Chapter III - Savanna Landscape Preference
The preponderance of savanna-like landscapes in the human environment
suggests that we as a species prefer such landscapes. This section examines
potential reasons for and current perspectives of this preference.
Once dwelling in the relatively pleasant, colorful, elevated environment
of the tree-tops, human ancestors developed enhanced abilities such as excellent
color bifocal vision, dexterity of digits for grasping, sense of balance
as well as a particular body size and shape. Later on in evolution pre-humans
developed another set of abilities that reflected their fall from this forest
Eden into the dog-eat-dog world of the open ground. As a result humans have
a mixture of the flight responses of the timid forest dweller and the fight
responses of the aggressive ground dweller (Kaplan and Kaplan, Humanscape
10-13). The transition of these human ancestors from tree dwelling to ground
dwelling would have occurred near water in a zone between forest and grassland.
Such areas could be described as a savanna or park, glade, or forest edge,
and they would have been rich in variety and numbers of species. These savanna
landscapes would have varied in size from expansive areas to narrow zones
between grassland and tropical forest (Komarek, Fire Ecology 201). Early
humans in this savanna environment would have to have ranged over very large
areas of grassland to collect food, facing great danger from predators in
doing so. Thus it was that humans developed the abilities to know a great
deal about the terrain, their predators, and how to react quickly (Kaplan
and Kaplan, Humanscape 5). The biological needs of survival and the ability
to be immediately aware of their environment caused humans to prefer environments
that could meet these needs.
Prospect Refuge Theory
As stated by Jay Appleton in Experience of Landscape, "Habitat Theory
postulates that aesthetic pleasure in landscape derives from the observer
experiencing an environment favorable to the satisfaction of his biological
needs." More specifically, "prospect refuge theory postulates that, because
the ability to see without being seen is an intermediate step in the satisfaction
of these needs, the capacity of an environment to ensure the achievement
of this becomes a more immediate source of aesthetic satisfaction" (73).
If such is the case, early humans, and thus their modern day descendants,
would prefer the spatial arrangements and visible attributes of the savanna
where the open grassland offers unimpeded prospect and forest edge or groups
of trees offer the opportunity to take refuge.
The uncertainties of modern life may not be all that different from those
that greeted our ancestors when they came down from the trees to live on
the danger-filled grounds of the open savanna. People generally prefer what
they are familiar with and tend to react cautiously to the unknown (Kaplan
and Kaplan, Cognition 77). The role of the unknown or the predator is played
now by strangers, fast cars, biting insects, bad weather, and crime, and
thus the preference for landscapes affording prospect and refuge is expressed
by the landscapes in which we live. This can be seen in the light density
of trees and shrubs in arrested succession and the abundance of open space
found in both consciously designed landscapes and those that developed without
a plan. Institutional settings, suburban landscapes and public parks, often
of a picturesque nature, exemplify this, as do many managed forests, orchards
Environmental Preference from Kaplan and Kaplan
Another approach to understanding landscape preference that goes beyond
the physical need oriented prospect-refuge theory is explained by Stephen
and Rachel Kaplan in Cognition and Environment. Investigating human psychology
in more depth, they describe preference as "the expression of the evaluation
of one's possibilities,." of which the two most important components are
making sense and involvement. Essential elements to an individual's well
being, making sense and involvement have both a more immediate and a longer
range aspect (80). Similarly, Aldo Leopold saw knowledge and experience
as key components to the aesthetic appreciation of natural ecosystems (Gobster
68). The Kaplans consider space as having a central role in how an individual
perceives a landscape, and that a space can be viewed both in an immediate,
two- dimensional way and experienced in a longer term, three-dimensional
way (Cognition 82). The framework shown below combines the two basic information
needs of making sense and involvement with the dimensional aspects of the
immediate and the future. This yields four distinct combinations which can
be defined as coherence, complexity, mystery,
|PRESENT OR IMMEDIATE
|FUTURE OR PROMISED
Figure 3.1 Preference Framework (Kaplan and Kaplan, Cognition 81).
and legibility. Specifically comparing the elements of the preference framework
(as described in Cognition and Environment [82-87]) to the savanna helps
explain the human preference for savanna-like environments.
