The Perception of Scenic Beauty

Published: 2021-09-11 06:45:10
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It is no great surprise that if given a choice of route to a location, hypothetically, most human beings would prefer to wander through a park as opposed to an empty cement parking lot to get there. This preference could seem almost instinctual and obvious, yet what is it specifically that inclines people to prefer one scenic environment over another and from where does this instinct derive from? The answers to these complex and deeply rooted questions can be traced by looking at the psychological impacts of scenic beauty as an environmental lens. All environments inevitably have influence upon emotion and interpretation of place, and it is through the varying degrees of what humans consider to be scenic beauty that will determine the satisfaction, pleasure, and overall psychological contentment with one’s surroundings. Scenic beauty as a landscape design tool should not be unconsidered, as societies should be aiming to increase the overall wellbeing of their citizens from a psychological standpoint in order to increase productivity, decrease unhappiness, and encourage a sense of comfort among their community or establishment. It is a lens that can be applied to almost any scale of environment, from a singular building to an entire district. The more that is understood about scenic beauty and its historical origin, the better that we can create spaces that satisfy the instinctual needs of people needed to result in a healthy psyche.
The definition of scenic beauty is “the aesthetic experience of visual landscapes through perception”(Steg, 45). This means that what one sees directly will correlate to how one feels. Landscapes have shown to evoke substantial emotions and can be significant to one’s sense of identity, which is why it is important to note which elements of sceneries can be correlated to positive or negative psychological feelings and thus applied to public design. Researchers have published work showing how even seemingly minute details of a setting such as walkway width, plant color, plant composition, and reinforcement elements can have a strong impact on people’s perception of scenic beauty and visual preference (Polat, 581). In order to understand why people have the preferences they hold when judging scenic beauty, one must first delve into several important theories that create explanation originating from the very beginning of human kind. The first of these theories to be discussed is that of Biophilia. Biophilia is an “innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms”(Wilson, 31). This affiliation is predicted to come from the evolutionary origin of the genus homo, which was reliant on the natural environment for shelter, hunting, protection, and survival hundreds of thousands of years prior to the discovery and implementation of agriculture. The idea is that survival of the species relied on a learned understanding of the natural environment. The human brain evolved in a world of nature, and therefor it is concluded that those evolutionary roots incline us to be drawn to interaction with natural features, despite much of human lifestyle currently being dominated by urban or developed environments. It is “encoded in natural selection” that in general, modern day humans find fulfillment and associate feelings of relief and health with the natural environment. This can only be spoken of from the broad and general perspective, as not every single person alive finds solace in nature. However, studies have shown that as a whole, the human race is inclined to discover feelings of mental relaxation, heightened creativity, and ease when faced with natural scenes or environments (Wilson, 34). This theory plays a role in understanding why people are more inclined to instinctually see more beauty in natural scenes than ones void of any biological features.
This idea is closely related to another noteworthy theory that also emerged from evolutionary thinking. The prospect-refuge theory discusses how people are naturally inclined to perceive their surroundings in the same manor that other animals do; by first assessing how well a landscape provides visual exposure (prospect) while also providing apt places to take concealment should there be danger (refuge). These two environmental perceptions have remained with humans beginning from the intricate patterns of primitive behavior (Appleton, 95). The survival of human’s early ancestors was based around hunter-gatherer tactics, which require the abilities to clearly see your surroundings without being seen by possible predators or desired prey. Although the same issues may not be concerns in the modern day, this theory still states that these behavioral instincts to see but not be seen are still encoded within human genetics. This could offer explanation as to why many people would feel more comfortable sitting under trees as opposed to out in the open grass, or returning to the previous example of preference to parks over parking lots.
When trying to define what other specific characteristics that humans prefer within a landscape, it is helpful to look at the basic needs discussed in Kaplan’s Preference Matrix. The Preference Matrix looks at how throughout human existence, people have always desired environments that have two main factors: the opportunity for exploration and the ability to understand what is being seen. Some have discussed how appreciations for environments that enable both exploration and understanding have been preferable in the course of natural selection (Steg, 40). Within these two main factors are four basic characteristics that contribute to human preference by creating balance. The first of these is coherence, which allows for understanding of the ways in which pieces of the environment fit together. The second element is complexity, which is where the idea of exploration and visual stimulation derives from. The third characteristic is legibility, which balances out complexity by ensuring that one is not overwhelmed or lost within an environment. The last characteristic is mystery, which holds the promise of discoveries to come and motivates one to further delve into their environment. Together all of these factors, if correctly balanced, should create a framework for an ideal landscape and will promote the perception of maximum beauty within an environment.
