The Benefits of Open Space:  Chapter 4


Nora J. Rubinstein, Ph.D.

There's a yearning that can be expressed as a place more simply than as a feeling: for beauty, rest, purity, transfiguration...  It can be like this with the land....  Most of us live in cities. Nature as we define it, is where we go on vacation. Wilderness is what our lives are not: noble, quiet, unhurried...  We go backpacking to get away from the content of our lives, to forget what we've become. ...  So, wilderness is about as far from life as we can make it. We'd rather it was over the horizon...  So we won't have to alter our ways. So that we can lie to ourselves, that in spite of what we do, someplace, somewhere is safe.
(Rawlins 1992, 4-5)

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Like the wilderness, our values for open space may be elusive. As individuals, we know what we seek when we take a walk through a pristine landscape, climb a mountain or find a place along the shore to be with friends. It may be a desire for solitude or intimacy, challenge or repair, transcendence or escape. We also know what we feel when we return to the rituals of our daily lives, whether more at peace, re-energized, or reluctant. But other goals that are harder to verbalize are no less important to our quality of life. They may include the smell of a seasonal bloom, the aesthetics of the sequence of vegetation and clearing that lies along a path, or the mere knowledge that the open space exists--whether or not we use it.

The discovery that such "sacred" places have been lost through development, overuse or neglect may have significant effects on both individual and community.1 But if it is difficult to define the benefits of landscape, it may seem impossible to objectively evaluate their loss when compared to a balance sheet of financial returns of new housing or legislated "easements." If we are to retain, maintain and plan additional parks and stream corridors; if we believe that our encounters with the natural world provide something of personal and societal value beyond ecological and economic benefits, we must find some means of describing the value of open space in terms that are reliable and valid, expedient and acceptable to both advocates and adversaries.

Perhaps we can expand the traditional concept of carrying capacity 2 to measure the degree to which our emotional, cognitive, even physiological needs are met by open space. Such a "psychological carrying capacity" would measure existing and proposed spaces against the requirements and uses of current and projected users, assessing whether the amount and type of existing open space is inadequate, sufficient or redundant3. We would need to know what balance of activities or development perpetuates or interferes with optimal experience of such places. We would need to determine whether all those who use nature and open space need the same kinds of places, or for that matter, whether all people desire open space access4. We have answers to some of these questions, but many are still being explored.

DEFINITIONS: What is open space?

We must begin by defining "open space" because to explore the range of natural and "designed" spaces and their uses is to bear witness to an American obsession 5. The types of open spaces range from extensive wilderness zones that host relatively few people per acre (Gibson 1979; Graber 1976; Kaplan, Talbot 1983) to the green belts that surround towns like Boulder, Colorado or the 37,000 acre park system of Portland, Oregon or the river walk through the heart of San Antonio, Texas. Open space research has examined the more modest urban and suburban parks and plazas that can absorb the recreation and relaxation of thousands in a weekend6 as well as physically constrained "vest-pocket parks" like Greenacre Park or Paley Park in midtown Manhattan, small, concrete spaces with trees and water that host hundreds during the course of a lunch hour (Altman, Zube 1989; Francis 1987; Taylor 1979; Whyte 1988). Open space research has also examined urban community gardens (Malakoff 1995) and personal gardens in urban, suburban and rural communities (Relf 1992)7. Some city gardeners have even created green oases of vegetables and flowers on their fire-escapes and roofs8 and New York's Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has launched a tree counting program at the behest of ex-Parks Commissioner and "life long tree-lover" Henry Stern (Bumiller 1995). Is it reasonable to include such diverse spaces under the rubric of open space?

Researchers have adopted both theoretical and pragmatic approaches to defining open space, in an effort to determine whether what we find compelling in wilderness shares anything with city plazas and other open spaces. Wohlwill (1983) juxtaposed the natural environment with that which is "built, artificial or man-made" (Wohlwill 1983). He defined the natural environment as:

...the vast domain of organic and inorganic matter that is not a product of human activity or intervention...It includes the world of rock and sand, of shoreline, desert, woods, mountains, etc., and the diverse manifestations of plant and animal life that are encountered there. It excludes the man-made world: our cities and towns, our houses and factories, along with the diverse implements devised by mankind, for transport, recreation, commerce, and other human needs (7).

While acknowledging that some places fall on the borderline between these two idealized extremes, Wohlwill's definition focused on landscape in the absence of human intervention, a position that is problematic given the actual interdependence of people and nature9.

This has given rise to another view of the natural environment, as part of a broad continuum of "sustainable communities," integrated with their populations. Sullivan (1992) proposed an approach which defined open space in terms of its land-use including "greenbelts of undeveloped forest land and open space, along with nearby wetlands and agricultural lands." This perspective may reflect more of the spaces nature-seekers actually use and may underscore the need for regional land-use planning which considers open spaces as part of a broad web of human activity and ecology, from private to public, from intensive use to neglect10.

