Posts Tagged ‘Biophilic design’

I find my back garden very relaxing and restorative. I was sitting there yesterday enjoying the display of spring blooms – orange clivias, yellow cymbidium orchids, mauve bromeliads, white rock lillies and yellow hibbertia – against the backdrop of differently shaped, coloured and textured vegetation.

My pleasure was tinged with regret because I was aware that the garden would not be mine for much longer. This prompted me to take these photos:


As you can see the garden is more informal than formal. I cannot really claim that it was planned to be this way. It is more an evolved than a designed garden, the product of intuition rather than horticultural expertise – of luck rather than good management you might say.

What I find interesting, however, is that the combination of intuition and luck seems to have produced a space that works very well psychologically for me (and others I have reason to believe). And this is really what matters.

As the pioneering psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung pointed out, “nature” and “landscape” (and “gardens” by implication) are psychological constructs or products of the mind. A contemporary writer on the psychology of visual landscapes, Maarten Jacobs, makes much the same point with this diagram:


One important thing this diagram tells us is that, as far as all natural landscapes including my garden are concerned, the “experienced” landscape is different from the “real” one. This can mean that what passes as a horticulturally excellent garden landscape can miss the mark psychologically.

This is demonstrated in a well-designed American study that compared the restorative potential of informal (or organic) versus formal (or geometric) gardens. The authors of the study did more than make a simplistic comparison between gardens at the extreme of natural and formal; variations within each of these broad categories were also compared.

The 295 male and female participants in the study represented a broad range of ages and ethnic backgrounds. They were each shown 40 photos of gardens chosen by a horticultural expert to form two sets – formal gardens from most to least and informal gardens from least to most. These are examples of the photos used:


Each participant ranked every photo according to four attributes:

  • Perceived restorative potential (how good a place it would be for a break when you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed or anxious)
  • Informality
  • Visual appeal
  • Naturalness (degree to which natural versus built features are present)

A sophisticated analysis of the responses revealed that the gardens having the highest perceived restorative potential were:

  •  Visually appealing
  • Informal
  • More natural than built

According to other research, features that give gardens their greatest psychological power include:

  • Unaltered terrain
  • Graceful curvilinear shapes
  • Few architectural elements
  • Many native plant species following their normal habits of growth
  • Natural looking water features such as ponds and streams
  • Partly open rather than dense vegetation
  • The absence of geometrical shapes and properties like axes and symmetry

It is no accident that these are much the same features our earliest human ancestors would have recognised and welcomed in their savannah woodland homes. It is strongly suspected that we modern humans are drawn to informal and natural landscapes because of predispositions and preferences that are inherited from our forebears and encoded in our genes (the biological factors in Maarten Jacobs’ diagram). So it is probably the case that my back garden is as much a product of my green genes as of gardening guidebooks or anything else.



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A recent newspaper article attacked “baby boomer” empty nesters for staying in their detached houses after their families had left home instead of downsizing and making their houses available to younger people with families. As detached houses are in very short supply, so the argument goes, older singles and couples should release their free standing houses to the market. This would enable a greater number of families to enjoy the benefits of more indoor and outdoor living space.

Sounds reasonable?

Well, maybe – if it is indeed the case that younger people want bigger houses with front- and backyards.

Of course they do, you might think. Who wouldn’t want a big house with a spacious kitchen and living area and separate bedrooms for each of the kids, not to mention a garage for each of the family cars?

And as for front- and backyards, aren’t they part of the ideal modern family home? Well, they might be for some, but compare these photos of a new development on the left and an older suburb.

Loss of backyard

Loss of backyard b

Compared with the older suburb, the newer development has a much larger dwelling footprint and fewer trees. Instead of presenting as a patchwork of roofs and greenery, it is mainly roofs.

What the photos illustrate is a trend that has been going on since the early 1990s according to Griffith University’s Tony Hill. Since then, freestanding houses with big backyards have ceased to be built. Instead, the clear preference has been to build almost to the boundaries of the available land – and then enclose the site with high, opaque wooden or metal fences that provide privacy at the expense of outlook.

Freestanding houses and backyards are fast becoming a threatened species.