Coherence (Figure 3.2) is interpreted as the ease of organizing and structuring
parts, units, chunks, blocks or scene elements. Patterns that result from
many similar and repeating parts allow for easier human comprehension. Therefore
a savanna-like landscape could be said to rank relatively high in coherence
because of its few and repetitious types of elements which create easily
recognizable patterns. For instance, the ground plain is essentially grassy
throughout, and the trees repeat the same general appearance. A landscape
low in coherence, such as a forest, might have many forms, sizes, colors,
densities, and distributions resulting in less coherent complicated patterns.
The prairie or ocean, on the other hand, can be very coherent due to their
Complexity (Figure 3.3) is a reflection of whether there is enough present
in the scene to keep one mentally occupied. It should merit one's making
a mental map of it. Too little is boring while too much is overwhelming.
Therefore a savanna-like landscape could be said to be within the desired
range of complexity. The ground plain and canopy are relatively uncomplicated
elements on the whole, but the various patterns of ground layer species,
the irregular spacing of trees, the indiscernible gradation into adjacent
vegetation types, and the openness to the changing atmosphere creates an
appropriate and desirable amount of complexity even at an initial glance.
Mystery (Figure 3.4) occurs when a scene provides partial information
about what lies ahead, inviting exploration. Things are obscured in such
a way as to reveal their presence but not their full identity. Therefore
a savanna-like landscape could be said to be high in mystery. Because of
its open aspect, views into the distance would be available, but the obstruction
of the unevenly spaced trees, the rolling topography, and the atmospheric
effects of aerial perspective enhanced by climatic conditions would prevent
full disclosure and invite exploration. Some savanna arrangements might
have more mystery than others. Mystery might be greatest in the area where
the savanna grades into forest on uneven terrain and lowest where it grades
into flat prairie.
Legibility (Figure 3.5) is found in an environment that looks as if one
could explore extensively without getting lost. Undifferentiated sameness
causes low legibility. Thus a savanna-like landscape could be said to rank
very high in legibility. There is enough openness to see where one is going
as well as distinct tree formations to provide landmarks. By contrast the
open prairie has few landmarks and the forest too many.
Other Preference Studies
Figure 3.2 Savanna Landscape Illustrating Coherence.
Figure 3.3 Savanna Landscape Illustrating Complexity.
Figure 3.4 Savanna Landscape Illustrating Mystery.
Figure 3.5 Savanna Landscape Illustrating Legibility.
In Paul Gobster's article "The Urban Savanna: Reuniting Ecological Preference
and Function" in Restoration & Management Notes (pages 64-69), many studies
are cited that discuss savannas and savanna elements as they relate to landscape
preference. Following is a summary of the conclusions of these studies.
As a landscape, whether in a more natural or cultural configuration, a
savanna-like setting is aesthetically preferred. Savanna scenes rated highest
compared to coniferous forest, deciduous forest, tropical forest, and deserts.
In his own study Gobster found inner city children preferred savanna settings
over forests, wetlands, or prairies.
Elements found in savanna landscapes, such as tree form and distribution,
are also aesthetically preferred. For instance, studies show mature trees
are preferred in park and forest environments, and even-aged stands, without
the multiple layering of various aged trees, are also preferred. Stand visual
quality is dependent on "visual penetration," seen as a high overstory without
any significant understory. The park-like appearance of the savanna is often
mentioned as ideal. People prefer between 40 and 65 mature trees per acre
in passive use areas, which would be the upper end of savanna density on
a forest - prairie gradient. In urban parks people prefer even distribution
of trees over tight clumps. Thinning and selective harvests in rural and
wild land settings can increase preferences by opening forest canopies.
Savanna landscapes have a broad aesthetic appeal, but ecological integrity
can negatively impact aesthetic preference. A survey of inner-city children
showed greatest preference for a more formal savanna landscape with elms
and lawn, and a lower level of preference for native savanna. Some visitors
to the NC Botanical Garden, without special interest in or knowledge of
native plants or ecology, viewed the ecological community displays as unkempt
and overgrown. In a wild land setting, however, people prefer savannas with
high ecological integrity. These preference findings point out the relationship
of savanna landscape ecological integrity to site context and ecological
awareness of the viewer. Where an ecological aesthetic is developed, people
have a higher tolerance and greater appreciation for the more intricate,
subtle and complex aspects of ecological integrity.
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