But in basing both of these models in ecology and the impact of use patterns on the character of the land, the impact and meaning of open space for users has been neglected. This is a subtle but crucial shift in emphasis. It suggests first, that nature is valuable to the extent that it supports particular recreation and restorative activities, and second, that there is an inherent value in our access to nature and open space, which exceeds the uses to which we put it. Kaplan and Kaplan (1983) wrote:

"[For residents] the question of the salient categories of nature can be answered in part in terms of the kind of activities that people engage in near their homes. From this perspective, areas that permit nature walks, relatively large open areas for playing, children's play areas, and protected areas for sitting outside constitute different kinds of natural environments (1983, 141)."

For these users, the natural environment is effective to the degree that it is expedient. John Hendee identified the dominant pattern of recreational use as the "social campground," noting that for the majority of park users, landscape and scenic values are secondary to the desire for a particular type of social interaction centered on family recreation, in which "a weekend wave of social campers develops rapidly into a micro-community [and]...the expense of a camper vehicle and the ambience of the campground limit social contact with undesirables11."

But Driver et al (1978) have suggested that while most research focuses on the reasons for actively engaging in recreation activities at public natural areas, these studies ignore the benefits of the areas themselves. There is now data that indicates that even the passive viewing of natural environments has both physiological and psychological benefits with broad ranging implications (Ulrich 1984; Verderber 1986).

The user-based approach permits researchers to take an inductive case study approach to the analysis of open space, by examining attitudes toward specific types of spaces and attempting to determine the shared qualities of preferred environments. The Kaplans (1989) have studied attitudes toward the wilderness, scenic routes, the varied landscapes along the route of a storm drain, and "nearby nature" including the plantings used by developers to attract residential buyers. With Ulrich (1983) and others, they have determined that favored landscapes include water, dense vegetation with a cleared understory, deflected vistas, even and homogeneous ground surface textures, landscapes of moderate to high complexity and moderate to high levels of depth, with temporal variety12. However, much of this research has examined attitudes by surveying subjects who view juxtaposed color slides of vegetated natural environments with non-vegetated urban ones. This dichotomy reflects neither the design of most urban parks and plazas that incorporate a moderate amount of vegetation, nor the fact that city-dwellers must and do find solace and respite in just such plazas and local parks.

In response to the need for information on the benefits of urban open space, a host of studies have examined the use of public spaces with limited or moderate vegetation located in the heart of metropolitan areas (Altman, Zube 1989; Francis 1987; Jackson 1979; Taylor 1979). These studies have described the power of the urban park or plaza to reduce stress, act as a social facilitator and encourage community cohesion. They play a significant role in the lives of urban dwellers with less access to the more vegetated landscape and provide societal benefits not available to those using areas where social contact is dispersed (Brill, 1989).

These ecological and user-based conceptual approaches then, raise crucial questions for planners, politicians and preservationists who allocate funds and legislate open space, and whose views of landscape may differ radically from those of the users. Are landscapes-- whether developed or preserved-- to be planned on the basis of ecology, economics, and use patterns alone, or do we also need to account for their meaning in psycho-cognitive, behavioral and symbolic terms, to current and projected users13? If we are to adopt this broader view which incorporates ecology, activity and meaning, then there are benefits of open space at any and all levels, ranging from the intimate to the awe-inspiring. Writing on place attachment, Riley said, "Landscape I use in a broad, naive sense, as a setting for human experience and activity. In scale, it might be described as 'larger than a household but smaller than one of earth's biogeographical regions'" (1992, 13). Therefore, this paper will also examine the broadest continuum of open spaces, from eco-based to activity-based, from personal to public, and from those sustained by clear and substantial manipulation, design and intervention, to those that reflect little or none. The rationale for this approach stems from an arguable assumption that many, if not all, of the benefits of open space may be achieved in a variety of types of environments and at different scales. While all landscapes may not be perceived as of equivalent character or quality, there are striking echoes of similar use patterns and attitudes toward the outdoors across the spectrum.


The Origin of the Species

Some researchers maintain that these echoes are not mere coincidence, but rather a reflection of an innate, survival-based dependence on nature. They suggest that we carry within us, a kind of predisposition that mandates our awareness of the potential of any landscape to nourish and shelter us (Driver & Greene, 1977; Kaplan & Talbot, 1983; Ulrich, 1983)14 describes this as a "psychoevolutionary framework" and examines those landscapes that people identify as preferred, for qualities that make them more likely to sustain life. In the Kaplans' classic book, The Experience of Nature (1983), the authors emphatically maintained that "Preference can be expected to be greater for settings in which an organism is likely to thrive and [be] diminished for those in which it may be harmed or rendered ineffective. Thus humans are more likely to prefer a setting in which they can function effectively (10)."

