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Book by Dr Rebecca Crowther – Wellbeing and Self-Transformation in Natural Landscapes

This book explores how natural landscapes are linked to positive mental wellbeing. While natural landscapes have long been represented and portrayed as transformative, the link to mental wellbeing is an area that researchers are still aiming to comprehend. Accompanying five groups of people to rural Scotland, the author considers individual, external and group motivations for journeying from urban environments, examining in what ways these excursions are personally and socially transformative. 
Far more than traversing mere physical boundaries, this book illustrates the new challenges, experiences, territories and cultures provided by these excursions, firmly anchored in the Scottish countryside. In doing so, the author questions the extent to which people’s own narratives link to the perception that the outdoors are positively transformative – and what indeed does have the power to influence transformation. 
Grounded in extensive qualitative research, this contemplative and ethnographic book will be of interest and value to students and scholars of the outdoors and its connection to wellbeing. 

Dr Rebecca Crowther is a transdisciplinary ethnographic researcher working between, across and beyond disciplines within the arts, humanities and social sciences. Her research interests lie in the phenomenological experience of natural landscapes.



Introducing Jung-Hwa Kim, Postdoctoral Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH)

OPENspace is pleased to host Jung-Hwa Kim and welcome her to the University of Edinburgh. Her research explores contemporary landscape architecture, the redevelopment of botanical gardens, showing them as the theatre of plants; an emblem of the human relationship with nature. She will be reviewing the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, as well as others in the UK. In this blog post you can find out more about Kim and her research project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH).


Jung-Hwa Kim is a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at the University of Edinburgh and a Visiting Researcher of the Environmental Planning Institute at the Seoul National University. Before launching her academic career, Kim worked as a landscape architect in several design firms in Seoul, Korea. She holds a PhD in Engineering and has received an MLA and a BS in Agriculture from the Seoul National University. She has previously served as a lecturer at the Graduate Landscape Architecture Programme of Gachon University in South Korea in 2015 and 2017 and as a short-term fellow at the International Centre for Jefferson Studies in the US. Her scholarly interest focuses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century landscape history and global, contemporary landscape architecture. Her work explores the global transfer of ideas and the role of politics, technology, and plants in the field.

Research Project at IASH

  1. Outline

Since their origin as teaching gardens at medical universities, botanical gardens have functioned as a platform to collect and display plants for educational purposes. They have served as living ‘encyclopaedias’ showing knowledge about nature, as exemplified by the title page of Theatrum Botanicum by the famed seventeenth-century herbalist and botanist John Parkinson.

However, the role of botanical gardens is changing and expanding today. Botanical gardens in the 21st century not only contribute to the spread of knowledge about plants but also inspire people to take steps to conserve or cultivate plants. The new social role of botanical gardens requires fresh modes of nature and display. Accordingly, landscape architecture studios have created innovative botanical displays. As a result, many historic botanical gardens have been reinvented through new master plans. The redevelopment of botanical gardens is especially prominent in the United Kingdom, which possesses many botanical gardens with a long history.

At IASH at the University of Edinburgh, her research project aims to explore a phenomenon in contemporary landscape architecture, the reinvention of botanical gardens, by placing it in a longer lineage to show botanical gardens as the theatre of plants, an emblem of the human relationship with nature. She will review recent master-plan projects of botanical gardens in the UK, such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

  1. Previous accomplishments

Kim has studied the history of botanical gardens in Korea, with an emphasis on the transnational transfer of ideas, technology, and plants. By reviewing the introduction of Neo-Confucianism and the change of perspective on nature and plants in the thirteenth century Kora, she has revealed that the interest in native medicinal plants had grown and promoted to establish royal physic gardens. Through a review of Korean intellectuals’ visits to botanical gardens in the West from 1876 to 1910, she has found that establishing gardens was regarded as a means of civilisation. In an analysis of the Changgyeongwon Botanical Garden from 1910 to 1945, she has shown that the first botanical garden in Korea played a role in developing knowledge and taste.

As a short-term fellow at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies in Virginia, US, in March 2018, she has investigated the background and significance of Thomas Jefferson’s Botanical Garden at the University of Virginia. Furthermore, she has participated in planning the Seoul Botanic Park, which will open to the public this year.

