Beautiful Landscapes

Why is it that certain landscapes appeal to us? What is it about landscapes that convey attraction, beauty, interest, even love of a scene? Is there something inherent in the landscape that appeals or is it something in us which responds to the landscape? Does the appeal of landscapes lie before or behind our eyes?

When we call a landscape beautiful, our assessment is actually in our mind, not physically in the landscape. There is no physical entity in the landscape called beauty, it is all in our mind. This is the paradox of landscape. To further explore this paradox, Click here

Click on the topics below: 

What is landscape quality? Click here
Where do landscapes fit in aesthetics? Click here
Are scenic resources worth looking after? Click here
Love of landscape – Changing attitudes to the Australian landscape Click here

Marlborough Sound, New Zealand

ExquisiteWhat is landscape quality?

What do we mean by landscape beauty? This is actually a somewhat antiquated and restricted term, and it is preferable to use the phrase, landscape quality. In contrast to landscape beauty, landscape quality covers the full range of aesthetic quality, from low to high, not just outstanding landscape quality. The term, landscape quality, may be used interchangeably with terms such as landscape aesthetics, scenic beauty, and scenic quality

Newland Head
Newland Head, South Australia

The term, scenic quality, however, derives from scenery and can be confused with backdrops for plays for the theater which use the same term. Nevertheless, scenic quality is the term most widely used in the United States.

It is commonly believed that as “beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”, scenic quality is a subjective quality it is not possible to objectively measure and understand it.

Subjectivity is defined by the dictionary as deriving from perceiving a subject whereas objectivity refers to real or external things, “uncoloured by feelings or opinions” (Concise Oxford Dictionary).

Because landscape quality derives from our senses, our perceptions, it is inherently subjective. However this does not mean that it cannot be measured and understood objectively.

The following defines landscape quality:

Landscape quality is the human subjective perception, both positive and negative, of the physical landscape, responding to its land forms, land cover, land uses, the presence of water, and other attributes.

Thus landscape quality is not the physical contents of the landscape but rather our mind’s interpretation of it. Rather than say, “It is a beautiful landscape”, we should say, “I think it is a beautiful landscape.”

Landscape quality has the following characteristics.

It is a public good, not privately owned

coast house
Coastal house – taking advantage of the view

A beautiful scene is like other environmental goods such as air, wind, water and biodiversity – it is a public good, not owned by any one person. Because of this it does not enter the market place as a commodity except where it benefits a property.

People own property and often these are located so as to gain the advantage of a beautiful view. The value of their property will reflect this view and the value the community place upon it. This may be 10 – 15% of the property value. However they do not own the view – only the right to view it from a particular vantage point.

It is not diminished by use

Like air, water or the wind, landscape quality can be viewed by many people but this is non-consumptive, it does not diminish the total stock in any way. Niagara Falls have been viewed by countless people but it continues to pour over the ledge undiminished by this viewing.

This contrasts with many resources such as minerals, fish and soils which can be diminished by use, or, in the case of soils, by erosion. Views can be affected by air pollution which hangs over cities and sometimes drifts over scenic areas.

It can be changed but is never destroyed

As a perceptual quality, landscape quality exists even in a small degree in every landscape. It may be degraded through abuse such as erosion, pollution or scaring by quarrying but a certain measure of quality remains.

Frome gibber
Lake Frome gibber plain – devoid of vegetation, land forms, water or any other attractive attribute yet rated 4.09

Landscapes comprising flat gibber plains in arid Australia which are characterized as having no variation in terrain, being barren without trees or other land cover, with no land use, with uniform color and texture, still average 3 – 4 on a 10 point scale of landscape quality, indeed some people rate them as 10 as they are quite striking landscapes in their own right.

It is a qualitative resource and is therefore dependent of human perception

Admiring the view, Queenstown, New Zealand

A qualitative resource contrasts with a quantitative resource which can be measured by conventional means – e.g. length, breadth, depth. A qualitative resource can only be measured by people assessing its quality.

Environmental economics asserts that some environmental features such as whales and Antarctica have existence value: people are willing to contribute to their preservation even though they do not expect to necessarily see them personally. The same concept applies to landscape: their worth is not necessarily dependent on people viewing them.

The conventional wisdom is that if an area can’t be seen, it does not matter whether it is degraded. Thus a quarry or a wind farm might be justified on the basis that no one will see it.

bungles Bungle Bungles – Purnululu National Park – hidden from the outside world

However, we do not know today what access to the site there may be in the future and that people may view it even today by a variety of means – walking, jogging, mountain bikes, hang gliding, flying, by boat (if near coast); not just by cars.

There are areas such as the Bungle Bungles in north-west Australia which were virtually unknown to anyone but the locals until 1983. Now the area is visited and appreciated by many people and many more have seen photographs of it in calendars, magazines and books.