The Metaphysical Bond

Others suggest that we have translated our survival needs into a more spiritual or metaphysical need for landscapes that are based in, but no longer tied to, our evolution. Paul Shepard related our attraction to the natural landscape to ontogenesis and parenting (Shepard 1977). Margaret Mead cited Edith Cobb's classic work on childhood saying, "Cobb suggests that we must think about a human capacity that is just as basic, and just as necessary to human well-being (though not to mere survival) as food and drink. She called this the 'necessary relationship to the natural world--the satisfaction of a cosmic sense'....Edith Cobb...identified the 'cosmic sense' with breathing" (Mead 1977, 20).

Nature as Instrumental: The means to an end

But not all researchers see the attraction to natural spaces and the "out-of-doors" as innate, choosing instead to interpret the relationship as more pragmatic or "instrumental," a term that suggests our attraction to landscape may be nothing more than a means to an end, or a rational solution to a goal (Westover 1989)15. The outdoors is valued because it provides for the individual's desired physical or emotional nourishment or recreation, and we differ only in how much we need the outdoors to meet our own individual goals. We fish or hunt for food; we mountain climb or cross-country ski or go river rafting because it is a form of recreation at which we excel. We challenge ourselves in activities that stress body and mind.

The development of Outward Bound expeditions is a classic example of the use of the natural environment to test one's mettle16. A recent end-of-course survey based on 7,943 questionnaires asked participants how they felt about their skill levels, and 86 percent said that indeed they "had learned the outdoor skills" they had wanted and 95 percent said that they had acquired stronger outdoor skills as a result of their participation (Sakofs, 1994). Kaplan and Kaplan (1992) echoed this position in evaluating the journals of students on a wilderness expedition developed along the lines of the Outward Bound programs. They noted that participants expressed a strong desire to change in the direction of greater independence, self-discipline, patience, and self-reliance.

This "functional" or "instrumental" position was reflected in Knopf's (1983) study of the values of two types of wilderness backpackers--experienced hikers interested in escape and self-awareness vs. inexperienced hikers who socialized in larger groups and were less accepting of land-use regulations that would restrict their activity. Knopf suggested that the recreationist is a "purposive actor" seeking an optimal and instrumental relationship with the environment (Vining 1992). Like others, he emphasized the differences in our views of the outdoors, rather than our consensus.

Some researchers identify personal experience as critical to the development of an interest in the natural environment, implying that our idiosyncratic environmental histories lie at the heart of our connections to nature, rather than some innate or cosmic bond. Others focus on the role of culture. Ladd (1977) wrote:

"...early environmental experiences in both natural and built environments are of profound significance in determining future environmental requirements and environmental satisfactions, ...significant developmental tasks require experience in natural and built environments, and the quality of environments influences the level at which the tasks can be carried out...[and] environmental requirements are relative. They depend on an individual's culture, personal history, and perceptions of the range of environments available" (15).

Nature as Symbol

Finally, our relationship to the landscape may stem from a desire, conscious or not, to see ourselves reflected in built or natural forms. The manner in which we plan our landscapes from lawn to wilderness17 may provide symbolic "information," communicating our lifestyles and culture, our economy, religions and personal and societal mythos. In one of a series of books describing landscape as a text that can be "read," J. B. Jackson (1994) wrote,

"Since the beginning of history, humanity has modified and scarred the environment to convey some message...For our own peace of mind we should learn to differentiate among those wounds inflicted by greed and destructive fury, those which serve to keep us alive and those which are inspired by a love of order and beauty, in obedience to some divine law."

What then do we think of a society that chooses to develop rather than preserve its land? Can we read its priorities in the state of its forests and the cleanliness of its water18? Yi-Fu Tuan (1974) suggested that changes in agricultural land use also reflect technological innovation, new trends in marketing, and food preferences, a theme echoed by Driver and Greene (1977) who suggested that contact with nature is a critical "equilibrating" counterpart to the advancement of technology (Abbott, cited in Catton, 1983.)19

In contrast, a number of researchers suggest that the value of nature is in its "nonresponsive" character, that is, humans seem small and insignificant in face of the timeless sea-scape or mountain vista. Our symbols are transitory and powerless in the face of nature's awesome power. In comparison, our problems seem unimportant or manageable. Wohlwill (1983) wrote:

"This failure of the wilderness to be in any way moved by the person entering it may indeed be at the heart of the restorative powers claimed for it. More particularly, it could readily account for the feeling of freedom and oneness with nature engendered by the wilderness--where the individual experiences so little reaction or acknowledgment of his or her own presence that the boundaries between the self and the environment become muted and lose definition" (25).

