Landscape research typologies

Typologies Click here
An alternative typology Click here
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A characteristic of landscape research has been the many attempts to make sense of the field of studies. Typology refers to types and classes. Numerous classifications or typologies of the research have been proposed which are summarized below by chronology.

In an early proposal, Penning-Rowsell (1973) separated the studies into two types: those independent of landscape users, and those dependent on landscape users. Most of the studies were of the first type, and these generally involved the user defining their preferences rather than the researchers observing the users’ exhibited preferences.

Brush (1976) separated observer-based assessments into preferential judgement (i.e. likes & dislikes), and comparative judgement (i.e. judgement based on a framework such as that of a larger group). Brush considered the latter more useful.

Dearden (1977) defined measurement techniques (i.e. physical characteristics) and preference techniques (i.e. preference judgements). He clearly differentiated the objective and the subjective approaches.

Arthur et al (1977) grouped studies into three categories Descriptive inventories (i.e. physical characteristics), public preference assessments (i.e. preference judgements), and economic assessments (i.e. economic evaluations of environmental goods).

In 1980, Dearden revised his 1977 classification into three groups:

• field-based methods (i.e. physical characteristics)
• surrogate methods (i.e. preference judgements based on photos)
• measurement methods (i.e. sophisticated statistical analysis of preference judgements)

Penning-Rowsell (1981) also revisited his 1973 classification and proposed three groups: 

• early ‘intuitive’ methods: circa 1967 – 71 (mostly physical characteristics)
• statistical ‘sophistication’ circa 1971 – 76 (i.e. statistical analysis of preference judgements)
• landscape ‘preference’ approaches: 1973 onwards (also preference judgements).

Figure 1 Porteous’ groups involved in landscape research

Porteous (1982) defined four major approaches to environmental aesthetics based on two criteria, rigor and relevance. He noted that while rigor was traditionally pursued with vigor regardless of relevance, the trend was towards relevance with as much rigor as possible. Relevance refers to the immediacy of the approach to current environmental problems, while rigor refers to scientific theory building and testing. Porteous proposed a model with four groups involved in landscape research (Figure1).

The humanists (or purists) “seek universals intuitively and necessarily eschews immediate relevance and scientific positivism”. Examples are Tuan, Lowenthal and Appleton. The environmental activists seek to ‘act now’ and contrast with the experimentalists who say that ‘before we can change the world, we must first understand it’. “Planners” is a shorthand term for environmental designers and managers who have to grapple with immediate issues and who often have the training to take a fairly rigorous approach. Porteous considers that no group has reached the “?” position, denoting high levels of both relevance and rigor. Porteous’ approach tends to diminish the long-term contribution that his so-called humanists (‘theorists’ may be a better term) make. Nevertheless, relevance and rigor should guide work in the field.

Punter (1982) proposed three paradigms, landscape perception (i.e. mechanics of perception), landscape interpretation (i.e. social and cultural meanings associated with landscape), and landscape (visual) quality (i.e. formalist qualities).

Two seminal evaluations of landscape studies were published in 1982 by Zube, Sell & Taylor and in 1983 by Daniel & Vining. The similarities between them were greater than the differences. They were both based on extensive reviews of the literature. Table 1 summarizes both typologies.

Table 1 Typologies of landscape studies

Table 1

Daniel & Vining add an additional category to the Zube et al typology, that of the formal aesthetic, but otherwise the two are virtually identical, only with different titles. Zube et al presented Figure 2 as a first step towards a theory of landscape perception, focusing on the interactions between the viewer and the landscape and identifying various outcomes.

Fig 2
Zube, Sell & Taylor, 1982
Figure 2 Landscape Perception (interaction) Process

Zube et al saw the most pressing need is for a basic model to which landscape perception research and theory can be fitted and related into a whole hence their attempt at a framework in Figure 2. The authors of both typologies recognized the inadequacy of some of the components. Daniel & Vining opined:

“At the present time, none of the models described completely meets all the goals of landscape quality assessment. By the criteria outlined in this chapter, it is unlikely that either the ecological or the formal aesthetic models can serve as a basis for an adequate landscape assessment system. For very different reasons, the phenomenological model is inadequate. While neither the psychophysical nor the psychological models are sufficient alone, a careful merger of these two approaches might provide the basis for a reliable, valid, and useful system of landscape quality assessment.”