Extrapolating the argument (that an area has to be seen to be valued) to other environmental resources such as biodiversity implies that we should not look after these if no one can benefit from viewing or visiting them. Clearly this is not the case – they are worthy of conservation in their own right, regardless of any direct or immediate benefit that we humans derive from them. So it should be with scenic resources.

Landscape resources are an environmental resource of immense community value

Soil, land, water, biodiversity, wilderness, and heritage features are regarded as environmental resources that the community treasures. Landscape quality is also an environmental resource equally valued by the community as worth looking after.

Adelaide HFZ C
Adelaide’s Hills face zone – Backdrop to a city

Where do landscapes fit in aesthetics?

Figure 1 Taxonomy of aesthetics

Figure 1 illustrates a taxonomy of aesthetics that differentiates natural and human objects. The taxonomy provides a context for landscape aesthetics which fall under natural objects. However often landscapes combine both natural objects and objects created by people such as houses, roads, signs etc.

Natural objects cover the natural environment, human forms (and animal forms) and landscapes. However while each of these are natural in origin (i.e. the basis of their aesthetic attractiveness is not human created), each has been modified by human influence – e.g. although human forms are natural, women’s magazines emphasize the use of beauty aids.

The aesthetics of human creation covers tangible objects and conceptual phenomena such as music, literature and even mathematics. Objects include landscaped gardens, such as those created by Capability Brown in England in the 18th century. These gardens are often regarded, through human ingenuity, as of a natural appearance, thus providing a bridge between the two main categories of nature and human creation. It is as if the highest form of artificial creation is to appear natural. 


Origins of the word landscape

The etymology of the term landscape has been researched extensively in the literature.

It is believed that the terms landskift, landscipe or landscaef entered Britain some time after the 5th century. These terms referred to a system of human-made spaces in the land – spaces such as fields with boundaries though not necessarily defined by fences or walls. It also referred to a natural unit, a region or tract of land such as a river valley or range of hills as occupied by a tribe or later, ruled by a feudal lord.

The term is similar in meaning to the German landschaft referring to a small administrative unit or region. The term fell into disuse and by the time of the Doomsday Book in the 11th century the word did not appear in any translation from the Latin.

Dutch painting
Paul Gabiel, A watercourse in Abcoude

The modern form of the word with its connotations of scenery appeared in the late 16th century when the term landschap was introduced by Dutch painters when referring to paintings of inland natural or rural scenery.

According to Jackson (The vernacular landscape, 1986): “From 1577 with Harrison’s Description of Britain onwards, a new awareness of the aesthetic nature of landscape emerged as a new kind of topographical writing flourished…”. Originally the term was translated landskip which the Oxford English Dictionary referred to as the corrupt form of the word, gradually to be replaced by landscape.

Following a lengthy analysis concentrating on the German term landschaft, Hartshorne (The Nature of Geography, Annals Assoc Am Geog, 29. 1939) defined landscape as referring to “the external, visible, (or touchable) surface of the earth. This surface is formed by the outer surfaces, those in immediate contact with the atmosphere, of vegetation, bare earth, snow, ice, or water bodies or the features made by man.”

Hartshorne differentiated the term from region which he considered is larger and more flexible in size. He eliminated sky on the basis that the atmosphere is simply the medium through which the earth’s surface is viewed and also excluded underground mine workings, the soil beneath vegetation and rainfall.

oaksHowever he included moveable objects noting that a view of Broadway without traffic would be incomplete. Hartshorne ignored the inclusion of oceans in landscape. He opposed perception of landscapes by other than sight, e.g. sounds and odors, on the grounds that these do not contribute to a unified concept. In regard to the concept of natural and cultural landscapes that Sauer among others differentiated, Hartshorne stated “the natural landscape ceased to exist when man appeared on the scene”. While admitting the term primeval landscape could refer to pre-human landscapes he considered the present natural landscape is “a theoretical concept which never did exist”.

During the 1920s and 1930s, attempts were made to construct methodologies that made landscape analysis the essential if not exclusive task of geography. This stemmed from Carl Sauer’s view that the role of geography was to systematically examine the “phenomenology of landscape”. Sauer viewed landscapes broadly as areas comprising distinct associations of forms, both physical and natural, and regarded landscape study as tracing the development of natural landscapes into cultural landscapes.

By the 1940s, this emphasis had passed as geographers found that the difficulties associated with reconstructing the past were forbidding and at odds with their primary concern with the present world. The concept of a natural landscape became increasingly questioned with knowledge of human impact on the environment. More recent geographers have addressed the subjective attributes of a place within humanistic geography thus crossing the bridge between the objective and the subjective assessment of an area.

The popular conception of the landscape that is reflected in dictionaries conveys a particular and a general meaning; the particular referring to an area of the earth’s surface and the general meaning being which can be seen by an observer.

With greater attention to the environmental perception by psychologists over recent decades, landscape is regarded as the raw material with which to study human perceptions and the human processing of information. Thus Daniels & Cosgrove (The Iconography of Landscape, 1988) defined landscape, not in physical terms but reflected it as an outward expression of human perception:

a landscape is a cultural image, a pictorial way of representing, structuring or symbolizing surroundings.”