  1. Relevance to Edinburgh and collaborative outcomes

The UK contains many historic botanical gardens, such as the Oxford Botanic Garden, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Chelsea Physic Garden. Edinburgh is a central city in the network of Scottish botanical gardens, with the second oldest botanical garden, Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh. Edinburgh is also home to the GROSS. MAX. design studio, which proposed a new master plan for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (ESALA) at the Edinburgh College of Art already has a good working relationship with the Botanical Garden Edinburgh and regularly holds classes there. This would also provide her with the opportunity to contact Edinburgh-based landscape architecture studios. Through collaborations with ESALA, she will access the previously networked botanic gardens in Edinburgh and practitioners, which are essential resources for her research.

In collaboration with OPENspace she will develop seminars/workshops about design approaches to the issues of health and well-being in botanical gardens.

World Cities Day, 2018, we’re launching our animation and infographic about research into woods and wellbeing in Scotland

Today, on World Cities Day 2018, we’re launching our animation and infographic about research into woods and wellbeing in Scotland.

We’ve worked with a fantastic team: animator Kevin Rob ( and illustrator Sophie Powell-Hall ( to create this summary of research that’s been conducted on woods and wellbeing in Scotland. In particular, we focus on a study we recently completed that examines the impact of Forestry Commission Scotland’s ‘Woods In and Around Towns’ (WIAT) programme on community stress levels, funded by NIHR, which is forthcoming (

We were able to produce the animation and infographic from funding awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Working with partners Forestry Commission Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage we have been working on a project to share findings from the WIAT study more widely on social media. We hope that you find it useful and interesting – please use and circulate widely!

The funding also allows us to host a seminar to present evidence on the health and wellbeing benefits and challenges in enhancing access to woodlands and natural environments, including presentations on the Woods In and Around Towns NIHR research study in more detail. The seminar will include contributions from Forest Research, Scottish Natural Heritage, and key international speakers. Those with an interest in how woodlands and the natural environment can be used to improve public health and wellbeing should watch this space for more details coming soon…

Mobility Mood and Place Film shortlisted for Prestigious National Award

Edinburgh filmmaker shortlisted for prestigious national Award

A film made by Catharine Ward Thompson and her team has been shortlisted for the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s prestigious 2018 Research in Film Awards.

The film, called ‘Mobility, Mood and Place – key findings’, has made the shortlist for the Social Media Short Award. 

Nearly 150 films were submitted for the Awards this year and the overall winner for each category, who will receive £2,000 towards their filmmaking, will be announced at a special ceremony at 195 Piccadilly in London, home of BAFTA, on 8 November.

Launched in 2015, the Research in Film Awards celebrate short films, up to 30 minutes long, that have been made about the arts and humanities and their influence on our lives.

There are five categories in total with four of them aimed at the research community and one open to the public.

Filmmaker Catharine Ward Thompson, said: “The film illustrates key findings from our Mobility, Mood and Place project. It shows how the planning and design of everyday environments can support healthy and active ageing, and is aimed at everyone, from politicians to the general public. It was produced by animator Kevin Morris, with the support of our Mobility, Mood and Place communicator Máire Cox, and reflects findings from across our expert multidisciplinary team of researchers.  We are delighted that it has been so well received, by policy-makers, planning officers and third sector groups, and that the Arts and Humanities Research Council have recognised its merits by shortlisting it for this award.”

Mike Collins, Head of Communications at the Arts and Humanities Research Council, said: “The standard of filmmaking in this year’s Research in Film Awards has been exceptionally high and the range of themes covered span the whole breadth of arts and humanities subjects.

“While watching the films I was so impressed by the careful attention to detail and rich storytelling that the filmmakers had used to engage their audiences. The quality of the shortlisted films further demonstrates the fantastic potential of using film as a way to communicate and engage people with academic research. Above all, the shortlist showcases the art of filmmaking as a way of helping us to understand the world that we live in today.”

A team of judges watched the longlisted films in each of the categories to select the shortlist and ultimately the winner. Key criteria included looking at how the filmmakers came up with creative ways of telling stories – either factual or fictional – on camera that capture the importance of arts and humanities research to all of our lives.

