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Perceptions of Colour, Form and Amenity in Green Spaces

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Abstract

Designing healthy resilient places for people doesn't need to be too challenging or complicated. We might be best to remember that a landscape-led approach works best, where the landscape comes first, and provides the framework within the built environment is nurtured. We should also be aware that human reactions to places depend both on the aesthetics of the designed landscape itself and the people themselves (see Hoyle, 2020 for discussion). Because people's responses and perceptions are driven by values which vary at the individual and community level, working with local stakeholders including residents, site users, local schools and land-managers provides a positive way forward.
Perceptions of Colour, Form and Amenity in Green Spaces
Hoyle, H. 1 Apr 2022, (Accepted/In press) In: Urban Design. 162
Designing healthy resilient places for people doesn’t need to be too challenging or complicated. We
might be best to remember that a landscape-led approach works best, where the landscape comes
first, and provides the framework within the built environment is nurtured. We should also be aware
that human reactions to places depend both on the aesthetics of the designed landscape itself and
the people themselves (see Hoyle, 2020 for discussion). Because people’s responses and perceptions
are driven by values which vary at the individual and community level, working with local
stakeholders including residents, site users, local schools and land-managers provides a positive way
forward.
Landscape aesthetics drive human responses in different ways. Colour and form are two key
characteristics which can be manipulated to provoke specific reactions. Colourful, flowering planting
in urban spaces precipitates the ‘wow factor’, which lifts the human spirit, excites and produces
instantaneous joya sort of adrenaline high. Research has shown that across a range of designed
urban woodland, shrub and herbaceous landscapes, people consider planting with 27% flower cover
and above particularly attractive (Hoyle et al. 2017a), useful to the designer fashioning a planting
palate to support instantaneous human happiness. Seasonality is another factor to bear in mind.
Creating year-round interest is desirable, so the overall landscape ‘picture’ contains some colour
throughout the seasons. Some people live in anticipation of fresh greens and pale daffodils in
spring, whereas others enjoy the rich mellowing browns and golds of an autumnal landscape.
Research has shown that in contrast to vibrant colours which produce the wow factor, subtle green
planted landscapes are conducive to relaxation and mental restoration. Form has a similar effect.
Recent work in collaboration with Matthew Pottage, curator at RHS Wisley (Hoyle, 2021) showed
that a “climate-ready” Exotic Garden incorporating species such as dramatic cannas with large
vibrant orange flowers, and Chinese dwarf bananas, elicited excitement and wonder, whereas
visitors found the English cottage-garden style, with a wilder aesthetic incorporating familiar native
species such as foxgloves, geraniums and roses more relaxing and mentally restorative to walk
through. That the public are supportive of the introduction of non-native, exotic species with an
unfamiliar aesthetic provides policymakers and land-managers with the confidence to introduce
these species, providing greater resilience to future climates than present day planting.
Dramatic, exotic planting incorporating cannas with large vibrant orange flowers, and Chinese dwarf bananas can be
visually exciting providing the ‘wow-factor’ and is also ‘climate-ready’. Credit: the author
People also react in different ways to the degree of control the land-manager exerts over the
landscape in terms of maintenance, to deliver a clipped, manicured aesthetic or otherwise. Research
and practice in different international contexts, has historically indicated that people like to see
‘cues to care’ in the landscape, (Nassauer, 1995) signalling human intervention and deliberate
management. These include bright colourful flowers, (linking to the research highlighted above), and
neat trimmed edges and mown desire lines which either frame wilder areas of grassland, meadow or
shrub and provide a pathway through for site users and their dogs. There is however, recent
evidence from the UK and throughout Europe, that people are increasingly prepared to accept urban
vegetation with a wilder aesthetic, particularly if they know it provides wildlife benefits (Southon et
al. 2017; Lampinen et al, 2020). Introducing engaging signage on site to explain these biodiversity
benefits helps increase acceptance.
