Landscape Perception

Isil Cakci Kaymaz Ankara University Turkey

1. Introduction

.. landscape is composed of not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads."

D. W. Meinig (1979)

Landscape, as a term, has been subject to a wide range of disciplines, such as art, history, geography, ecology, politics, planning and design. Although it has been associated with mainly physical features of an environment, today the term landscape refers to much more than just scenery. Landscape is a complex phenomenon which evolves continuously through time and space. It is a reflection of both natural processes and cultural changes throughout time. Landscapes can be a product of either only natural processes (natural landscapes) or human intervention on natural ecosystems (cultural landscapes). Nowadays, it is almost impossible to encounter with a natural landscape in our daily lives. Most of the natural landscapes have been modified by human activities. Hence, they are embedded with symbolic meanings of our societies’ cultural diversity and identity. On the other hand, the deterioration of natural ecosystems has become an important issue in sustainable development, since we depend on natural resources to survive. Thus, as natural and cultural heritages, landscapes need to be protected and managed in the context of sustainability. In 2000, Council of Europe adopted the European Landscape Convention (ELC) to promote sustainable planning, protection and management of European landscapes. ELC defines landscape as:

"… an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors”.

The definition of ELC puts an emphasis on the perceptual dimension of the landscape. Since landscape involves a subjective experience, it encompasses a perceptive, artistic and existential meaning (Antrop, 2005). Figure 1 shows the components of a landscape, which hence influence perception of the landscape. There is a mutual relationship between individual and the surrounding environment. People are intrinsically involved with their living environments to survive. They use and shape the physical environment to meet their physical and social needs. While environments are shaped by people, people are inspired and shaped by their environments as well. Thus, perception of the environment or the landscape has become an area of concern of various disciplines in order to understand and explain this interaction between people and their physical settings.

Perception is the process in which information is derived through senses, organized and interpreted. It is an active process which takes place between the organism and environment (Hilgard, 1951 in R. Kaplan & S. Kaplan, 1978). S. Kaplan (1975) states that information is central to organism’s survival and essential in making sense out of the environment, to which perception is assumed to be oriented. Perception of our environment helps us to understand and react to our environment. Environmental perception is different to object perception in many ways (Forster, 2010; Ungar, 1999);

• The components of the environment are diverse and complex. Therefore perception of the environment is not immediate and it takes time.

• Scale affects perception of the environment. Environments are larger and, hence more complex systems.

• Environment surrounds people. Thus it is perceived and experienced from inside.

• Navigation skills are needed in environmental perception.

• People usually interact with their environment for a purpose. As a result, we select spatial information related to our purpose.


Fig. 1. What is landscape (Swanwick, 2002).

Porteous (1996) discusses that there are two basic modes of perception; autocentric, which is subject centered, and allocentric, which is object centered. He explains that sensory quality and pleasure are involved in autocentric senses, while allocentric senses involve attention and directionality. He states that vision (except color perception) is mostly autocentric, and most sounds (except speech sounds) are autocentric.

The perception of the physical environment is not merely a physiological phenomenon. It is also influenced by the individual’s experiences, and both social and cultural factors. Knox and Marston (2003) points out that "different cultural identities and status categories influence the ways in which people experience and understand their environments”. Thus, perception of our surrounding environment is learnt, selective, dynamic, interactive and individual (Lee, 1973).

Theories of perception provide foundation for research in psychology. Environmental psychology is the branch of psychology which deals with relationships between physical environment and human behavior. It is a multidisciplinary field where perception of the environment is a fundamental subject. Environmental perception research includes topics such as cognitive mapping, landscape (environmental) preferences, way finding, restorative environments, all which should be considered in landscape planning and design. Landscape architecture aims to create livable, pleasant and sustainable outdoor environments. Although the findings of environmental psychology research can enlighten and influence landscape architects in context of research and practice, it is hard to say that a firm link has been established between two disciplines so far. There is a mutual relationship between people and their physical environments which influences each other. Thus, landscape architects must acknowledge that perception of the environment plays an essential role in comprehension of this relationship.

This chapter presents an overview to landscape (environmental) perception research in context of landscape planning and design. It discusses perception of the landscape based on two fundamental senses; sight and hearing. Firstly, theories and research methodology on visual perception and aesthetics will be presented in order to provide guidance for visual landscape design and planning. Secondly, the concept of soundscape will be briefly introduced and discussed to promote awareness on the importance of sound as a landscape element in design and planning.

Updated: October 12, 2015 — 1:47 pm