Meinig combined the physical and the psychological in a wonderful image:

any landscape is composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads.”

(The beholding eye; ten versions of the same scene. Landscape Architecture, 66, 1976).

In recent decades the term environment has gained wide usage. Jay Appleton (The Experience of Landscape, 1975) distinguished environment from landscape by referring to the latter as “the environment perceived”.

An advantage which the term environment has over landscape is, as Bourassa noted (The Aesthetics of Landscape, 1991), that environment can refer more readily to urban scenes although the term urban landscape is also in common usage. As the term environment embraces the total physical, biological, cultural and aesthetic components of an area, it is generally regarded as too broad and encompassing a term for landscape

The term landscape aesthetics or just aesthetics is frequently used in the literature. Aesthetics has a more controversial origin than landscape. It derived from the Greek aisthesis meaning “sense perception”.

The term was used as the title of the book Aesthetica (1750-58) by Alexander Baumgarten (1714 – 62), a minor German philosopher who incorrectly applied the Greek term to a critique of the beautiful or the theory of taste.

Thus the term which originally applied to the broad field of sense perception was restricted to the area of taste. Immanuel Kant in 1781 criticized this use and applied it in accordance with its classical meaning – “the philosophy of sensuous perception” (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 1966).

However, the corrupted term aesthetics gained popular acceptance entering England after 1830 and, according to the OED, within a century of the coining of the meaning by Baumgarten, it was in wide use throughout Europe.

Deep harbour
Deep Harbor Creek, South Australia

The dictionary define aesthetic as “things perceptible by the senses as opposed to things thinkable or immaterial” (Shorter Oxford Dictionary, 1973), “pertaining to the sense of the beautiful or the science of aesthetics” (Macquarie Dictionary, 1981), or “of relating to, or dealing with aesthetics or the beautiful” (Websters Dictionary, 1973).

Aesthetics is regarded as a branch of philosophy, that which “deduces from nature and taste the rules and principles of art, the theory of the fine arts; the science of the beautiful…” (Macquarie) or “[that] dealing with the nature of the beautiful and with judgements concerning beauty” (Websters).

Thus landscapes have often been the subject of inquiry within the broad framework of aesthetics in the quest for understanding of beauty.

Barossa scene
Barossa Valley, South Australia – a popular tourist area

Are scenic resources worth looking after?

Cable beach
Cable Beach, Broome, Australia

Scenic resources are valuable to the community in many ways.

Recreation and tourism

Gold coast
Gold Coast, Australia

View tourism promotional literature of virtually any place and the area’s scenic quality is presented as a major attraction. A century ago, it was estimated that Switzerland gained between US$10,000 – $40,000 per square mile from its scenery per year. What is it today?

In terms of the expenditure of visitors it attracts, the Barossa Valley region in South Australia is worth A$55,000 per square km annually or around $150/sq km per day, a fair proportion of it due to the attractiveness of its landscape (Lothian, 2005b). Annual visitation by 20 million people to the Lake District in England is worth £441,500/sq km.  

Quality of life

Feathertop 70mm
Mt Feathertop, Australia

Landscapes contribute to the quality of life in a similar way as art, music, cultural activities and a host of other activities which provide enjoyment for participants and fulfillment for practitioners.

Enhanced land values

Houses built in locations with a good view fetch a higher price, other features being equal, than houses without the view. There have been many studies quantifying this value. These indicate that a good view will add 10 – 15% to the property value – translated this can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Psychological value

Soaking in a beautiful landscape is therapeutic, relaxing, fulfilling. Taking a holiday amidst lovely landscapes allows one to absorb it and be regenerated through the experience.

Grassmere CImage of a country

Australians are proud of the beauty of their country, its beaches and coast, its outback and even its cities. A glance in a bookshop reveals dozens of books, calendars, videos, and other publications about Australia with with landscapes featured prominently. Australian writers and poets have waxed lyrical about Australia’s landscapes (see Love of Landscape). Poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey together with the painters Turner, Constable and Girtin transformed the image of the Lake District to the English in the 18th century.       

Although Australians are sometimes embarrassed by its politicians, its sports people and other exports, Australians are always proud about their country’s landscape image.

A significant environmental, economic and social resource

Scenic quality has value to the community and should be recognized as a significant resource in its own right. Planners, engineers, councils and others often pay lip service to the beauty of their area and include in their planning and development documents high sounding words about the importance of its beauty but do little to actually measure, map and manage it.

Health and restorative benefits

MuirOver recent decades, research has established that exposure to natural landscapes is beneficial to health and restorative from stress. These are significant benefits that had been previously alluded to but now the evidence is available to quantify its benefits (See theme: Health and restorative benefits of landscape).

Phillip Island
Phillip Island, Victoria