Perception of scenic beauty, although deeply rooted in human history, is not purely born from evolutionary genetics alone. Every person is met with a completely unique life with purely unique circumstances and surroundings. Every experience one has shapes their perception of their future experiences, and associating negative or positive emotions with various situations or environments based on past familiarity is an unavoidable result of living a human life. In this truth then comes the assumption that past experiences also shape perception of what kind of landscapes are considered to be beautiful and preferable. In regards to ecological aesthetic, in general, people will hold a preference to environments that they are better familiar with. This has to do with the type of surroundings for which one grew up or was raised in and where they feel like they best fit in. By entering a new environment from which they are familiar, an individual must learn how to judge beauty based on new or unfamiliar standards. For example, someone who grew up on a farm might struggle more to find the beauty in a city that someone who grew up in an urban environment might find. This phenomena can be referred to as topophilia, or “a term used to describe emotional connections between human beings and places” (Steg, 45). This emotional connection can be described as a bond, for people tend to associate various types of sceneries with their identity if they have spent a significant amount of time or have had a noteworthy experience there. The variations of people’s preferences can make it challenging to know how to design certain spaces to fit the most widely viewed perception of scenic beauty for that specific location.
People today have found a multitude of ways to officially judge scenic beauty in order to better implement and regulate it. One method that is commonly used is the scenic beauty estimation method (SBE). This is a psychophysical tool that is was created by the US Forestry Department to analytically measure landscape characteristics and their impacts on scenic beauty. In forestry, this method has proven to show how variables such as height, width, and age of trees can affect the perception of quality in the eyes of the public. Another method of measurement is through the Visuland Framework. This system looks at different indicators of preference when viewing a landscape, such as complexity, disturbance, visual scale, stewardship, ephemera, and coherence (Steg, 42). This framework suggests that generally a viewer perceives disturbances within landscapes negatively, however the way in which someone views change in general (positive or negative) within a landscape is going to be highly dependent on that individual’s backgrounds and personal standards. The Visuland Framework way of measuring scenic beauty is versatile in that it can be used through various formats such as photographs, in-person observation, airborne perspectives, and data. Being able to properly measure people’s perceptions of beauty through analytical data leads to better understanding of how to visually improve spaces and learn the preferences of the human mind.
To be a member of a university comes with a plethora of emotions and different personal challenges. For some students, it is the fear of being away from home for the first time. Other students may struggle with the stress of academia and studies. Professors and staff may find stress or challenge in their research or workloads. Overall, a university is meant to be a place of integrity, growth, and importance. It is for this reason that the structure of campus is so important, in that a poorly designed campus can have negative impacts upon the peace of minds of the academics who spend their time there. Should people not find beauty in their campus design, it can add to the stresses or discomfort of the challenges mentioned previously. Improving the scenic beauty of campus is worth doing for a multitude of reasons, such as improving the mental health of students and staff, increasing popularity among school satisfaction ratings, and acting as a safe space for all.
Lincoln University was founded in 1887 and is the third oldest university in New Zealand today ( It is known for its work in environmental science and agricultural studies, and hosts students from all over the world who study these subjects ( Being a relatively smaller university both in student number and campus size, most inhabitants of Lincoln University will find themselves usually passing through the center block of campus, which for the purposes of this paper are defined as the block encompassed between Farm Road, Caulder Road, Ellesmere Junction and Springs Road. Within this boundary there are various landscape designs and building styles, some newer than others and some spaces more recently restructured than others as well. In observing these different spaces of central campus through the lens of scenic beauty, there are some noteworthy changes that should be made for the purpose of better benefitting the students and staff at Lincoln and creating a healthier environment.
First we will look at how the scenic beauty of one of the most notable areas on campus, Ivey Hall (the library) and the courtyard in front of it, could be improved. This area is one of the busiest parts on campus during the day, as students and staff use it as a way to cross to other areas of campus for class and also it is used occasionally for outdoor events that utilize the open space for food trucks, booths, or student club promotions. Although Ivey Hall offers architecturally satisfying elements to this area, in general the space is extremely open and exposed, with little interrupting the openness besides the outer boundaries of the area. There are currently a couple of benches placed in the grass of the courtyard for sitting and socializing, however I have noticed that very rarely do people sit in the benches which are placed in the center of the grass and instead will inhabit the benches closest to the trees on the sides of the courtyard. Given the prospect-refuge theory (Appleton, 1984), I would add more tables and benches along the tree-covered areas so that students may feel they can sit without being exposed and in the center of view as they currently are with the tables in the grass. Based on personal observation, those who sit at the tables in the center of the grass do not stay for as long as those by the trees, and given the prospect-refuge theory this would be due to the vulnerability that comes with being in the center of a space. As far as vegetation, I would increase the diversity of plants that are displayed in the courtyard by adding more plants with colored flowers to the side areas in order to create a more visually pleasing area than the purely green one that is there now. This change would positively contribute to the scenic beauty characteristic of complexity (Steg, 43) by increasing the visual richness of the space. I would also replace about 3 or 4 feet of the grassy courtyard with more gardened vegetation, and in that increased space add a bench or table for which people can feel more surrounded by plant diversity as opposed to grass. As of now, there is a singular cement path breaking through the grass which leads from the library to the bookstore. Although this direct path is convenient, I would place an art piece, such as a medium-sized fountain, in the center of the field and replace the singular path with two medium-width cement walkways that circle around the art and lead to the bookstore. This addition would add minimal change in walking convenience and would better add to the landscape characteristics of mystery and complexity (Steg, 2013) as it adds something unique to the plain grassy area, without too much sacrificing legibility in getting to where you want to go. Adding something as simple as a fountain in the center of the courtyard would also balance out the attention drawn by Ivey Hall, and make it less stage-like for those walking through and thereby decreasing a feeling of exposure.
