IN DEFENCE OF CITIES – CHALLENGING THE USUAL POSITION IN ENVIRONMENTAL PREFERENCE STUDIES

In this blog, challenging the notion that wilderness is always restorative and cityscapes are always stressful, Anu Besson (Ph.D. Candidate, University of Jyväskylä) previews her article ‘Aesthetics and Affordances in a Favourite Place – on Interactional Use of Environments for Restoration’, in Environmental Values (FastTrack October 2019).

My article ‘Aesthetics and Affordances in a Favourite Place – on Interactional Use of Environments for Restoration’ forms a part of my doctoral thesis which explores environmental preferences. The thesis focuses on the ‘canonised’ position that urban environments are commonly experienced as stressful, whereas nature – greenery – is experienced as calming, relaxing and restorative. This position is largely built on studies where subjects have ranked images or videos of nature higher than imagery of urban environments. I challenge the idea that viewing of imagery could substitute for experiencing an environment first-hand.

In my article, I discuss survey responses collected from expat Finns. My interest was sparked by my own experiences living in several countries: Finland, Hungary, Canada and Australia. I have come to notice how differently newcomers experience their new home compared to locals. For example, many Finns value wilderness, even call it their church – a sacred, safe location for self-reflection and restoration. But, in my new homeland Australia, expat Finns admire, but also fear the great outdoors: the dangerous animals, the burning sun, the disorienting vastness of the dry bushland. Wilderness is not necessarily calming, ‘benevolent’. How we experience our environments appears to draw from four basic pillars: context, culture, convention and connection.

Context

In my thesis, I discuss that what we value or devalue in environments is always dependent on situation and context. My own twenty-kilometre trek to Trolltunga rock in Norway revealed that a hike in the wilderness can be an empowering, aesthetically fulfilling experience if we have sufficient supplies and means of navigation. But, if the path is lost or the hiker is injured, the experience can quickly turn to terror. Similarly, the notion of content applies to experiencing cities. Commonly, in environmental preference studies, the studied images are erased of people to direct the attention to the fixed physical elements. However, this presents the city as it is not meant to be – the eeriness of the empty streets is evidenced by plentiful popular culture content, such as films and documentaries about Chernobyl.

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Anu and Eliot Besson at Trolltunga, Norway. Photo by Anu Besson.

Culture

As argued by Arnold Berleant and Yi-Fu Tuan, we are not automatons that register or react to environments in the same, shared way. How we experience our surroundings always draws from personal attributes, including memories and cultural background. In my article, I show how Finnish respondents value dense woods as restorative – calming, recharging or uplifting – environments, whereas British respondents prefer to look at dense woodlands from afar, rather than being inside them. Furthermore, Finnish respondents displayed a preference order and ‘accepted’ other types of environments for restoration if their first choice was not available. The most popular restorative environment was a lakeshore with Nordic tree species and this preference appears to draw from a typical or idealised Nordic summer holiday.

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The favourite restorative environment of expat Finns is at a lakeshore in Finland, often at one’s own summer cottage. Photo from Lake Oulujärvi, Finland, by Anu Besson.

Convention

In environmental preference studies, it is rather common to explain results by evolutionary or biological factors: for example, greenery is experienced as restorative, because our early ancestors evolved surrounded by greenery and this familiarity has become internalised and instinctively calming. I argue that instead, some of the common results in favour of greenery can be explained by viewing conventions. A common study method is to request subjects to rank imagery of nature and/or urban environments. However, the ranked images often depict sunny and summery greenery, which have positive connotations of vacation and relaxation. Furthermore, we have a long convention of viewing nature’s landscapes as scenic or idyllic art. In my thesis, I show how this convention affects preference results. Studies that utilise in-situ methods, such as walks through the examined environments, tend to produce differently weighed results. This is because the experience of urban environment is not only visual but multisensory – sights, sounds, scents – and builds strongly on memories, symbolic meanings and interaction with other people.

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Depending on studies, up to a third of respondents find city centres, libraries, cafes or heritage areas more restorative than greenery. Photo from Brisbane, Australia, by Anu Besson.

Connection

Aligning with Berleant and Tuan, I discuss the embodied connection we inevitably have with our environment. Berleant notes that we always experience our environment through our knowledge and values, bodily intimations, stances and sensory acuity, in a continuum with our surroundings. Tuan writes that we always make connections about and attach meaning to our experiences. For example, Tuan argues that children don’t find the same foul smells as repulsive as adults, because adults attach a symbolic memento morimeaning to smells of decay whereas children do not. When environments are studied via images, many somatic and sensory experiences and symbolic meanings cannot emerge. This in my view is a serious flaw, because environmental preferences can reliably be gauged only via first-hand experience.

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Caption: In environmental preference studies, the focus is often on restorative or relaxing effect of environments. But, we are not always stressed and in need of relaxation. Cities are experienced also in myriads of other ways, for example productive, entertaining, thrilling and decadent. Photo from Brisbane, Australia, by Anu Besson.

 

Concluding comments

In summary, I wish to challenge the view that nature/greenery is always or mostly experienced as positive and urban environments as negative. Instead of such binary value conclusion we should focus on the qualitative differences between different kinds of experiences to create better everyday environments in the increasingly urbanising world.

 

 


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