Benefits of Open Space

Whatever the origin of the symbiotic relationship between people and their natural world--whether based in evolution or in something more pragmatic; whether a symbolic reflection of us or counterposed to our manipulations--it is clear that there are measurable benefits to such access. They include both the physiological and psychological impacts of nature.

Physiological Benefits

Research on the physiological role of open space centers on the manner in which direct or vicarious experience with the vegetated landscape reduces stress, arousal, and anxiety. In a broad series of studies spanning nearly 20 years, Roger Ulrich and others have linked photo simulations of the natural environment to reduced stress levels as measured by physiological indicators such as heart rate and brain waves. An early study in Ulrich's series (1979) demonstrated that subjects experienced more "wakeful relaxation20" in response to slides showing vegetation only and vegetation with water as compared with urban scenes without vegetation. This data was supported by attitude measures which indicated lower levels of fear and sadness when subjects viewed nature related slides, as compared with urban slides.

Ulrich's use of slides, while controversial, presented a conservative test of the relationship between nature and physiology. If reduced stress results from passive experiences of the natural environment, we can only assume that the effects of active exploration would be greater.21 He suggests that such opportunities to focus on something other than normal life stresses "provides a breather" by blocking or reducing stressful thoughts, and by fostering "psychophysiological restoration." These results have been confirmed in his studies of hospital patients (Ulrich 1983; Ulrich 1984). Recovery was faster, nurses made fewer negative evaluations in patient reports and there was less use of analgesic drugs among post-surgery patients who had a view of exterior greenery than among matched patients with views of buildings22.

Certainly, this does not deny the important role of active exploration of natural environments in reducing stress, and much of the research suggests that physical exercise, 'being away' (Kaplan & Talbot, 1983) and achieving a sense of control with respect to work pressures and other stressors through a 'temporary escape' all provide measurable benefits. In fact, Rotenberg (1993) suggested that the exercise involved in exposure to the outdoors is critical to human health. It is however difficult to separate the impacts of nature itself from those of exercise or psychological escape. Therefore the study by Hartig, Mang, and Evans (1987)23 on the restorative effects of nature is important. A series of assignments were designed to produce stress, and recovery was attained through reading magazines, listening to music, walking in an urban area or walking in a natural area. Subjects who walked through the vegetated landscapes had "more positively toned feelings" than others.

However, in what may be the most significant study of the link between nature and health, Cimprich's (1990) work with breast cancer survivors suggested that engaging in personally enjoyable and nature-related "restorative activities" had dramatic effects on cognitive process and quality of life. The women were divided into two groups and those in the experimental group signed a contract agreeing to engage in selected activities three times a week for 20 to 30 minutes over a 90-day period24. Initial pre-intervention measures showed severe "attentional fatigue" for both experimental and control groups. At the end of three months, the experimental group showed significant improvements in attention, on self-reported quality of life measures, and they had begun a variety of new projects, while control group members, who had been given no advice regarding nature exposure activities, continued to have deficits in measures of attention, had started no new projects, and had lower scores on quality of life measures. In reviewing Cimprich's work, Stephen Kaplan (1992) wrote:

"The difference between nature as an amenity and nature as a human need is underscored by this research. People often say that they like nature; yet they often fail to recognize that they need it...Nature is not merely 'nice.' It is not just a matter of improving one's mood, rather it is a vital ingredient in healthy human functioning" (141).

Psychological Benefits

It is however, this "improvement in mood" that has inspired the preponderance of research on the value of the natural environment. It is ironic then, that while there is an extensive body of self-report data linking the natural environment or open space to everything from increased self-esteem to stress reduction, there is little conceptual analysis and few measures designed to synthesize or test the data for validity or reliability. Few studies attempt to categorize the dozens of phrases used to identify the value of a walk in the woods or a day spent bird-watching along the edge of a marsh. Few studies track longitudinal effects of wilderness expeditions on changed attitudes and behavior. If it is difficult to quantify the manner in which lives are altered, it is easy to obtain narrative data about the impact of a favorite view or path. The task will now be to find objective indices of the impacts of nature. It is clear however, that there is a significant overlap and consistency in the way people describe their experiences, even if we are not sure how to assess it in cost-benefit terms.