Both the ecological and formal aesthetic models focus on the characteristics of the landscape – the objective approach, whereas the psychophysical, psychological and phenomenological models focus on the effects of the landscape on individuals, the subjective approach.

Since these two seminal works, further systems for classifying the growing landscape literature have been proposed.

Fenton & Reser (1988) classified the approaches into three categories:

1. Objective measurement of physical-setting variables
2. Use of judges’ ratings (normative judgements) to define landscape variables with a clear environmental referent
3. Description of landscape variables in phenomenological terms

Their first category combines aspects of psychophysical and expert paradigms, the second category covers the cognitive, psychophysical and expert paradigms and the third category covers the experiential paradigm.

Dearden & Sadler (1989) developed a theoretical framework based on whether the landscape judgement is a mixture of elements external to the observer (i.e. objects) or internal to the observer (i.e. the perceptual, affective and cognitive responses) (Figure 3).

Fig 3
Dearden & Sadler, 1989. E = External to observer, I = Internal to observer
Figure 3   Theoretical framework based on consensus for landscape evaluation

The ratio of external (E) and internal (I) elements varies with the characteristics of the observer, the landscape and the mode of interaction. Where E exceeds I (E > I), consensus will be high, but where I exceeds E (I > E), consensus will be low. E > I is termed objectivist, while I > E is termed subjectivist. The authors compared their framework with the five models defined by Daniel & Vining (1983). While they acknowledge that it is often difficult to assess the I:E ratio, they considered that “some techniques, firmly rooted in an objectivist philosophy, are purely landscape oriented and merely assume consensus”,  whereas “other techniques pay little attention to landscape, assume that each observer is unique, [that] there is no consensus and focus their efforts on a subjective analysis of the individual.” On the basis of their analysis, the authors suggest that the various approaches to assess landscape quality “should not be seen as mutually exclusive, …(but) rather they are complementary.”

Elsewhere, Dearden (1989) defined the objectivist of viewing beauty inherent in objects, whereas the subjectivist views beauty as being in the eye of the beholder.

Dearden & Sadler’s identification of the objectivist and subjectivist elements in landscape assessments is welcome, although they appear to confuse objectivity with consensus. Their proposal regarding the relative dominance of external or internal elements appears naïve, as when they state, “in some circumstances beauty will reside more in landscape (i.e. E > I) and in others the eye of the beholder will be more critical in influencing landscape judgements (i.e. I > E).” (Dearden, 1987). This suggests that the influences on an individual are changeable depending on circumstances. Yet it is difficult to see how this could be in practice, how does a person put aside the innate, cultural and personal influences on their preferences and see the landscape purely in terms of intrinsic beauty?

Gobster & Chenoweth (1989) defined three ‘descriptor types’: physical, artistic and psychological and analyzed these types’ capacity to predict aesthetic preferences for rural river, forest and agricultural landscapes.

From New Zealand came a different type of model. Janet Stephenson (2008) called it a Cultural Values Model which comprised landscape-related forms, practices and relationships:

• Forms being the physical, tangible and measurable aspects of landscape such as landforms, vegetation, archaeological and historic sites;
• Relationships being human relationships including people-people and people-landscape covering myths and stories, aesthetics, memories, meanings of places;
• Practices covering both human and natural processes including historical processes and ecological processes.

Each of these interacts with each other and also, importantly, is dynamic over time. She differentiated surface values such as those that a visitor might have for an area from embedded values which locals have who know the area intimately and also draw on historical knowledge about past events that occurred in it. The “time-thickness” of the landscape describes these stories and events from the past.

In a subsequent paper, Stephenson (2010) developed the previous model into a Dimensional Landscape Model (Table 2). These provide a typology of landscape studies although she emphasizes that a method may cover several of the five groupings.

Table 2 Dimensional Landscape Model

Table 3
Stephenson, 2010

Stephenson classified landscape studies as follows:

• Type A (spatial-static): Western-originated disciplines identifying qualities of the physical landscape and to some extent around Type C (temporal-static) which includes standard holistic accounts and mapping of ‘historic landscape character’ and similar.
• Type B (dynamic-spatial) less common but include cultural mapping and ecological systems mapping.
• Type D (dynamic-temporal) apply to landscape histories and people-place interactions over time.
• Type E (dynamic-spatial–temporal) have not been applied in Western landscape studies.

