Cultural and personal responses to landscape

The existence of other factors differentiating landscape preference has been acknowledged for some time: factors relating to the individual as opposed to the landscape. Lyons (1983), for example, found that age, gender, place of residence and familiarity affected landscape preference. Further, she concluded that if variables such as age, place of residence and familiarity influence landscape preference, then preference must have a dynamic quality, changing over an individual lifespan. Thus, landscape preference is not based solely on innate characteristics acquired during human evolution.

Bourassa (1991) postulated that, as well as a biological component (genetic acquired through evolution), the aesthetics of landscape also has strong cultural and personal components. According to Bourassa, the cultural component is derived from the process by which different groups in society ascribe different symbolic meanings to landscape— meanings that reinforce group identities—whilst the personal component is an individual’s personal interpretation of the biological (innate) and cultural rules. Further, he argues that every individual has the ability to transcend and alter these rules through creativity.

Thus, the cultural and personal characteristics of the individual may also determine their reaction to landscape. Furthermore, the different strands may sometimes conflict or compete with each other. Ongoing research in Warrington New Town, in the United Kingdom, one of the first British New Towns to be developed within a setting of woodland ecological planting, suggests that some residents preferred specific places in their locality whilst simultaneously finding those same places the most unsafe (Jorgensen et al., in press). These findings cannot be accounted for satisfactorily by a purely biological explanation of human reaction to landscape. Arguably, two or more of the strands or components determining preference are conflicting here: on the one hand, the biological strand is producing a sense of aesthetic preference, based on notions of personal survival, whilst, on the other hand, the cultural or personal elements are contradicting this, or vice versa. In evaluating public perception of ecological plantings, there is therefore the likelihood that public attitudes to them are complex (made up of different layers or strands) conflicting and multi-dimensional.

Bourassa also argues that there are fashions in theories of landscape aesthetics as well as public preferences for landscape. Secondly, he argues that the aesthetic appreciation of landscape is not something that should be, or can be, divorced from the rest of our experience: the relationship between humans and landscape is essentially an interaction that can take place in many different ways.

These two points have important consequences for a study of public attitudes to particular landscapes. Firstly, if landscape preference can change, we should be suspicious of any theory of landscape preference that consistently returns a particular type of landscape as the most universally preferred landscape. Secondly, if we adopt Bourassa’s interactive definition of landscape aesthetics, then it becomes impossible to say that one type of landscape is the best for all interactions or purposes. Instead, we can allow that landscapes and our reactions to them can, and should, be complex.

All of the innate theories outlined earlier attempt to explain an aesthetic preference for landscape, but offer an incomplete picture. We also need to look at people’s perception of landscape in a broader sense: to understand how and why people value, use and abuse landscapes within their various cultural contexts and personal perspectives.