Years of subtle changes to land use and zoning have slowly become the invisible forces that shape our behavior, whether we realize it or not.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the invisible forces that shape our behavior.  In an era of ubiquitous access to technology, we’ve become like Pavlov’s famous dogs.  One quick glance at our phone reveals a new notification, which beckons us until we eventually succumb.  A single click leads to another which leads to a swipe which leads to yet another hour scrolling through email, news feeds, and Facebook photos--which wasn’t exactly how we planned to spend the day.  It’s less a choice than a reaction.  We’re responding to our environment, but unfortunately, our environment is populated with a heck of a lot of compelling electronic distractions. 

Humans like to think that we’re rational creatures, making a series of intelligent decisions throughout each day of our lives. After all, isn’t a sense of free will what separates us from the animals? But just how much choice do we actually have?

The grocery store test

Let’s say you glance inside your refrigerator and decide you need groceries. What does that trip to the grocery store look like?

If you’re like many Americans, you probably just envisioned yourself getting in your car, driving to a shopping center, and parking on a large surface parking lot.

So maybe you chose to go to the store, but did you really choose to drive?  Or was it simply the default option, so ingrained in our way of life that it’s become second nature?  If so, why is driving the default?  What factors may have influenced your “decision?”

The sad thing is that this decision was made for you long ago.  In fact, your trip to the store is the culmination of thousands of other decisions, both large and small, made by total strangers over the past 80 years or so.  And yet, most of us would be hard-pressed to name more than one or two of the many ordinances, policies and regulations that govern every aspect of how we physically interact with the city we call home. 

Although these regulations are basically invisible to the average citizen, the more you learn about them, the harder it is not to see their impact on your day-to-day life.  Personally, I’m starting to feel like that guy in “The Matrix” who looks at the scrolling code on a computer screen and no longer sees the code, just “blonde, brunette, redhead.”  Except for me, it’s the opposite.  I walk down a city street and instead of seeing shops, restaurants and houses, I see land use maps, parking requirements, subdivision regulations, landscaping ordinances, and street engineering standards.