Nature as contemplation, solitude, privacy and intimacy

Perhaps the dominant expressed rationale for using open space is the need for a place of contemplation and solitude. People are drawn to gardens, urban and suburban parks, and bucolic natural landscapes to sit passively or to engage more actively in exploratory behavior. Many say they seek places set apart physically, or separated from other people, while others seek to simply remove themselves from their daily rituals and need no physical or social separation25. In fact, Kornblum and Williams' (1983) study of Central Park suggested that while the Park is most heavily used by individuals during the week, its weekend use is characterized by family and friendship groups26. In fact, second only to an interest in "the Park itself," people come to watch and be with other people as they have since the 19th century.27

Does our expressed desire for privacy belie our behavior? It is possible that when we discuss the importance of open space in our lives, we think first of the times spent by ourselves, as more important than those spent in company. It is possible that when we say we seek privacy, we mean a place of protected intimacy rather than solitude. Most likely, we consider open spaces to be places that enable a "psychological escape" or an opportunity to think in a less pressured way, about the circumstances of daily life, whether or not we do so in a solitary or companioned way. Natural environments are unique in their ability to provide solitude and privacy, no matter how we use them, or even whether we use them. The very idea that we can get away, whether or not we do so, provides a psychological "time-out."

The solitude of natural environments also enables us to discover and explore our social and personal identities. Brill (1989) contends that urban public spaces provide us the opportunity to explore the range of permissible behaviors, and they act as a "school for social learning." In the Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich (1985) wrote:

"If I was leery about being an owner, a possessor of land, now I have to understand the ways in which the place possesses me. Mowing hayfields feels like mowing myself. I wake up mornings expecting to find my hair shorn. The pastures bend into me; the water I ushered over hard ground becomes one drink of grass. Later in the year, feeding the bales of hay we've put up is a regurgitative act: thrown down from a high stack on chill days they break open in front of the horses like loaves of hot bread" (90).

But natural environments also enable us to be with others and as Terry Tempest Williams (1991) wrote in describing the weekends spent camping with her family by the side of a stream, "Our attachment to the land was our attachment to each other (15)." There are few portraits of the meaning of the natural environment as powerful as the one she has painted of the degraded ecological character of the Great Salt Lake as it parallels her mother's illness and death from breast cancer.

Nature as restorative and therapeutic

Given access to places that provide the opportunity for tranquility, solitude, or socialization, what do we seek? Much of the research suggests that we seek not only an opportunity to be contemplative, but to restore ourselves. In their study of the places people go for solace and relief, Francis and Cooper Marcus (1991) suggest that landscapes should encourage (1) a sense of calm or balance; (2) a sense of escape that allows one to be distracted from one's problems; (3) a sense of perspective or self-awareness that permits one to see their own problems as less threatening or debilitating; (4) the opportunity to work the problems through; and (5) an opportunity for reflection.

The idea that calmness or balance is crucial to a restorative experience is an echo of the oft-stated desire for solitude or peace, but the authors' suggestion that there are significant gender differences raises a question regarding the nature of demographics as they relate to use patterns and environment preferences. In their study, 68 percent of women adolescents and 78 percent of adult women sought such places as compared with only 36 percent of male adolescents and 23 percent of adult males. The places identified as significant were those that were private, but located in a public setting, with a view, water, and vegetation. Tuan29 suggested that what we need are places which combine an enclosed small-scale place and an open large-scale space to support the complementary feelings of security and freedom.

The opposite pattern is seen for the desire to escape from problems through distraction, with men twice as likely as women to seek distraction in places characterized by water, animals, exercise, plants, books, or shops. The Kaplans (1989) made the point however that distraction or escape does not equal restoration, and that there must be some further benefit of vegetated landscapes if we are to do more than take a "time out" from our problems. They contend that this is accomplished through the ability of the natural environment to provide "fascination," which is described as delight in sensory inputs that leaves no time for deep thoughts.29

It is clear that if the environment is not altered by our presence or our distress, it provides us with an opportunity to re-evaluate the nature of, and solutions to, our problems. This is at the heart of what Francis and Cooper Marcus describe as the desire to find "perspective." Thirty percent of their respondents describe an active effort to "transform their cognitive process." Kaplan and Talbot (1983) described this as the ability to see concerns as transient when compared with the enduring character of the natural world. Gardening may be particularly effective in that the growth cycle provides ample evidence of change and transience which people may effectively apply to their own concerns (Wohlwill 1983).

Others however seek to "stay with the feelings," working through their concerns. Twice as many women and three times as many adolescent males as adult males seek such immersion. It is interesting to speculate about whether particular types of environments may be more useful in providing balance, immersion, escape, or distraction.30

Finally in a suggestive study done by Olds (1989) on memories of trauma in childhood, adults' spontaneous images of a healing space always involved nature as the healing agent. Her study suggests that we may need to revise the way we design and build therapeutic spaces from hospitals to battered women's shelters. Programs in horticultural therapy have also been implemented in hospitals throughout the country to help people with emotional healing as well as motor skills (Relf 1992).