Even where the sizes of building blocks have remained much as they always have been (the “quarter acre” – actually eighth of an acre – block ), the same trend is occurring. People are choosing to build big and exclude green space. Here is an example from my own street.

IMG_2163The front yard will become a drive and the backyard a swimming pool surrounded by concrete or paving.

The finished house will certainly look very different from the original houses in the streetIMG_2165 like this one.

Practical or economic necessity is not all that is at work here. We are also seeing evidence of a general shift in the psyche of urban dwellers. We are succumbing to the belief that our “natural habitat” is the human-designed, developed environment. This allows us to tolerate the growing reality that the modern city is dominated by profit-driven development, marked by environmental degradation and disconnection from nature.

But as biophilic design guru, Stephen Kellert, reminds us,

This contemporary reality does not diminish people’s inherent need to affiliate with nature as a necessary basis for health, productivity, and well-being.

It does make it harder, however, to get home the message that by adopting a pro-nature approach to design and development, it is possible to restore an environment – even in our urban areas – where nature is still on hand to nurture and enrich the human body, mind and spirit.

And rescuing the suburban backyard from the threat of extinction has to be part of that process.

Many of my previous posts have directly and indirectly explored the place of the backyard in maintaining a connection with nature. A backyard is obviously critically important for building nature and outdoor activities into the lives of children – a theme of posts such as An authentic childhood, Nature play, An alarming message, and The campfire connection (with nature). For adults, having a backyard that contains a garden, even a small one, is hardly less important. The well-documented physical, psychological and social benefits of gardens and gardening are mentioned in such posts as Nature and wellness, The dream that can be a reality, and Urban density – the caution light is flashing.

Additionally, the backyard garden has a function and importance that goes beyond the interests of individuals and households. The presence of private gardens in aggregate brings significant advantages to the community, including:

  • contributing to clearing the air of pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and small particulates.
  • absorbing and sequestering atmospheric carbon.
  • increasing biodiversity – domestic gardens can exhibit a degree of planting density and variety that is not found elsewhere in urban areas, including playing fields and nature strips.
  • improving natural drainage and reducing the risk of excessive stormwater run-off.
  • combatting summer heat by lowering surface temperatures – by as much 5 degrees Celsius according to one Australian study.

Saving the backyard garden is not beyond the realms of possibility but it will involve a rethink of urban and household design by everyone, especially politicians, planners and developers. Far from being a radical move, it would be a return to traditional Australian values and the reversal of a trend that is, after all, only comparatively recent. And as Tony Hill rightly observes, It would also call upon people to relax and start enjoying life again, hardly a negative or puritanical goal.




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I’ll never tire of looking at waterfalls and I suspect that this is true for youm Marg at McKenzie Falls as well. It is not just the large and spectacular ones but waterfalls of every description. The sight of falling water is almost certain to arrest our attention, give us pleasure and lift our spirits. There are very good reasons why we go out of way to look at waterfalls and to “play” in, under and around them.

I have always assumed that our attraction to waterfalls stems from our general, innate disposition to find beauty in natural features, especially ones associated with water. This assumption is correct as far as it goes, but there is something more to the almost magical appeal of waterfalls. That “something” comprises countless invisible particles that are created by the motion of the falling water.

(Beware – some physics 101 ahead!) Like everything else in the universe, the oxygen in the air is made up of atoms, tiny, tiny objects consisting of a nucleus surrounded by circulating electrons (think of a planet with orbiting moons). The electrons in an atom are held in place by the force of electricity, the nucleus having a positive electrical charge while each electron having a negative one. When an atom is intact, it is electrically neutral (the different charges of the nucleus and electrons balancing each other).

But in a waterfall, the collision of the water molecules (which comprise oxygen and hydrogen atoms) strips electrons from the oxygen in the water allowing them to accumulate in the oxygen atoms in the surrounding air. This creates electrically charged particles called ions, some positively charged – those oxygen atoms in the water with fewer electrons than normal – others with a negative charge – those oxygen atoms in the air with more electrons than normal. The same thing happens in the surf, during a thunderstorm and even in your shower – the water becomes positively charged as the surrounding air acquires a negative charge.