Wardown Park Arboretum-meadow: Introducing colourful flowers and cutting neat edges to ‘frame’ an area of tall
meadows provides the public with ‘cues to care’. Credit: the author
Many local land-managers already understand these relationships and use landscape aesthetics to
provoke particular responses. This helps in targeting scarce financial resources to deliver maximum
human enjoyment and landscape appreciation as well as environmental co-benefits such as climate
resilience and wildlife habitat. This applies in the UK, where local planning authorities (LPAs) have
been experiencing drastic cuts to greenspace budgets since 2010, when austerity measures were
introduced by the coalition government and quality green space provision started to be considered
an “optional extra” (Mell, 2020). Here LPAs have embraced meadow-style vegetation in different
urban contexts, partly because there is the perception that this style of vegetation needs less
frequent cutting and is therefore cheaper to maintain. Yet context matters too, and experience with
local residents has taught greenspace managers that many urban residents will not accept tall-
growing native perennial meadows directly outside their homes, particularly after flowering, when
stems and seed heads are brown and may be trampled by neighbourhood dogs, or foxes and may
harbour drug paraphernalia or animal excrement (Hoyle et al. 2017b; Lampinen et al. 2021). Sowing
shorter meadow species, mowing more frequently, and using colourful annual meadows including
vibrant non-native species such as the Californian Poppy or late flowering Plains Coreopsis in high-
profile central or residential areas provide the ‘cues to care’ some residents crave. In Lyon, France,
where it might be argued that resources are more bountiful that in the UK, greenspace managers
prioritise spaces as ‘flowering spaces’, ‘recreational spaces’ or ‘nature spaces. The flowering spaces
need most financial investment in terms of initial planting and then maintenance. These are high
profile central city locations such as the Place Bellecour, where fountains and showy white blooms
provide a magnate for residents and visitors to the city. Recreational spaces include the banks of the
Rhonere prioritised away from parking, for walking, cycling and relaxation. The nature spaces
provide refuge for wildlife. Whilst high footfall is discouraged, signage highlights the value of these
sites as biodiversity hotspots, explaining the ecosystem services they provide.
Place Bellecour, City of Lyon, one of the ‘flowering spaces’ which provide the ‘wow factor’ in the City. Credit: Daniel
Boulens
Yet the way people perceive, react and behave in the landscape is also related to their beliefs, deep-
seated underlying values and socio-cultural characteristics. People who are highly ‘nature-
connected’, with a greater affinity with the natural world, have repeatedly been shown to enjoy the
aesthetics of ‘natural’ landscapes and find being in nature more mentally restorative than others.
They are also more likely to be familiar with the concept of biodiversity and to support a wilder, less
manicured aesthetic in urban areas. In addition, public acceptance of dramatic, exotic planting in the
UK landscape has been shown to depend on people’s values in relation to climate change and how
aware they are of the impact it is having on public parks and greenspaces. Those who understand
that many of today’s plant species such as the traditional oak are becoming less resilient to future
climates, are more prepared to accept ‘climate-ready’ exotic planting, seeing this as ‘evolution in
action’ (Hoyle et al. 2017c). Climate-change awareness has been shown to be directly related to
people’s educational qualifications, which highlights the need for novel ways of communicating this
reality across communities of people with diverse backgrounds.
Women also perceive and value natural landscapes differently to men. UK research has shown that
when walking through the same areas of designed urban woodland, shrub and herbaceous
vegetation, women perceived higher levels of ‘naturalness’ and found the experience significantly
more restorative than men (Hoyle et al., 2017a). The same pattern was identified in multicultural
cities across Europe, where women valued all park scenes and medium and high forest plant species
richness more highly than did men and were more supportive of the conversion of neat, short-mown
lawns to tall meadows to support biodiversity conservation (Fischer et al. 2018). This is particularly
interesting, because historically higher levels of fear have been reported amongst women in
woodland and woodland edge environments, (for example, Jorgensen et al. 2007). These historical
responses might relate to specific scale or context, or traditional role models which are now
outdated.
