The impact of cultural factors

Rohde and Kendle (1994) describe the different views of human relationships with nature held by Dutch, French and Japanese people. The French view of nature is said to be characterised by a desire for order and control, whereas the Japanese are said to view humankind and nature as part of an integrated whole. Clearly, these are sweeping generalisations and all cultures contain sub-cultures and individuals who may hold entirely different

The impact of cultural factors


Battlemented laurels—an example of a military approach to shrub maintenance from the public frontage of a hotel in Grange-over­Sands in Cumbria

views, but, nevertheless, such overarching cultural influences clearly do play an important role in forming attitudes.

In their account of the history and development of ecological landscape styles, Forbes et al. (1997) identify changes in human perception of nature as one of the key factors influencing the development of landscape styles, such as the English Landscape movement, the open space movement and the Victorian gardenesque.

It may be that our view of this fundamental relationship is also capable of influencing our taste in planting styles. In her social history of gardens and gardening, The Pursuit of Paradise, Jane Brown (2000) devotes an entire chapter to what she calls ‘the military garden’, surely the ultimate emblem of human domination over nature (Figure 11.4). She writes:

It is in the small gardens of Britain that traditional military neatness has been retained. In allotments with their miniature parade ground proportions, everything in impeccable rows. In the immaculate trenching, ridging and earthing up of potatoes or celery, in the line of guardsmenred salvias marching beside a path, in the tiny but precise forty-five degree angles and ditches where the well-kept lawn edges meet the weedless soil.

It is easy to recognise aspects of this approach in the horticultural plantings that still form the backbone of many public landscapes as well as private gardens.

It seems plausible that there is a relationship between individual perception of the appropriate human relationship with nature and individual perception of different types of landscape: would individuals with an ecocentric view of the humannature relationship be more attracted by natural or wild landscapes? Van den Born et al. (2001) propose a model of human relationships with nature ranging from ‘man the technocrat adventurer’ to ‘oneness with nature’ (Table 11.2). Research suggests that the majority of Westerners now have a nonanthropocentric view of the human-nature relationship when asked to express their views in the abstract (Catton and Dunlap 1980; Van den Berg 1999; Van den Born et al. 2001). In the latter study, in the Netherlands, 76% of respondents preferred the statement that ‘humans are part of nature and hence should bear responsibility for it’. It would clearly be unwise to assume that, because of the high prevalence of these ecocentric views, there is likely to be a generalised preference for more ecological styles of planting. It may in fact be the case that, whereas the majority of Westerners have broadly ecocentric views in the abstract, many hold different views in concrete instances closer to home. The only reported research on this issue was carried out in Norway by Kaltenborn and Bjerke (2002), who found that respondents with ecocentric views preferred wilderness landscapes, whilst those with anthropocentric views preferred farm environments. Their sample was drawn from the inhabitants of Roros, a sparsely populated mountain region in Norway, so it is difficult to generalise from their findings. This is an area that merits further investigation.

As will become apparent later in this chapter, context has a crucial bearing on the public acceptance of naturalistic ecological plantings. Even people who are supportive of nature conservation may have very different ideas about what measures are to be taken in their locality. A case in point is the recent bitter controversy over plans to restore prairie landscapes in Chicago. Despite the fact that the plans were drawn up by a broad network consisting of volunteer groups, public agencies and nongovernmental organisations, the implementation of the plans involving large-scale tree clearing met with vehement opposition from large and disparate

Table 11.2. Possible relationships between humans and nature (adapted from Van den Born et al.


Anthropentric Man the technocrat adventurer Man the manager-engineer Man the steward of nature

Ecocentric Man the guardian of nature Man and nature as partners Man as participant with nature Oneness with nature (‘unio mystica’)

sectors of the public, such that much of the programme came to a standstill. The controversy centred around whose vision of nature (prairie or woodland?) should prevail, and what constituted nature conservation expertise (Helford 2000).

