Sustainability through Massive abundance.

Episode 7: Learning from Rat Park

Can cities be addiction-proof by design?

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What gets you through the day?
Drug abuse explodes
Intro [music]
Not just cities
What causes drug abuse?
1st rat study
2nd rat study: Rat Park
Rat Park for people?
A Tale of Two Dorms
Reference Design
Close [music]

What gets you through the day?

What do you need to get through the day?

Goals to achieve? Friends to laugh with? A tender moment with someone dear? Music? Art? Sports? A good book? Time outdoors? Or, admit it, maybe you just need your screen time.

Some of us are pretty useless before that first cup of coffee in the morning. Some live from one cigarette break to the next. Some count down the minutes until happy hour. Some get stoned (Hey, it's becoming legal).

But too many people these days need something stronger. Inhalants. Prescription painkillers. Heroin. Amphetamine. Methamphetamine. Cocaine.

Drug abuse explodes

Sadly, 69,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United States in 2018. That's four times the number who died in 1999, and nearly twice as many as die every year in car crashes. During these same two decades, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, Government spending on drug enforcement has more than doubled.

Now it's not all bad. According to the New York Times, drug overdose deaths in 2018 actually fell 5%: the first drop since 1990. Now, that 5% was almost entirely due to a reduction in prescription drug deaths (deaths from illegal drugs did continue to rise). Oh, and it might have had something to do with a temporary $3.3 billion Medicaid expansion for mental health and substance abuse treatment.

But that just treats some symptoms of what is still a runaway epidemic. The question is, what's causing the explosion in drug abuse?

I've already left clues that the causes may not be what most of us think. And as we'll see, understanding those causes can lead us to some deep insights about building better cities.

INTRO [music]

Cities designed like modern Edens: for economic and ecological abundance. I'm Kev Polk, your Guide to Edenicity.

Welcome to Episode seven, where I explore what rats have to tell us about designing addiction proof cities.

Not just cities

Let's dispense with one thing right away. Drug abuse is not just an urban problem. Google it and you'll see that the rates of rural and urban drug deaths in the United States have been about the same for the past 20 years.

I focus on cities because urbanization is the main demographic trend of our time. The mass movement of people to cities is also the main opportunity we have to reshape and improve how we relate to everything, including nature, people and drugs.

What causes drug abuse?

One very common answer is that it's an inherent character flaw. I mean, it's hard to respect a person in the throes of addiction.

As a sidewalk astronomer, I've had several run ins with drunks and meth addicts who screamed obscenities at me because they mistook my telescopes for dangerous cannons, or because I had asked them to let other people have a turn of the eyepiece. I can't even tell this story without visceral revulsion to the memory of their stench, bad skin, bad teeth and bad behavior. This is the closest thing to a monster I've encountered face to face.

When someone has fallen so far, it's hard not to blame them. You see the addiction and assume that's their entire character.

I was a foster parent in the poorest county in Ohio, in a town along Route 33 the notorious Heroin Highway. During my pre-service training, my trainer stressed having empathy for the birth families. She asked us to confront our feelings for people so addicted that they could not care for their own children.

Why couldn't they just quit? Birth parents get asked that all the time. You never saw such self loathing. Here's one mother's tormented reply: "Could you just quit breathing?"

It seems like a built-in character flaw, maybe even something you can inherit, especially in a county where it's common to work with families that have several generations of hardened addicts routinely getting jailed for driving under the influence or disturbing the peace.

Even the word addict implies that addiction is a personal trait. Addicts are terrifying. It's hard not to lash out against them in anger. Family members do this in reality show interventions. The U. S government, among many worldwide, has also gradually taken an evermore punitive stance. 45% of federal prisoners today are there on drug charges, but none of this seems to be deterring people or stopping the epidemic of drug deaths.

So maybe something else is going on. Could it be that the substances themselves—things like heroin, cocaine, crack and meth—are so powerful that they can, over time, destroy anybody's willpower and turn them into self-destructive monsters?

1st rat study

In the 1960s, behavioral pharmacologists started running tests where rhesus monkeys or rats were put in cages with access to cocaine or heroin in various forms. By the 1980s, anti drug ads were running on TV, showing a caged rat self-administering cocaine until it died.

In the same time frame, I watched my parents try to give up smoking. My dad had a really rough time with it. He quit multiple times but eventually would start sneaking cigarettes, then be back at it full on again in a matter of weeks. Even years later, I had nightmares about him sneaking smokes.