Landscape professionals need to be mindful that their perceptions diverge form those of their urban publics. Source: the
author
Planners, designers and managers of urban green infrastructure who strive to prioritise human well-
being in the context of a multicultural city should be mindful that their own perceptions and values
diverge from those of their urban publics. This has been shown to be the case repeatedly, with
landscape and environmental professionals demonstrating aesthetic preference for wilder, less
colourful planting than the public. People with a personal migrant background or history of
migration in their family often perceive and experience urban nature differently to native
populations too. Native European or North American populations may hold a wilderness view of
nature, seeing it as a recreation ground, whereas people who have moved, to these regions from
elsewhere, or their parents or grandparents have moved, may perceive it more functionally,
associating it with rural landscapes and food production. The designer needs to tap into the values
and socio-cultural drivers of local communities to co-create healthy resilient places compatible with
local need.
One place where this is happening now, in a process of ‘iterative co-creation’ is Luton, Bedfordshire,
UK. Here researchers are working closely with the local Parks Service and a primary school to co-
produce an educational arboretum-meadow on a former mini-golf site in Wardown Park. The park
and primary school 100m across the road are in the High Town Ward of Luton. The ward has
significant BAME communities, with 17.9%* Asian/Asian British residents and 12.2%*
Black/African/Caribbean/Black British. In High Town there are 17.8% households where no people
have English as their main language, 18.6% residents over 16 have no qualifications and 30.8%
women are economically inactive. This public engagement project aims to connect local children
with nature whilst providing an educational resource for the wider community focusing on climate
change, the causes of pollution the value of trees and meadows, particularly in relation to air quality,
health and wellbeing, wildlife and biodiversity. Although interrupted by COVID-19 and school
closures, activities on-site with the children have involved tree-planting, sowing meadows,
measuring tree growth and identifying flower species. The process is described as ‘iterative co-
creation’ as additional partners, including the Landscape Institute and a landscape contractor have
been engaged and involved as it has developed. Additional funding via the LPA has enabled the
introduction of signage indicating the carbon capture of each tree species, a favourite with the
primary children, as well as outdoor classroom furniture. Local land-managers have already
incorporated learning from this project into wider strategies and practice, and landscape
professionals are championing it worldwide as a pilot project. It definitely provides a shining
example; a transferable case study in connecting local children with nature and insight into the
potential for public engagement initiatives within communities to contribute to “futureproofing”
towns and cities by building climate resilience.
References
Fischer, L.K., Honolda,J., Cvejićd, R., Delshammare, T., Hilbert,S., Lafortezzah,R., Nastrand, M.,
Nielsenj, A.B., Pintard,M. van der Jagt, A.P.N., Kowarika,I., (2018b). Beyond green: Broad support for
biodiversity in multicultural European Cities. Global Environmental Change 49 35-45
Hoyle, H., Hitchmough, J.D., & Jorgensen, A. (2017a). All about the ‘wow factor’? The relationships
between aesthetics, restorative effect and perceived biodiversity in designed urban planting.
Landscape and Urban Planning, 164, 109-123
Hoyle, H.E., Hitchmough, J.D., & Jorgensen, A. (2017c). Attractive, climate-adapted and sustainable?
Public perception of non-native planting in the designed urban landscape. Landscape and Urban
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Hoyle, H., Jorgensen, A., Warren, P., Dunnett, N. & Evans, K. (2017b). “Not in their front yard” The
opportunities and challenges of introducing perennial urban meadows: A local authority stakeholder
perspective. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 25, 139-149.
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(eds) Naturally Challenged: Contested Perceptions and Practices in Urban Green Spaces
  • H Hoyle
Hoyle, H. (2020). What Is Urban Nature and How Do We Perceive It? In: Dempsey N., Dobson J. (eds) Naturally Challenged: Contested Perceptions and Practices in Urban Green Spaces. Cities and Nature. Springer, Cham.