Judges for the 2018 Research in Film Awards include Joanna Norman, Director of the V&A Research Institute, Steve Harding-Hill, Creative Director in Commercials and Short Form at Aardman Animation and Dorothy Byrne, Head of News & Current Affairs, Channel 4 News. [3]

The winning films will be shared on the Arts and Humanities Research Council website and YouTube channel. On 8 November you’ll be able to follow the fortunes of the shortlisted films on Twitter via the hashtag #RIFA2018.






OPENspace research makes the French press

Our research study, ‘Mobility, Mood and Place’ (MMP), was featured in several French newspapers on Sunday 9th September including: Liberation, l’Express, and Sciences et Avenir.

In an article about landscape and wellbeing, the findings from the MMP study were reported as follows:

In Scotland, researchers have asked people in their 70s about the environment they live in and the landscapes they have visited since their childhood in the 1930s.

These testimonies were analysed alongside maps displaying health and socio-economic data from the archives of Edinburgh and its region. “We concluded that visiting public parks during childhood and adulthood can slow cognitive decline in older people, and this finding was even more pronounced for women and people from disadvantaged backgrounds,” summarizes landscape architect Catharine Ward Thompson.

The same thing was found for depression and anxiety. “Access to green spaces can reduce social inequalities in terms of health,” says the director of OPENspace Research Centre.

Access the full article here…


What is Nature anyway? A guest blog by teaching and research assistant, Agnès Patuano.

Since joining us as a PhD student in 2009, Agnès Patuano has become a valued member of the OPENspace team. She has worked on a number of research projects and, as a teaching assistant, has helped develop and deliver our MSc in Landscape and Wellbeing. Having recently successfully defended her PhD thesis, Agnès has been reflecting on the positioning of her research within the field of landscape preference. In this guest blog, she shares what she’s learned and the questions left unanswered…

When I finished my Masters in Landscape Design and Engineering, the one question I had started with and hoped to solve was still left unanswered: Why do people like Nature? Why do they need it and what is it that they find in it? It seems to me like that question should have been the starting point for all landscape architects. After all, if we are to provide Nature where there’s none, shouldn’t we care what type of it will be best for us and most able to meet our needs? Yet very few of my peers were as concerned as I was over it.

Over the years, my question found a home within the field of landscape preference, somewhere in the overlap of landscape architecture and environmental psychology. Studies in the field offer some elements of answers to questions such as mine, but also to others such as: why do people go where they go, or live where they live? Within the discipline, perceptual issues are tackled by assessing how to maximise the positive responses attached to an object, as it is easier to measure which object is preferred and why, than to precisely measure how cognitive perception operates. By focussing on the direct application of preference decision processes, the findings often have many far-reaching implications, for planners and developers but also health professionals and economists.

Community Woodlands

A community woodland in Scotland

Throughout my PhD studies on the topic, and my work as a research assistant at OPENspace, I discovered a lot of evidence for the salutogenic properties of Nature. Therefore, my initial question found some answers but many more questions, big and small, arose as well to keep it company: Do all people like Nature equally? And what is Nature anyway? Can we measure it?

Looking at the definition of the word, it is clear Nature has been used over time to refer to many different aspects of human and non-human life. Currently, the Oxford English Dictionary lists 27 definitions of Nature, which speaks volumes as to the multitude of meanings of the word. Often, it is reduced to a dichotomy, which mirrors the “nature versus culture” debate. In this dichotomy, Nature is defined as anything that has not been created by humans. However, if “natural” describes “everything that is born or grows”, then surely it must include humans as well?

The lack of precise definition applies to other words derived from Nature as well. For example, naturalness, an element often cited in landscape preference studies as being critical for positive perceptions, is instinctively understood as “the quality of being natural”. The Oxford English Dictionary still offers seven definitions for the term, the most relevant being “The quality of possessing the distinctive features of a naturally occurring object, landscape, etc.: the appearance of being unchanged or unspoilt by human intervention.” However, as virtually every landscape in the modern world has been shaped by humans, that standard is near impossible to reach. Other definitions have included references to “a perceived natural state”, which might be more accurate but implies that naturalness can only ever be perceived and is therefore subjective and context-dependent. More importantly, the ability for us to perceive Nature is unclear if what is meant by Nature is unclear. In this case, our perception might as well be imagination and the best definition of naturalness becomes: “how likely a landscape is to be perceived as natural”.