It really is nightmarish that there could be this thing that is so powerful that it overrules your will. Something that makes you do things you don't want to do, something that weakens your heart, threatens your lungs and threatens the health of those closest to you.

Are we no better than rats?

Actually, the rats have something more to teach us, and it has huge ramifications for how we design the physical space we occupy.

2nd rat study: Rat Park

I saw a 2015 Huff Post article by Johann Hari, who had just published his New York Times best seller about rethinking addiction called Chasing the Scream. I was so impressed with the article that I posted a link to it on Facebook—and got absolutely zero response. "Hmm. That's unusual," I thought. Addiction must be so scary that people shun the whole subject. Hari has also given a great TED talk on the subject, which you can find on YouTube.

Anyway, Hari spoke and wrote about a different set of rat experiments run in the 1970s by Vancouver psychology professor Bruce Alexander. What Alexander noticed about the original rat experiments was that the rats had nothing else to do but take drugs. Like us, they're very social animals, but the earlier experiments had put them in solitary confinement.

So Alexander and his team built Rat Park. This was an enclosure some 200 times bigger than a lab rat cage. It had a thick floor of cedar shavings for nesting, colored balls, boxes and cans to play on, lots of good food, walls painted in forest murals and about 31 other rats to play with. It also had two kinds of water dispensers: plain and water laced with sugar and morphine. Morphine is notoriously addictive, so the first surprise was that the rats weren't very interested in the sweet morphine water. They tried it from time to time, but mostly left it alone. They had zero addiction in this environment.

So the researchers took some rats and got them addicted in isolated cages. Now here's the amazing part. When those rats went back into Rat Park, they spontaneously stopped using the sweet morphine water.

Now stop right there and think about that. A rich physical and social environment was enough to overpower one of the most addictive drugs ever. The earlier experiments with rats in isolation showed how a drug can overpower all other instincts, including survival. Now Rat Park had shown that powerful though it was, the drug was not the cause of addiction. The cause was the cage.

A later experiment really drove this point home. Alexander's team took away the regular water and got all the rats addicted: those in isolation as well as in Rat Park. But every few days, they gave all the rats a choice day, where they could choose between plain water and sweet morphine water. The rats in isolation used the morphine water more than ever on the choice days, but something really interesting happened in Rat Park. The rats preferred regular water on choice days, even though consuming less morphine water put them through withdrawal. They were twitching and suffering, but that was their choice when they had other rats and a great place to live for.

By the way, Stuart McMillan created a great web comic about the Rat Park experiment that's well worth a look.

In his Ted talk, Johann Hari gives multiple lines of evidence that we're not so different from rats. In his view, the war on drugs actually promotes rather than fights addiction. It literally cages people for drug use. Then, through the stigma of a felony conviction, it cuts them off from easy access to jobs, places to live and normal society. It is making the problem worse, not better.

Moreover, in Portugal, where politicians were brave enough to end the war on drugs, drug deaths declined 50% in the same time frame that they exploded threefold in the U. S. What Portugal did was take the money that would have gone to enforcement and put it in programs to get addicts jobs, housing, medical attention and social contact.

Hari subtitled his best seller, Chasing the Scream, "The Opposite of Addiction is Connection." Hari shares Rat Park creator Bruce Alexander's view that what causes addiction is mainly the many forces in our lives that cut us off from each other.

For example, houses are much bigger now, but fewer people live in them, and in cities such as Los Angeles, road and parking infrastructure accounts for 70% of the land area. Having lived there for a couple of years, I recall vividly how much time and hassle it took to go on dates, visit friends or attend events. All because everything was too spread out. Strangely enough, I found that the same held true in rural Meigs and Athens counties in southeast Ohio.

Can you see then that addiction has everything to do with the design of where we live?

Rat Park for people?

Okay, then how do we build Rat Park for people? An architecture that supports social connection should be obvious. But as Charles Montgomery points out in his book Happy City, modern architecture often gets this wrong. He writes about the abject failure of Minoru Yamasaki's 33 block low income housing projects in St Louis in the 1950s, and numerous other apartment and housing projects that arranged dwellings in long rows or hallways of 20 or more, or featured large, bare grassy parks that looked so inviting in drawings, but which people trashed or avoided.

