Aesthetics Theory

The article Aesthetic Responses to Urban Greenway Trail Environments (Chon and Shafer 2009) defines and describes methods used to measure what makes a “likeable landscape” by pinpointing 5 aspects which influence human aesthetic responses, including: maintenance, distinctiveness, naturalness, pleasantness and arousal. Their research shows that perceived pleasantness and distinctiveness contribute most to the likeability of landscapes followed by arousal and naturalness, with maintenance contributing least. The strong favoring of pleasantness by participants indicates that the “less stressful, hostile and dangerous” a landscape seems to humans, the more likeable we will find it. The favoring of distinctiveness indicates that landscapes deemed “unique, unusual and complex” are more likeable. The limited importance of maintenance as an influence on aesthetic response suggests that “tidiness, cleanliness, and orderliness” is least important to understanding likeability of a landscape. The research of Chon and Shafer also supports that likeable landscapes include “preferable landscape features” (i.e. water bodies), contain a “high degree of vegetation management” and offer unobstructed views of the surrounding environment. In addition, their research maintains that landscapes with “visually intrusive features” (i.e. overpasses or nearby roadways) are less likeable.

Many theories about landscape aesthetics assert that human response to quality consists of three parts: cognitive evaluation, affective response and changes in behavior (Russell and Snodgrass, 1989; Izard, 1977). Cognitive evaluation is defined an assessment of qualities, while affective response consists of an emotional reaction. A chart below outlines other research regarding landscape aesthetics and the different way cognitive evaluation and affective responses impact landscape perceptions.

Credit Key Finding Elements
Lynch (1960) identity, structure and meaning à environmental images “imageability”


Paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks.


Appleyard (1976)

Evans et al. (1982)

Distinctiveness of form, relative visibility, symbolic significance.


Nasar (1998) Likeable places in cities have two components: city form (imaginability) and positive human evaluative response (affect). (+) Naturalness, upkeep, openness, historical significance and order.
(-) poles, wires, poor maintenance, lack of coherent style
Heath et al. (2000) Aesthetic qualities influence desirability as a destination .


Appleton (1975) Prospect-Refuge Theory


We prefer places where we can see while being out of sight.
Kaplan & Kaplan (1989)


Landscape Preference Matrix Coherence x complexity legibility x mystery


In my opinion, the most striking finding of Chon and Shafer’s research is that maintenance proves to be the least influential aspect of aesthetic response, suggesting that some “messiness” may be acceptable along trail corridors. This seems to counter existing research, specifically theories which discuss “natural aesthetic” opposed to “ecological aesthetic”. The essay Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames (Nassauer 1995) speaks of the disconnect between messy ecological systems and what is perceived as natural beauty by humans. I find this to have a clear association to our work with the College of Veterinary Medicine. Our client at present is torn between a desire to have the campus maintain a professional and well-kept “aesthetic” while on the other hand, fostering ecological health. They are weary of creating “weed-patches” that reflect poorly the professionalism of the college for visitors to the campus. Chon and Shafer conducted their research over a decade more recently than Nassauer. Chon and Shafer may suggest a shift in opinions about the value of ecologically rich landscapes, Nassaur’s statement about “orderly frames” may simply be out of date. By educating the Vet Med College of this current research, the stakeholders may be more comfortable including increased numbers of native prairie plants in the landscape of their campus.



Chon, J. & C. S. Shafer (2009) Aesthetic Responses to Urban Greenway Trail Environments. Landscape Research 34(1): 83-104. DOI: 10.1080/01426390802591429.

Appleton, J. (1975) The Experience of Landscape (London, Wiley).

Appleyard, D (1976) Planning a Pluralist City: Conflicting Realities in Ciudad Guayana      (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
Evans, G., Smith, C. & Pezdek, K. (1982) Cognitive maps and urban form. Journal of American      Planning Association 48:232-244.

Heath, T., Smith, S. G. & Lim, B. (2000) Tall buildings and the urban skyline: the effect of visual         complexity on preference. Environment and Behavior 32(4):541-556.

Izard, C. E. 1977 Human Emotions (New York, Plenum).

Kaplan, R. & Kaplan, S. (1989) The Experience of Nature (New York, Cambridge, University Press).

Lynch, K. (1960) The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

Nasar, J.L. (1998) The Evaluative Image of the City (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE).

Nassauer, J.I. (1995) Messy Ecosystems, Orderly frames. Landscape Journal 14(2):161-170.

Russell, J.A. & Snodgrass J. (1989) Emotion and environment, D. Stokols & I. Altman (Eds)    Handbook of Environmental Psychology (New York, Wiley).



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