Generally speaking, positive ions are harmful to the human body while negative ions are beneficial. Have you noticed that on dry, windy days you can feel out-of-sorts? Such days are not welcomed by school teachers because they tend to make children irritable and unsettled.

Scientists attribute these effects to an overload of positive ions in the human body. In parts of the world affected by desert winds like the Sirocco from the Sahara or the hot, dry foehn winds that flow down the leeside of mountains, these effects spill over into higher rates of mental distress, hospital admissions, suicide and crime.

In contrast, being near a waterfall, on a beach or even under the shower makes you feel refreshed, happy and energised. These are just some of the effects that a high loading of negative ions has on us.

Normal fresh air has about 2-3000 negative ions per cubic centimetre (the size of a sugar cube) but around a waterfall or by the ocean the count can be in the tens of thousands! Alarmingly, however, the count in the average office, car and over-heated or stuffy house can be dangerously low – zero to a few hundred per cubic centimetre. So those headaches, feelings of fatigue and concentration difficulties, together with the general malaise you perhaps associate with work, may not be “just the job”, but the result of spending too long indoors breathing in too many positive ions and too few negative ones.

If your house or office is in a natural setting – greenery is also a good source of negative ions – the remedy may be as simple as opening the window and taking a few deep breaths. In the right environmental circumstances, the advice to “go and get some fresh air” is very sound indeed.

Sitting by a waterfall, walking on a beach, spending time in a garden or otherwise increasing our exposure to negative ions benefits our well-being in a host of ways, including:

  • Lifting mood and alleviating depression
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Keeping our airways functioning efficiently
  • Accelerating recovery from fatigue
  • Increasing energy by stimulating metabolism
  • Strengthening resistance to illness

Negative ions produce these and other benefits by interacting directly with our physiology – by moderating levels of the mood chemical serotonin in our brain, for example, by stimulating the activity of the protective cilia in our airways, by dilating blood vessels or by increasing the alkalinity of our blood.

Negative ions also help to protect our health by removing mould spores, dust, bacteria and pollutants from the air we breathe.

It is certainly worthwhile taking whatever steps we can to increase our exposure to negative ions (and reducing the intake of positive ones). Apart from the obvious one of spending as much time in natural settings as we possibly can, there are others worth considering:

  • Surround yourself with greenery – indoors and outdoors (Recall the principles of biophilic design)
  • Put a water feature in your garden or create a garden with one
  • Eliminate pollutants such as cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes and chemical particulates from living areas
  • Replace air-conditioned with natural ventilation as much as practicable
  • Open windows to let fresh air flow freely

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I was pleasantly surprised and chuffed by the interest that was shown in my last post, The world I would like for Zoe. It seems that many share my hope for a world where nature is firmly woven into the fabric of everyday life. I also detected a concern that this dream is a long way from becoming a reality – if, indeed, a reality it can ever be in the face of humanity’s headlong rush towards urbanisation. busy-street-new-york-city-united-states+12837313312-tpfil02aw-30390

But I refuse to abandon the dream because even in the midst of this “headlong rush”, there are clear signs that our deep, instinctive affection for nature (our biophilia) endures. Despite the allure of urban habitats, we are reluctant to abandon nature altogether.

We see this in our persistence with “green” activities. Gardening is an obvious example along with keeping pets, decorating with flowers, hiking, fishing, hunting, picnicking, taking scenic tours, and paying fortunes for houses with scenic views. Living in cities has clearly not crushed our “liking” for nature.

Environmental-Wellness woman_man_walking_dog_park_lg




No doubt, city life makes it harder for us to embrace our biophilia, but research tells us that people in general, children included, do not want to lose touch with the natural world. There is certainly no reason to suppose that people have ceased to value the beauty, peace, wonder and other joys of nature – quite the contrary. One recent survey found that 61 per cent of people from across nine countries cited nature as a major contributor to health and well-being. Only family (84 per cent) received stronger support.

Even more encouraging are the many “re-connecting with nature” or “naturalising” initiatives that are gaining ground in a number of Western countries, including our own. As a result, we can expect to hear a lot more about “biophilic design”, “biophilic cities”, “urban forests”, “forest schools”, nature play and nature therapy. And there is no shortage of websites, such as Natural England, NatureConnect, Natureplay WA, and Caro and Co, that are full of information and guidelines about engaging with nature.

