Innate responses to landscape

The innate theories propose that we derive our aesthetic responses to landscape from an earlier evolutionary phase of Homo sapiens. It is argued that evolution favoured individuals who had the ability to evaluate their environment successfully in terms of its capacity to fulfil their need for shelter, safety and nourishment. Because human civilisations have been in existence for only a fraction of the time that it has taken our species to evolve, we still retain a strong and instinctive inbuilt preference for landscapes that display the characteristics necessary to meet these needs. Orians and Heerwagen (1992) have claimed that we have an inbuilt preference for landscapes resembling the savannah because the crucial phase of human evolutionary development took place there. Ulrich (1993) has proposed that the English Landscape style, found in so many Western parks and open spaces, is highly preferred because it resembles the savannah.

Jay Appleton’s prospect/refuge theory (1975) also relies on an innate or biological explanation, but goes on to develop a landscape typology based on this foundation. Appleton believes that during human evolution the overriding need favouring survival was the ability to see without being seen. He classifies landscapes according to their ability to meet this need either as ‘prospects’ or ‘refuges’. Hence, we retain a preference for landscapes that clearly display features that bear the characteristics of prospects or refuges. The examples given by Appleton are frequently derived from landscape paintings, such as the idealised classical landscapes of Claude Lorraine and Nicholas Poussin: paintings that were often the inspiration for the original practitioners of the English Landscape movement.

Another innate approach that is sometimes described as ‘psycho-evolutionary’, because of the strong psychological overlay to the evolutionary basis, is the Kaplan’s ‘preference matrix’, (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989), though the Kaplans also went on to examine the impact of different cultural and personal factors. The Kaplan’s approach is, in some ways, similar to Appleton’s, in that they introduce a series of factors that explain our preference for certain landscapes. However, the Kaplan’s factors are more abstract (see Table 11.1).

In the ‘preference matrix’, the four critical factors of coherence, complexity, legibility and mystery are defined by reference to the different ways in which humans obtain information about their environment—‘understanding’ and ‘exploration’—and how accessible that information is: whether it is ‘immediate’ or ‘inferred/predicted’.

Table 11.1. The Kaplan’s ‘preference matrix’

Understanding Exploration

Immediate Coherence Complexity

Inferred/predicted Legibility Mystery

Through extensive studies of human reactions to different landscapes, usually depicted in photographic representations, the Kaplans found that these four factors had the greatest explanatory power. Individually, coherence and mystery were found to be the most powerful but combinations of factors were also significant.

In terms of its practical application, the Kaplans found that the preference matrix explained preference for natural scenes that contain views or vistas, plus elements such as curving sightlines that suggest that there is more to discover just around the corner: all qualities that are inherent in the English Landscape style.

There are, in fact, a large number of persuasive authorities that support the view that Westerners’ favourite landscape is English Landscape style parkland and that this preference is derived from our evolutionary bias in favour of savannah landscapes. Yet, to return to the first of the two questions posed at the start of this chapter—how can this evidence be reconciled with the many critiques of the twentiethcentury interpretations of these landscapes?—one explanation for this apparent contradiction is that the style of the English Landscape movement has been adopted as a generalised solution and has become oversimplified in the process. Many urban landscapes that seek to imitate this style lack the subtlety of the historic landscapes, with their manipulation of landform, variations in vegetation type and structure, water bodies and associated water’s edge vegetation, and far more sophisticated management techniques and regimes.

A further explanation is that the ‘urban savannah’ style is essentially a paradigm for largescale landscapes that has been monotonously applied without differentiation to both large – and small-scale landscapes. Rather than being seen as a universal solution, this approach could be seen as a way of creating a larger-scale landscape framework, with the potential for introducing greater complexity and ecological richness into the elements of that structure—open space, glades, woodland, woodland edge, landform, water and water’s edge.

There may also be some limitations inherent in the landscape preference research. To date, most of this research has concentrated on visual preference. Whilst this may be a perfectly valid way of evaluating preference for what kinds of landscapes people want to look at, it may not tell us anything about the suitability of landscapes for other activities, for example playing games, exploring, socialising, or just being alone. Nor does it tell us anything about the different types of landscape that people might prefer in different settings, say on their way to the shops, to sit out in close to home, or to visit at the weekends with their families.

The major strength of the preference research based on innate theories of preference is that it has enabled us to identify the generic qualities of landscapes that the majority of Westerners consistently express visual preference for. The Kaplans (1989) have come the closest to defining these qualities in their preference matrix. Up to the time of press, the type of landscape that seems to have displayed these characteristics most fully is parkland in the English Landscape style. However, there may be other types of landscape that could meet these requirements. As stated above, one weakness of the innate approach is that it does not take account of the richness and diversity of human needs and experience. Nor does it explain why people might hold views that differ from the norm, or how tastes in landscape change, other than on a strictly evolutionary basis.

Updated: October 11, 2015 — 11:36 am