In an effort to clarify and quantify these concepts, my PhD centred around the application of a mathematical approach to describing natural forms: Fractal Geometry. Its basic principle rests on the use of iterative equations to create shapes that repeat infinitely. That process is a good analogy for natural phenomena such as growth or erosion, which turn small shapes into larger copies of themselves and vice-versa.

In my research, I have tried to measure the fractal properties of landscape photographs and found that under certain circumstances they correlated with human preference. Some of these properties were also able to numerically discriminate between different types of vegetation, which shows similitudes to the way we perceive Nature and naturalness. However, the application of the method has its limitations, as fractals are only models and do not exactly represent natural shapes. Once again, many more questions were raised than answered through that inquiry: Can we really see Nature? And how accurate are our measurements if there is no way to define accuracy? Is it linked with ecological soundness? Are there several Natures?

Now I know it is the sign of a successful researcher to have more questions at the end than what they started with. As Socrates thought, all I know for sure is that I know nothing. Despite my utter lack of absolute certainty, I am very proud to have been able to help develop and deliver a MSc programme on Landscape & Wellbeing for Masters students who carry the same burning question I had when I started: Why is Nature good for us? I am still hoping that if we put all our heads together, we might one day figure it out.

If you want to hear more about my research, I am presenting the next OPENspace seminar series on 22nd January, with a talk titled “Quantifying the Naturalness and Complexity of Landscape Photographs using their Fractal Dimensions.”

> Find out more about the OPENspace seminar series


Looking back at our fourth international conference

Earlier this month, over 100 delegates joined us in Edinburgh to discuss research on Habitats for Happy and Healthy Ageing at our fourth international conference.

We were delighted to welcome a wonderful mix of established and early career researchers from ten European countries, Australia, Canada, China, South Korea, Colombia, and the USA.

Over the course of 50 presentations, including three keynotes and four plenaries, we also heard from research collaborators and co-designers who work outside of academia, including in national and local government, industry and the not-for-profit sector, leading to rich dialogue about the use of research findings in policy and practice.

The final day took us out of the conference centre to a range of sites and resources around Edinburgh, with our delegates joining students and local older people in workshops on ‘designing for dementia’, ‘urban brainwear’ and ‘places, then and now’.

An enormously important contribution to thinking and approaches

The scene was set for our conference by Professor Dorothy Miell, Vice-Principal and Head of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, who gave a warm welcome to delegates at our opening reception.

Each full day was opened by a guest speaker, beginning with Sarah Davidson, Director General (Communities), Scottish Government, who spoke of older age as a “dynamic and productive phase of life for us all” and described the conference as “an enormously important contribution to the thinking and approaches we can employ in response to [this] ageing society”.

We heard from Dr Heidrun Mollenkopf, Vice President of AGE Platform Europe and Member of the AGE Universal Accessibility and Independent Living Expert Group, and from Dr Anne Jepson, a Senior Researcher at the Scottish Parliament Information Centre.

Our keynote speakers were Professor Billie Giles-Corti (Australia), Professor Sarah Wigglesworth (Sheffield) and Professor Gloria Gutman (Canada).

Catharine Ward Thompson appointed Honorary Professor at the University of Exeter Medical School

Our Director, Catharine Ward Thompson, has been appointed an Honorary Professor at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health (ECEHH).

Launched in May 2011, and led by Professor Lora Fleming, the Centre is part of the University of Exeter Medical School.

ECEHH research falls into two major areas: emerging threats to health and wellbeing posed by the environment; and the health and wellbeing benefits the natural environment can provide.

Catharine’s three-year appointment marks a strengthening of links between OPENspace and ECEHH which builds on previous knowledge exchange activities, such as the Blue Mind Summit, Sara Warber’s study visit to Edinburgh, and the two-day meeting Fostering Sustainable Environments for Improving Future Health and Wellbeing.

Visit the European Centre for Environment and Human Health website

Catharine at a conference dinner