Clash of values at crux of debate over landscape aesthetics

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Scenic landscapes -- the type most people reportedly enjoy most -- are increasingly falling out of fashion in some quarters. And that view may be out of focus, according to Russ Parsons, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"Beautiful landscapes are under attack, and they have been for some time," Parsons and University of Arizona professor Terry C. Daniel wrote in a paper published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. "Government social scientists, landscape architects and environmental ethicists have all decried the management of public lands for 'scenic' aesthetics."

Since the 1970s, Parsons notes, opponents of the traditional aesthetic have been pushing to replace it with a model that embraces land-management goals based on "ecological aesthetics." In other words, they're promoting more biologically diverse landscapes that may not be as visually appealing to humans, but which favor sustainability of the land.

"At the heart of it is a clash of values," Parsons said, calling the all-or-nothing approach advocated by many proponents of the ecological aesthetic "wrong-headed." In their paper, Parsons and Daniel present historical, psychological and even neurobiological arguments to make their case.

One of the problems, the researchers note, springs from the ecological aestheticians' view that scenic preferences are "superficial sociocultural constructions derived from 17th century landscape painting and aesthetic theory." Widely reported preferences for such landscapes -- similar to Olmsted's design for Central Park, with open spaces, low ground cover, water features and clumps of trees -- are perceived by ecological aestheticians as shallow and conducive to passive experiences, leading designers to design landscapes for "the lowest common denominator."

In contrast, Parsons said, encounters with highly sustainable settings supposedly are more

Contact: Melissa Mitchell
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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