Nature as a stress reducer

A significant body of research is concerned with the role of nature as a stress reducer.31 This work tends to reflect the theoretical tenets of two major schools of psychological thought. One suggests that nature serves to reduce our stress by reducing physiological arousal (Barnes 1994), and the alternate perspective suggests that stress results from our efforts to deal with "information overload" (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). Nature is seen as an effective stress reducer because it provides a kind of "cognitive quiet," necessitating fewer decisions based on external demands. The Kaplans suggest that nature provides innately interesting stimulation that allows us to rest from the "directed attention" needed for the pursuit of daily activities.32 In contrast, Ulrich's studies document the physiological benefits in reducing arousal through natural environment access. There can be little question that a reduction in heart rate and increase in the frequency of alpha waves is accompanied by psychological benefits. Ulrich wrote:

"If an observer's state prior to a visual encounter is one of stress and excessive arousal, an attractive natural view might elicit feelings of pleasantness, hold interest and block or reduce stressful thoughts, and therefore foster psychophysiological restoration...Even the passive intellectual contemplation of a natural setting can be quite adaptive if it provides a breather from stress...or gives the observer a sense of competence in terms of mental prowess or efficacy, thereby contributing to a sense of identity (1983, p. 95)."

As already noted, in his study of college students who had just completed an exam, there were significant reductions in arousal and sadness among the group which viewed slides of vegetated landscapes when compared with those viewing urban landscapes devoid of vegetation (Ulrich 1979). If Ulrich can demonstrate such an effect when using simple color slides, the effect of actual exposure promises to be greater although methodological difficulties have precluded such a test to date.33

Nature and self-concept

One of the most compelling areas of research has involved the changes in self-concept of people engaged in wilderness experiences, and is based in the successes of Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School programs. Inspired by their efforts to teach social responsibility and self-esteem, hundreds of other programs have been established to provide "personal growth, therapy, education, and leadership development" (Hendee, N.D.) to "youth-at-risk," disadvantaged urban teens, the developmentally disabled, prisoners and others.

Some of the most visible work was done by the Kaplans and other researchers at the University of Michigan, and taught orienteering and survival skills, provided a solo experience of varying difficulty and length, followed by a non-guided group trek out of the woods. Their analysis of the data from journals and pre- and post-program questionnaires, pointed to "enduring changes in self-esteem" and "self-concept," defined as more realism with respect to their own strengths and weaknesses, greater self-sufficiency, greater concern for other people, and a more positive view of themselves (Kaplan, Kaplan 1989); (Kaplan, Talbot 1983). While it is possible that these changes are a result of factors other than exposure to the wilderness, such as the instruction in social interaction techniques and skill training, there is little question that participants benefit from being exposed to an environment that casts their accustomed coping strategies into question. In fact, Hendee has suggested that a "heightened self-awareness and sense of personal control--a 'centering' effect--seems to emerge from the break with prevailing culture in a back to basics contact with the environment (Hendee, N.D., 3)."

The most powerful evidence of the relationship between open space and self-concept may however be in the application of the principles developed by Outward Bound to the school system. Using ten principles devised from environmental education programs in the wilderness, Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound has developed a curriculum for training teachers in team building, character development and learning skills.34 The assumption is that implementation of these principles and an exposure to the natural environment will lead to personal transformation and the changing of the educational culture. The resulting program has been awarded a five-year grant by the New American Schools Development Corporation and has been recognized by both the Bush and Clinton Administrations (Black, 1995).


This paper ends as it began, in the value of a walk in the woods to our sense of self. It can take no position on the larger debates about whether ultimately we are subservient to the omnipotence and sacred qualities of nature, or whether we are its stewards. It is clear however that we are in a symbiotic relationship with the environment we live in-- that in altering nature and open space, we alter the patterns of our lives. It is also clear that we carry within us the images of the places we value. The test may be whether we can or should create those images for private or public good. With each private garden that we nurture, we remove another piece of land from the "Commonweal." We must ask whether our very love of the view from the kitchen window is a threat to it, as we continue to develop housing in rural and suburban areas, and even as we privatize open spaces in urban areas. It will ultimately be more difficult to determine that we want to hold the land in common--for the benefit of the community and the society. It will be more difficult to accept the idea that our society will be measured not in the functional aspects of its use, but in its concern for the symbolic. The Kaplans (1989) wrote, "Viewed as an amenity, nature may be readily replaced by some greater technological achievement. Viewed as an essential bond between human and other living things, the natural environment has no substitutes (204)."


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1. Mircea Eliade wrote (1959) about sacred spaces in his classic book, The Sacred and Profane. He wrote, "The first possible definition of the sacred is that it is the opposite of the profane...Man becomes aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane. To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany... >From the most elementary hierophany--e.g., manifestation of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree-to the supreme hierophany ... we are confronted by the same mysterious act-the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural 'profane' world... The sacred tree, the sacred stone are not adored as stone or tree; they are worshiped precisely because they are hierophanies, because they show something that is no longer stone or tree but the sacred...(10,12.)