Some of these social and political issues were examined in a Dutch study of the impact of planned change context on landscape evaluations (Van den Berg and Vlek 1998). Two groups of respondents were shown a set of five digitally manipulated images of an agrarian landscape and four other landscapes showing lesser degrees of human influence. One group of respondents was told that the five images represented ‘five existing Dutch landscapes’, whereas the other group were told that the images represented ‘one existing landscape and four plans for nature development from this landscape’. Generally speaking, the four more natural landscapes were judged less beautiful when they were presented as planned changes than when they were presented as existing landscapes. On closer investigation it was found that the planned change context affected beauty ratings only if two conditions were met, firstly, when planned changes involved the development of natural landscapes with a low degree of human influence, and, secondly, where planned changes were evaluated from a user as opposed to a non-user perspective.

There are many possible explanations for this resistance by users to the development of more natural landscapes, and far more research is needed in this area (Van den Berg and Vlek 1998). However, what seems clear is that the strength of local users’ personal investment in their local green-spaces should not be underestimated, and that this is a factor to be taken into account in design using largescale ecological plantings that are naturalistic in appearance.

As well as having their own ideas about the appropriate relationship between man and nature, Westerners also use the concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘naturalness’ to classify landscape. The Kaplans were among the first to articulate that a fundamental method of categorising visual images incorporating natural and built elements was according to the degree of human influence (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989).

In an Australian study, people were also found to be able to discriminate between different vegetation types and densities, and to detect structural changes in vegetation of a non-natural origin, on the basis of ‘naturalness’ alone (Lamb and Purcell 1990). Respondents were asked to rate slides of a number of naturally occurring vegetation forms according to how natural they thought they were. Taller and denser vegetation was considered most natural, and respondents were able to detect structural changes in the vegetation of a non-natural origin. Lamb and Purcell concluded that expected vegetation structure was the main criterion of naturalness used by the respondents in the study. Significantly, they also concluded that there is no straightforward relationship between perceived naturalness and preference in landscape.

A further complication is that people have different interpretations of naturalness and human influence in landscape. Lutz et al. (1999) found that Canadian urban and rural dwellers’ perception of what constitutes wilderness differed significantly, with urban dwellers being far more ready to classify scenes as wilderness, despite clear evidence of human intrusion in the form of agriculture or structures such as a hydro-electric dam. This has implications for our reactions to particular landscape types, but also for the question of what constitutes a natural or wilderness landscape, and the role and location of such landscapes. For urban dwellers, the idea of having natural or semi-natural landscapes in public urban settings may well seem inappropriate if such landscapes have connotations of ‘wilderness’.

Our attitudes to certain landscapes have changed a great deal, illustrating how much the cultural constructs underpinning landscape perception can change (Thomas 1983). An example that is often given is the change in Westerner’s attitudes towards mountains. Until relatively recently, mountains and mountain ranges were regarded literally with horror. Referring to the modest hills of the Yorkshire Dales at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Daniel Defoe wrote:

Nor were these Hills high and formidable only, but they had a kind of an unhospitable Terror in them. Here were no rich pleasant Valleys between them, as among the Alps; no Lead mines and Veins of rich Oar, as in the Peak; no Coal pits, as in the Hills about Hallifax, much less Gold, as in the Andes, but all barren and wild, of no use or advantage either to man or beast.

(Defoe 1727)

What is striking about this extract is not only the ‘unhospitable terror’ that these hills evidently inspired in Defoe but also his palpable disgust for the fact that they cannot be used to human advantage: what amounts to a very anthropocentric view of the relationship between nature and humans. There is a marked contrast between the views expressed by Defoe and the fact that many millions of people now visit the Yorkshire Dales National Park for pleasure and recreation, attracted by the same landscape that Defoe found so repugnant. There has, therefore, been a major shift in our attitudes towards wilder natural landscapes, possibly because humans are now more capable of controlling nature, which is therefore seen as less threatening.

Thus, whilst views of the appropriate human/nature relationship may vary between different cultures, there is evidence to suggest that it is this cultural construct that underlies and informs our perception of different landscapes. Furthermore, far from being fixed and immutable, such constructs are susceptible to change. The evidence also indicates that, although there is some disagreement about the meaning of ‘naturalness’ and ‘human influence’, these notions are used by humans to classify landscape and to decide what kind of landscape may be appropriate in a given setting. Lastly, these concepts seem to be particularly pertinent in places that people are familiar with and have a personal investment in.

Updated: October 11, 2015 — 1:55 pm