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