A very significant feature of these initiatives is that they rely on people power. They involve a “bottom-up” or “grass-roots” approach in other words. They are succeeding because people, like you and me, are willing to join the re-connecting with nature movement.

If enough of us make a similar commitment, the world I (we) hope for Zoe will become much more likely. A good place to start is with a promise to ourselves to spend more time in and with nature.

Keeping this promise is far easier than you may imagine. There are just so many ways of connecting with nature that everyone can be a nature person of one kind or another.

In the last chapter of Claim Your Wildness, there is a chart, The Tree of Green Activities. This is only a section of the chart (unfortunately, the chart is too large to reproduce in full) but it is sufficient to show just how diverse nature or “green” activities can be. Tree diagram cropped

A major purpose of the chart is to push the message that there are green activities for virtually everyone, ranging from those you can do in and around your home to more adventurous” ones like rock climbing and scuba diving.

A recent edition of ABC TV’s  Gardening Australia contained some interesting examples of green activities. To view them click here  and here.

Speaking of Claim Your Wildness, if you would like to read the book and write a brief review of it, please use the comment box to request a free copy in ebook or PDF format. In addition to providing an email address, tell me a little about yourself. As I will not approve your comment for publication, your privacy will be protected.

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Renowned Australian author, Geraldine Brooks, has made the provocative but valid point that humanityhigh rise apartments is undertaking the most monumental experiment in the history of evolutionary biology. As a species, we have evolved for an uncrowded life in the openness of natural environments, but we are now flocking to live in very different one – the dense and crowded environment of cities and towns.

This movement is abundantly clear to us in Australia – one of the world’s most urbanised countries – but the United Nations estimates that by 2050, 69% of all humans will be concentrated in urban centres.

This wouldn’t be happening if there weren’t enormous material, social and cultural advantages to urban life. There is no denying that the quality of life we enjoy is attributable in many ways to the urbanisation of our society.

So not surprisingly, there is currently great enthusiasm for expanding our cities outwards and upwards – especially upwards. Indeed, we can be forgiven for thinking that the goal of many politicians, planners and developers is to cram as many apartments or units as possible on every available piece of urban land. Forget about uncrowded openness – higher density is the new desirable, it seems.

But increasing housing and population density comes with hazards.

  • As the population of residential buildings increases, trust cooperativeness, friendliness and altruistic behaviour tend to decline. An interesting experimental demonstration of this comes from a study comparing the caring behaviour of university students living in halls or residence (low density), apartments (medium density) or multi-storey towers (high density). The researchers used a subtle technique to measure the students’ neighbourly concern. Stamped addressed envelopes were scattered inside the buildings to create the sense that the “letters” had been lost by fellow residents. The researchers found that, after an interval of four hours, 100% of the letters in the low-density housing had been posted, compared with 87% in the medium density building and 63% in the high-density building.
  • Overcrowding is up to 3-4 times more likely in apartments, flats and units than in separate houses. As the number of individuals sharing a given space increases, people have to work harder to co-ordinate their activities with others. Avoiding frustration, conflict and a sense of not being in control is more difficult under these conditions. Overcrowding is often chronically stressful and a trigger for depression, anger, aggression and social withdrawal.
  • Overcrowding can be particularly damaging for children. Living in high-density apartments restricts children’s physical activity, independent mobility and active play. An Austrian study  found, for example, that an alarming 93% of children living in centrally located high-rise flats had behavioural problems, much more than children living in houses.
  • Even without the added ingredient of overcrowding, urban density is hazardous to mental health. City dwellers have a 21% greater risk for anxiety disorders and 39% greater for mood disorders such as depression. A massive Swedish study of four million people found that the incidence of schizophrenia and depression was, respectively, 73% and 16% higher in the densest urban areas compared with rural regions.

Understanding the link between density and mental health is a work in progress, but a series of German studies puts the spotlight squarely on stress. These studies used healthy volunteers from rural and urban backgrounds (either born or currently living in cities). While their brains were being scanned, the volunteers experienced the stress of being negatively evaluated as they were attempting difficult mental arithmetic tasks.