2. Stankey (1989) wrote, "the period following World War II saw rapid growth in the recreational use of forests and parks. A robust economy set the stage for seemingly unlimited future expansion. A framework was needed within which decisions could be made as to how much use could occur before the very qualities sought by visitors were lost....The carrying capacity concept was broadened to include social concerns. However, the addition of a social component also implied that the determination of carrying capacity involved more than a straightforward technical assessment; setting such a limit implicitly invoked a sociopolitical process as well as a biophysical one (284)."

3. Catton's (1983) analysis of the Grand Canyon is valuable, albeit in disagreement with the premise of this paper. He suggested that the attempt to develop such a concept as psychological carrying capacity is problematic if not impossible, because it neglects important aspects of ecological degradation and temporal factors and emphasizes instead social interactions among users. He suggested that "...environmental psychologists...have focused their attention not upon costs to the environment from human load imposed on it but rather upon costs to people from adapting to particular environmental circumstances (289)." It is just this argument that is being made here. We can not plan places in the absence of people, and benefits and costs to both landscape and human values must be assessed if we are to be successful.

4. John Hendee's wilderness program, sponsored by the University of Idaho, has included a range of participants from those familiar with the woods to those who have little cultural experience with this kind of nature based self-reliance program. He suggests that the program's success across this broad range is evidence that nature experience has a general, perhaps universal appeal (personal communication, July 1995.)

5. According to one 1980 estimate, visits to publicly administered outdoor-recreation areas in the US increased about 5 percent annually during the prior several decades. Further, the "use of many back country areas and areas designated as wilderness has shown an average annual rate increase of about 20 percent and the use of wild rivers has increased even faster during the past decade" (USDA Forest Service 1980, as cited in Driver, Brown 1980). Current projections vary with some experts projecting an increase as the children of baby boomers start using natural areas on their own, while others project a decrease as the baby boomers begin to have more of the physical limitations associated with aging.

6. In 1983, Kornblum and Williams estimated the number of person-visits to New York's Central Park at 13 million annually, not including special events, and the number of visitors in excess of 3 million annually. The recent screening of Disney's Pocahontas is estimated to have attracted in excess of 70,000 to the Great Lawn alone (Marianne Cramer, personal communication, July 1995).

7. A national survey found that 46 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement that "the natural world is essential to my well-being" (Butterfield & Relf, 1992.)

8. According to Carmody, gardening is one of the fastest growing recreational categories of the 1990s, constituting a $22 billion business.

9. This dialectical view of city and nature reflects historical and cultural attitudes that have sometimes favored cities as the seat of civilization surrounded by a perilous wilderness, while other times or cultures have viewed the natural environment as sacred and the city as profane (Eliade 1959). The latter philosophical view was echoed in the Wilderness Act of 1964 that saw wilderness as "land unmodified by human action...[with] no permanent inhabitants, no possibility for motorized travel, and...spacious enough so that a traveler crossing it by foot or horse must have the experience of sleeping out-of-doors. It is an area 'where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, and man himself is a visitor who does not remain (Graber 1976, 8-9)." Ironically, Graber points out that, "the wilderness ethic is an urban phenomenon reflecting both the educated city dweller's cultivated sensibility and his lack of contact with the means of rural livelihood. For this reason political support for wilderness preservation often increases with distance from the potential park site (115)."

10. One such approach was taken by New Jersey's Pinelands Commission which applied a regional model to planning the 1.1-million acre National Pinelands Reserve by designating land-use zones based on stages of development and ecological criteria (New Jersey Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan 1980; Rubinstein 1983).

11. Hendee, as cited in L. Graber 1976.

12. See R. Kaplan and S. Kaplan 1983; S. Kaplan 1992; S. Kaplan and J. Talbot 1983; and R. Ulrich 1983.

13. There are even some examples of planning landscapes with the help of non-users. The Nature Conservancy and other organizations have effectively raised money to preserve landscapes that will never be used by subscribers, through programs which provide supporters with a temporary "title" to an acre of land in an endangered eco-zone.

14. Daniel and Vining call this the Formal Aesthetic Model and suggest that it assumes that aesthetics are determined by the "abstract features of the environment and the formal character of the landscape." Proponents of this approach to environmental analysis define landscapes in terms of the interrelationships between forms, lines, textures, and colors. The variety, harmony, unity and contrast that result are supposed to be archetypal and universal (Daniel, Vining 1983).

15. According to Westover, recreational crowding is based in part on the experience of a given level of density as either positive or negative, depending on an individuals's goals and expectations.

