“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder” How do socio-cultural factors shape our preferences?

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…by Helen Hoyle

In my previous piece I discussed how the colour and degree of naturalness of planting in urban green spaces influence peoples’ perceptions and preferences. In addition, people with different socio-cultural backgrounds often experience the same type of planting differently, with some gaining greater wellbeing benefits from brightly coloured non-native meadows and others finding a more subtly coloured native perennial meadow more restorative.

‘Socio-cultural’ is a term used in research at the intersection of people and ‘nature’ to describe both socio-demographic characteristics, such as age, sex, and whether people have a background of migration from another country, and cultural factors including people’s deep underlying or held ‘values’ including ‘nature-connection’. There is strong evidence that peoples’ perceptions and preferences as expressed on a single day are strongly related to these underlying values.

My own research has generated some interesting learning in relation to gender differences in perceptions. Findings from 1400 participants who walked through woodlands, shrubs and herbaceous planting of different degrees of naturalness, indicate that women found the planting more mentally restorative than men1 and perceived higher levels of ‘naturalness’2 regardless of the style of planting they walked through. In our work on urban meadow introduction with local authority land managers in Bedfordshire3, we found that there was a preference for meadow style planting over traditional herbaceous and formal bedding styles, but the effect was stronger for women, concurring with earlier research conducted in the Netherlands showing that women were more appreciative of gardens than men, particularly wild and romantic ones, and that men were more likely to own a ‘manicured’ garden. Landscape, environmental and horticultural professionals also demonstrate contrasting perceptions and preferences to those of non-professionals. My own research has consistently shown that professionals find spending time in green spaces less restorative than other people, maybe because this is their usual ‘work’ environment. Professionals usually prefer a wilder more naturalistic style than other research participants, so need to be mindful of this when planning and designing green spaces for other people.

Researchers and practitioners supporting the ‘Biophilia hypothesis’ advocate that humans are hard-wired to bond closely with the natural world. Yet we all know people, particularly those living in urban areas, to which this does not apply. For some first-generation migrants with BAME backgrounds, ‘nature’ may appear too wild, dirty and inhospitable. This applies within some communities in Luton, Bedfordshire, where the I am now working with a local primary school to introduce an arboretum-meadow.  My own research has shown that people who are more ‘nature-connected’ both appreciate the aesthetic qualities of different green spaces and feel more mentally restored than the less nature-connected. This raises important questions. Should we ‘educate’ urban communities to know more about nature, thereby making them more nature-connected, so they can experience heightened wellbeing benefits from ‘nature’? An alternative view is that ‘contact, emotion, compassion, meaning and beauty are pathways to nature-connection.’4 I strongly support this view that ‘nature connection’ / ’nature orientation’ / ‘ecocentricity’ is developed through individual or community experiences over the life-course, often with roots in childhood experiences of nature within urban woodlands and greenspaces. During my own research, participants expressing appreciation for woodlands in Fairlands Valley Park Stevenage, Hertfordshire, recounted visits to Monks Wood 50 years ago as children, or more recent visits with grandchildren to create imaginary woodland characters and stories.

Stevenage residents demonstrated strong place attachment to Monk’s Wood, often forged through childhood play or visits with their own grandchildren

During the COVID-19 pandemic more people have done physical activity and sought mental restoration in parks and greenspaces than ever before. In the months to come, as lockdown eases further, it will be interesting to see if people continue to use and value these spaces, and whether this impacts on their nature-connection.

1Hoyle et al. (2017). 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


2Hoyle et al. (2019).  What determines how we see nature? Perceptions of naturalness in designed urban green spaces. People Nat.; 00:1–14.


3Southon et al. (2017). Biodiverse perennial meadows have aesthetic value and increase residents’ perceptions of site quality in urban green-space. Landscape and Urban Planning, 158, 105-118.


4Lumber et al. (2017) Beyond knowing nature: Contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty are pathways to nature connection* E-mail: ryan.lumber@dmu.ac.ukAffiliation School of Applied Social Sciences, De Montfort University, Leicester, United Kingdom . http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0177186

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