natural environments, E.O. Wilson believes we are “responding to a deep genetic memory of mankind’s optimal environment.” In the distant past, places where we could see others before they could see us gave us survival advantages, especially if those others were potentially threatening.

I find it heartening that thinkers from fields ranging from psychology to design to biology are all trying to understand the kinds of places and spaces that provide the best quality-of-life experiences for humans. And isn’t it interesting that, in a time of selfies when so many people want so much exposure, one of the most enduring of the experiences we find gratifying is one in which we are not seen?

[Notes: By now, I’ve written quite a lot about solitude and solo living, much of it here at Single at Heart. I recently collected links to those topics here: What’s great about solitude: Here’s what we know and The new silence of living alone: Here’s a lot of what we know.]

Mansion on a hill image available from Shutterstock.