Within the library, there is a glass-enclosed space within the center of the first floor that allows students to look into what is supposed to be a garden area. However, the garden currently is fairly dark in plant diversity, sparse, and poorly lit. This would be a great space to practice implementation of biophilia-themed design, especially since the library is often a place of deep study and mental concentration. I believe that improving the garden in the center and widening the windows to this scene would greatly benefit the mental health of those around. I would do this by increasing the exposure to sunlight and adding more garden lighting to highlight the area so that even when entering the library there is a scenic view of nature to instigate feelings of de-stress and tension release. I believe that adding more plants with vines and expanding the garden vertically would increase the beauty and visual satisfaction more than the base-layer coverage that it currently has.
Moving outside of the main courtyard, there is a basketball court and parking lot just in the corner made by Farm Road and Calder Drive. What I believe heavily takes away from the scenic beauty of this area is the fact that there is minimal barrier (a patch of dirt and a couple of sparse bushes) separating the play area and parking lot, despite their completely differing purposes. Many times have I seen groups of children playing on the courts or hopscotch areas with cars driving around only separated by dirt and a singular rope on one side. Asides from this being dangerous, it is also aesthetically unpleasing from a scenic beauty point of view. To change this, I would add heavy foliage on the dirt barrier, specifically tall cherry blossoms that would better separate the two areas and also add colorful visual texture. Below the cherry blossoms I would plant low to the ground bushes to act as a further barrier between the cars and limit the possibility of playing equipment (basketballs, soccer balls, etc.) from going into the parking lot. Going back to the prospect-refuge theory (Appleton, 1984), this would provide the children and teenagers with better refuge from the dangers of moving vehicles and provide a safer more enclosed space to play. According to the Preference Matrix (Kaplan, 1989), the heavy increase in cherry blossom trees would also add a sense of complexity and mystery to the area for those playing there, as the color and increased sense of enclosedness would make the area seem more intriguing, especially from the perspective of children who grew up going to parks (relating back to topophilia). With this attempt to better separate the play area from the parking lot, I would add a sidewalk or clearly defined path from Caulder road/Farm road that leads straight into the parking lot, so that people trying to get to their car would have no need to walk through the play space to get there. This would further enforce the idea that these are two separate areas with different purposes.
The last area within central campus that I would make changes to through the lens of scenic beauty would be the giant piece of land in front of the Burns Wing. Currently the area is under construction, and I have learned through people on campus before me that the area used to have very old trees and foliage prior to the construction. It is difficult to tell what currently is the plan for the piece of land, however if one were to rate the area using a Visuland framework (Steg, 2013), the scenery would certainly lack in coherence, complexity, disturbance, and stewardship. As a student who has class in the Burns building, I can say that the lack of vegetation as well as the giant dirt piles that are in the center of the walkway create a very uncomfortable and unpleasing aesthetic. Even from inside the building, when looking out the windows on the top floor, the large piece of land lacks all complexity of a pleasing landscape. Given I could chose what were to come of the land, I would replace all of the dirt with grass and add multiple cobble walkways leading to various entrances of the Burns building. From the perspective of the roads outside of campus, this would make Lincoln University have more scenic beauty from the view of cars passing by as well, which would increase the likelihood of people wanting to visit campus or apply due to the prospect of exploration. After enhancing the landscape at a ground level, I would add one large balcony on a middle floor of the Burns building that would overlook campus. This would be the ultimate way to satisfy the human desire for prospect and refuge (Appleton, 1984) as well as the desire to interact with nature (Wilson, 1993) because balconies allow for prime views of an environment and also provide a space to get fresh air and ease the mind. This balcony could be used by both students and staff in the Burns wing as a place to eat lunch, relieve stress, and view the entire scenic beauty of campus from an elevated perspective.
Overall, the center of Lincoln University has promise to be an extremely scenically beautiful space that acts as the shining spectacle of the town of Lincoln. The main elements hindering its scenic beauty currently are its predictable straight pathways, lack of plant diversity, randomly placed leisure spaces, extensive construction zones, and lack of decorative separation of areas. By improving these elements, the University would attract a greater number of people through its perception as a place that promotes mental health through utilization of nature and sophisticated landscape. Lincoln as a town is fairly flat and surrounded by open farmland, which is all the more reason to make the University a special natural place of refuge for those looking for a change of scenery. With a more strategically designed campus, students studying environmental science would be more likely to become inspired and feel like they ‘ve found a niche for which to study their passions.

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