16. It should be noted that there is a spiritual or cosmological component to such programs, although they are based in large part in accomplishment of personal skills and objectives. Katrina Abbott (in press) writes of an intern on an Outward Bound course who retrieves a discarded orange peel saying, "This young man had internalized an environmental ethic and a sense of responsibility for the natural world during his prior Outward Bound experience, and this quality found expression in action. He intuitively appreciated the value of the natural world and provided his peers with a role model of earth stewardship(1)."

17. There was extensive discussion in the late 1980s about the state of ecological succession of National Parks such as Yellowstone. Debate centered on whether forest fires should be stopped or allowed to burn themselves out. Such debate represents an ongoing dilemma about the appropriate level of ecological succession we choose to maintain.

18. A report by the USDA describes water quality as the chief concern among participants in a survey of the use of the Chicago River Corridor (Gobster & Westphal 1995).

19. Lewis (1979) has suggested that there are a number of axioms for "reading" the landscape including the "axiom of landscape as clue to culture," which suggests that "the man-made landscape [sic]--the ordinary run-of-the-mill things that humans have created and put upon the earth--provides strong evidence of the kind of people we are, and were, and are in process of becoming." He also discusses the role of technology in making the landscape what it is, using the green lawn as an example.

20. Ulrich uses the term "wakeful relaxation" to describe the person's state when experiencing an increase in alpha waves, a measure that he has described as "a valid measure of arousal, [correlated]...with states of consciousness and alertness."

21. While this use of vicarious stimuli to represent the natural environment may seem questionable, Ulrich maintains that it is an appropriate method, given (1) the human dependence on visual stimuli over all others; (2) the existence of over 100 other studies corroborating the results; (3) the extant self-report data which confirms the physiological findings; and (4) the desire to avoid confounding variables such as exercise, potential weather or climate effects and other non-landscape contextual variables. In so doing they have probably taken a conservative view of the impacts of nature, in that the effect, if anything would be stronger in the "real world," where all the other senses would contribute to the effect.

22. See also Verderber, 1986.

23. As cited in Ulrich, 1992.

24. Activities were defined as those that involve a change from daily routine, catch their interest very easily, are not boring, and are enjoyable or pleasing. Specific selected activities included gardening, taking a walk in a backyard, garden or park, observing, sitting or eating outdoors, feeding birds or squirrels, playing with or caring for pets, and collecting natural things as well as other activities done for "pure enjoyment," such as doing artwork, playing a musical instrument, or craft work, watching or playing with children, attending a concert, going to church functions, exploring auctions, garage sales, shops; listening to music or reading, among many others.

25. It is important to note that many people seek to be separated from others, but not isolated. The issues of crime and violence make many people seek places where they can see and be seen but where they can control the degree of interaction they experience. Women in particular, express concerns over their safety in the outdoors, and this needs to be accounted for in the planning of any open space (Barnes, 1994).

26. It is not clear whether the same people are using the park on both the weekend and weekdays albeit in different ways, or whether there are fundamental motivational or demographic differences in the users themselves.

27. An argument could also be made that the use of Central Park is distinct and does not reflect either other urban parks or other types of open space. It should however be noted that the "social" character of natural environment use has been echoed in other studies of wilderness and urban and suburban parks (Driver, Rosenthal, & Peterson, 1978; Graber, 1976; Hendee, 1978; Knopf, 1983).

28. As cited in C. Francis and C. Cooper Marcus, 1991, 182.

29. The Kaplans' use of the term "fascination" is a parallel to William James' notion of "involuntary attention." It is described as people's unconscious response to things that they find inherently fascinating despite mental fatigue of the capacity for "voluntary attention," which is needed for the activities of daily life.

30. Certainly those engaging in wilderness programming for youth at-risk have cultivated the use of solo experiences in isolated environments in an effort to force people to rely on their own skills, paralleling Francis' "immersion" goals.

31. In 1992, Ulrich noted in passing that there are more than a hundred wilderness studies which claim that "psychological restoration through stress reduction is one of the most important verbally expressed, perceived benefits."

32. The Kaplans actually propose several categories in addition to the ability to rest from directed attention including the opportunity to "clear the head," to engage in the "reflective mode" of attending to sunsets, scenery, etc., and to reflect on one's life, priorities and possibilities, actions and goals.

33. This point is echoed by Olds (1989) who suggested that if imagining the healing power of spaces is as beneficial as her study shows, the implications for medical recovery in natural environments are still greater.

34. The program's ten principles include the primacy of self-discovery, the having of wonderful ideas, the responsibility for learning, intimacy and caring, success and failure, collaboration and competition, diversity and inclusiveness, a respectful relationship with the natural world, solitude and reflection, and service and compassion.

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