In theory, these should have been great places to live, as they provided the fabled sanctuary and prospect (the personal space with expansive views) reminiscent of the scrub and grasslands where our ancestors evolved.

A Tale of Two Dorms

Montgomery cites a 1973 study by psychologist Andrew Baum of two dormitories at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York. In one residence, he writes, 34 students lived in double bedrooms along a single corridor. Now, in this dorm, students didn't make friends. They weren't helpful. They got on each other's nerves as the year wore on. It got awkward in one experiment where they had to wait in a waiting room with other members of their dorm.

But there was this other dorm where the same number of students lived in clusters of suites of 2 to 3 bedrooms. In that dorm, people made friends, helped each other out, and, in the waiting room experiment, they sat close and chatted.

Now, Montgomery also provides a detailed analysis of how the architecture led to these different interactions in the dorms and in several other places. The important point is that conceptual tools do exist to analyse and predict the effects of architecture on creating connection and social capital. In this situation, one of the concepts is chunking a living space into different zones by degree of intimacy, so residents feel more in control of when and with whom they interact. Again, the important takeaway is that enough is already known to put these lessons into practice when we build Rat Park for people.


One word for such a place is cohousing.

Architect Grace Kim's 2017 TED Talk introduces the concept with lots of nice pictures. Basically, cohousing is a development built so that a bunch of families can live in their own apartments or houses close to one another, with shared spaces for dining, playing, working or gardening together. Those shared spaces are called the Commons, and the whole point of cohousing is to increase the use of the Commons so that we build more social connection.

Remember, this is the opposite of addiction. It's also the opposite of isolation, which, as Grace Kim points out, was recognized by the surgeon general as a public health hazard.

I grew up living at times in apartments in a townhouse that my parents shared with other adults. Other times I had friends who practically lived with us for entire summers. I don't take community for granted at all, but I do have a feel for it.


I've spent the past decade and a half visiting ecovillages, organic farms and intentional communities of many kinds. I co founded an ecovillage adjacent to Indiana University in Bloomington. It's still thriving, thanks mainly to three things.

First, a neighborhood food garden with a beautiful pond that we built that gives people a place to enjoy together.

Second, a partnership with Indiana University that brings in service learning students. This was crucial because it provided a constructive outlet for student energy in the neighborhood, which neighbors previously perceived as purely destructive.

And third, neighbors get together at least weekly for meals and other events. I call this third factor frequency. How frequently people choose to get together is a measure of the social value of a place.

My travels have also taken me to The Farm, that famous hippie ecovillage in Tennessee, and numerous ecovillages in southeast Ohio. I have mixed feelings about these places. People work hard to maintain a community. But the story of many of these places is: someone buys some inexpensive land a few miles from town and wants to start a community. I've met many people who are kind of stuck at that stage. But if they're lucky enough to get a community going, I've seen too many of them become commuter suburbs, where people drive into town for work and school, meet back at the village, then drive their kids back to town for soccer practice. Then they don't have time for their neighbors, shared meals and community. Adults who grew up there complained of feeling isolated during their school years and not fitting in.

Without a clear design concept up front, houses can go in haphazardly, and it becomes a gravel road suburb where people spend way too much time driving around.

Another thing that I've noticed is that too many intentional communities are efficient at dividing the work (such as mowing and snow removal), but not very good at bringing people together to work or play. The ecovillage we made in Bloomington actually got this one right, as neighbors built and maintained the garden together in stages over the years in conjunction with regular monthly workshops and collaborations on site.

Reference Design

The Reference Design for Edenicity applies these lessons in several ways:

You can download the latest Reference Design from the News link at

Edenicity is Rat Park for people. It's designed to help you achieve your goals faster, laugh more often with friends, share more tender moments, enjoy more music, art and sports, find more time alone and get outdoors anytime you want.

The original Rat Park used the simplest of props—some boxes, cans, wood shavings—to cure addiction. How much better can we do, if we just pay attention to what matters?

Close [music]

If you enjoyed Episode 7, please be sure to subscribe so you don't miss a show. And please join me next time when I discuss the financial design of Edenicity and how it could create 30,000 new billionaires while giving all of us a richer life than billionaires enjoy today.

I'm Kev Polk, and this has been Edenicity.


Edenicity 7: Learning from Rat Park

Copyright © 2020 by Kev Polk. All Rights Reserved.
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