A consistent and remarkable finding was that “rural brains” and “urban brains” processed the stress via different neural centres and pathways. Unlike the rural brains, the urban brains used a pathway that is dominated by the amygdala, a major source of the dark emotions of anxiety, fear and aversion. In other words, the urban brains performed as if they were primed to respond more negatively to stress.

A possible reason for this is that urban brains have less access to the positive stimulation and buffering effects of nature. As neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, points out, our brains need plenty of positive buffering because they tend to be shaped more readily by bad experiences rather than pleasant ones. They hold onto negative memories in a “velcro-like” way but are “teflon-like” where positive memories are concerned. This means our brains are disposed to deliver a pessimistic rather than an optimistic view of life.

There is strong evidence that contact with nature can ameliorate this tendency. A study of 350,000 people in the Netherlands, for example, found that the prevalence of depression and anxiety was significantly less for people living in areas with 90% of green space compared with those in areas with only 10%.

For me the message is a no-brainer: approach the densification of our cities with caution. Such densification is inevitable, of course, but let’s do it in ways that prevent damage to individual and community well-being.

  • Let’s seek and be guided by objective answers to the questions, when and how does bigger (or denser) in the urban residential landscape come to pose unacceptable risks to health and quality of life?
  • Let’s take with radical seriousness the case for greening our buildings, precincts and neighbourhoods (Let’s make all residential design “biophilic design”)
  • Let’s do everything we can to ensure that every housing development

– has ample attractive green spaces where people can socialise, garden and play.

– is friendly to children, adolescents, the elderly and shut-ins

  • Let’s fight for the preservation, conservation and enhancement of all existing urban green space and bushland

Perhaps this 700 unit, medium density development not far from my home will provide a model to follow by delivering on the promises contained in its billboards.

2014-09-04 15.12.162014-09-04 15.18.30

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I heard recently of a rather telling incident at a family barbecue. Some visiting school-age children displayed amazement at the sight of the fire. The reason, it seemed, was that this was the first open fire they had seen. I hope that this does not turn out to be a one-off experience for these children, rather that they will have many further opportunities to enjoy the pleasure and comfort of an outdoor fire, especially a campfire.

A campfire – or most open fires for that matter – has a unique appeal. It is easy to be mesmerised by a campfire’s dancing colours – yellow, orange, red, blue, violet and even green at times;800px-Colored_campfire and by its ever changing character – from energetically youthful flames to glowing and mellowing coals. And then there is the fun of tending the fire – adding a stick or two to fading coals and watching with satisfaction as flames return.

Gazing at the dancing flames or the glowing coals of a campfire is a special delight. For me, it is one of the highlights of a bushwalk, a reward for a day well spent. With my tent up, sleeping gear organised, the meal cooked, eaten and enjoyed, and the washing up done, I am ready to fall under the campfire’s spell.

While the fire is warming my body, its yellow-red glow is quietly increasing the level of melatonin in my brain and readying me for sleep. Drowsiness descends and I become increasingly contemplative as my mind switches to free-wheeling and reverie mode. A campfire enjoyed alone is one thing, but a campfire shared is something else again. A communal fire has a remarkable socialising power.People around camp-fire As well as providing an attractive physical space of warmth and light, it also creates a space for reflection and conversation. As notable Canadian outdoor skills teacher, Kevin Callan, says

Campfires do give us a great sense of community. Whether there are two or ten people circling it, the ones involved in this simple act are able to connect and discuss issues of the world more easily than at a coffee shop or sitting on a bar stool back home.

Apart from bringing people together, a campfire encourages conversation because it is a “primal” experience. In a bush or forest setting especially, it takes us back psychologically (at least part way) to the natural world of our ancestors. The communal fire was an integral and key part of that world. This is probably why we innately associate a shared fire with kinship and security. Around a campfire we feel that little bit more “at home” with others. Rapport seems to come easier – a fact that has not been lost on organisers of outdoor therapy and rehabilitation programs.

Where children are concerned, campfires are winners. Lighting and tending a fire are usually tasks they embrace with enormous pleasure and enthusiasm. Add some marshmallow toasting or chocolate banana cooking and their joy is complete.

And there are ways of giving children and ourselves campfire experiences without having to be on an actual camp. There may be suitable spots (i.e., with a built or designated fireplace) near you where a couple of hours can be spent having a “picnic tea” plus campfire, for example. A call to local government offices in your region might turn up sites as well as guidance concerning regulations and restrictions that might apply. You can even consider having campfires in your own back garden or on your own patio. All you need is a suitable container to serve as a fire-bowl. An old wok would serve the purpose, for example.Small fire dish You will find directions for making a simple fire-bowl using a planter box at this website. A fire-pit or bowl could always be built as a more substantial and attractive landscape features. Here are a couple of examples to inspire you. Fire-Pit-and-Outdoor-Fireplace-Ideas  Fire pit small I think I should add “have an outdoor fireplace” to the list of easy ways for connecting with nature that I provided in a previous post (Getting together with nature is “dead easy”).

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Unlike the posts that have gone before, this post is more about the “how” of connecting with nature rather than the “why”. I believe that we all harbour a desire, strong or otherwise, to claim our wildness and nurture our biophilia – to connect with nature in other words.

We know intuitively that connecting with nature is “good for us”. But what is missing from most people’s awareness, I suspect, is the knowledge of just how comprehensive and far-reaching nature’s “goodness” can be.

In writing this blog and my book, Claim Your Wildness, I have tried to share this knowledge in a way that is meaningful, useful and, hopefully, inspiring. If I have managed to convey that being connected with nature is a core ingredient of a healthy and fulfilled life, then I am very pleased.

But knowing the importance of being connected with nature is one thing, having a down-to-earth, practical understanding of how to make nature part of daily life is quite another. It is all very well to carry on about “nurturing your biophilia” and “claiming your wildness”, but these will remain rather waffly ideas rather than signposts for action unless they are described in real-life terms.

When I set out to do this for myself I was greatly helped by the architectural and urban planning concept of “biophilic design”. The aim of biophilic design is to create buildings and urban outdoor spaces with features that provide biophilic experiences and benefits. One very helpful account of biophilic design that I found lists both the various sought-after features and the experience they provide, for example: Home-Natural-Lighting

Feature: natural light that is constantly changing in direction and intensity

Experience: changing patterns of shadow and brightness, dappling

Presented this way, the list paints a picture of what biophilia looks like in practice. It is a simple matter to use the list to conduct a personal biophilic stock-take.

I have done this by making each of the 10 biophilic design features in the list into a question. The result is this personal Biophilia Questionnaire:

1. Do I experience natural light that is constantly changing in direction and intensity?

2. Do I experience natural ventilation?

3. Do I have access to open and moving water?

4. Do I have opportunities, by way of gardens and other amenities, for spontaneous interaction with nature?

5. Do I have sensory stimulation from natural sources?

6. Do I experience the natural world’s complexity and order?

7. Do I experience the excitement of exploration and discovery in nature?

8. Do I experience views of natural features from positions of safety and security?

9. Do I experience different forms of natural beauty?

10. Do I experience the integrity and authenticity of natural places (in the way natural materials have been used in urban buildings and parks, for example)?

You might like to take a moment to think about these questions yourself – in relation to your home, place of work, recreation, for example. (If you do, please think about leaving a comment about how it worked for you.)

You may find that you are more connected with nature than you thought. Or you may discover that there are nature contacts already in your life that you could easily expand. You could also find that access to biophilic experiences is more convenient than you might have assumed. In settings like the one in the next photo, for example, almost all of the biophilic design features can be enjoyed. biophilic design moving water

Even if you find that your stock of biophilic experiences is currently lower than you would like, the questions can help you change the situation. Just use “How can” (rather than “Do”) to begin each question and you have a comprehensive Biophilia Planning Guide.

Changing the questions in this way may be all that is needed to help you think of ways to be more of a biophilic person. But even if it doesn’t, don’t be discouraged. A theme I want to dwell on in the posts to come is that there are biophilic of “green” activities for everyone. What could be simpler than pausing regularly to admire neighbourhood gardens, for example, or setting aside time to walk or just sit in the local park? green exercise 2admiring a flower


Watch this space, as they say.

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