Traditional cultures including Maori and Aboriginal weave time and place together in their narratives and are Type E. While Western studies cluster in the top left quadrant, indigenous approaches tend to cluster in the right hand quadrants which incorporate time, but also in Type E which combines the spatial-temporal.

Typology of past landscape studies – Conclusions

The fourteen typologies reviewed here are classified in Table 3 by the categories identified by Zube et al (1982). In some cases, it is difficult to assign the typologies, as the descriptions used differ greatly. However, the Table indicates my best judgement as to their placement. The majority of studies apply either the Expert or Psychophysical methods while the Cognitive and Experiential are the least preferred methods. Most of the typologies define only two or three categories and in some instances several of these amount to the same thing – namely the psychophysical paradigm.

Table 3 Summary of landscape analysis typologies

Table 4
Note: Arthur et al (1977) also include economic analyses. The classification by Porteous (1982) is of the type of researcher rather than the product of their work. His activist category does not fit any of the above paradigms.

It is striking that since the late 1980s there have been virtually no further attempts to classify landscape studies which is surprising given that there have been many studies since then. In the theme: Landscape theory, the view of Terkenli (2001) was noted that an “all-encompassing theory may no longer be sought after in contemporary social sciences as in the past”. The same conclusion appears to apply to typology development. Why this is so is not apparent.


The fundamental division in the way landscape is viewed is between believing that beauty is an intrinsic quality in the landscape versus believing that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. The history of philosophy brings this distinction out clearly (see theme: Philosophy of aesthetics). The cultural influences of teleology and classicism also illustrate the subjective approach (see theme: Western cultural attitudes). The distinction is also apparent in the typologies of landscape studies examined above.

Planners, geographers and others often treat landscape as a feature to be classified and mapped, similar to the treatment of soils, landforms or vegetation. The credibility of the method typically relies on the reputed expertise of the individual applying it. They establish certain assumptions (e.g. that mountains and rivers have high landscape quality) and evaluate the landscape accordingly. The landscapes may be classified on a numerical scale or classified of high, medium or low quality. The resulting classifications are often described as being objective, but what is actually meant is that having defined certain assumptions the process of evaluating the landscape is conducted rigorously, in accordance with these criteria, and personal preferences do not intrude. However, the subjective basis of the criteria, derived from these preferences, is generally ignored. Mapping landscape quality in this way has been particularly prominent in Britain and to some extent in Australia but is more limited in Canada and the US.

Scot mtns
Linton’s Scottish mountains

As an example, Linton’s (1968) survey of the Scottish landscape gave high scoring to the mountains thus reflecting his subjective view that they should be scored high. Similarly, Fines’ (1968) scale of landscape quality placed the mountains at the highest level and flat land towards the bottom of the scale. Although these surveys assume the landscape quality to be intrinsic in the landscape, the assumptions they made in rating this quality derive from their own subjective view of landscapes.

The distinction between physical and preference studies reflects a philosophical difference in approach which has parallels with that between art and science, captured over half a century ago by C.P. Snow in his prescient book, The Two Cultures (CUP, 1959). Art derives from personal experience, cognition and ability applied to the creation of new entities whereas science lets the phenomenon speak for itself and seeks to discover that which explains its characteristics.

The alternative approach in landscape quality assessment uses psychophysical methods to examine community preferences for landscapes and then through statistical analysis, derives the overall quality of the landscape. This approach objectively measures subjective community preferences without the influence of the researcher’s personal preferences or biases, although biases may occur in framing the questionnaire and in the evaluation of the results. This approach, which has been applied particularly in the US, Australia and to a more limited extent in Britain, has produced results which identify for given landscapes, the key factors which contribute to their quality and their relative importance.

Moreover, the results are defensible if used in courts where landscape quality is an issue. The error involved in the estimates of ratings can be determine statistically. The method can also be used to predict the effect of change on landscape quality (Daniel & Schroder, 1979; Hull & Buhyoff, 1986).

The subjective method is likely, however, to be more expensive and require specialist skills to apply – skills covering the selection of participants, photography of scenes, management of sessions to rate photographs and their content, and in particular, statistical analysis. It may take longer and be more difficult than the objective approach.

The objective approach could be made somewhat more rigorous and statistically valid by:

• Ensuring the criteria used to measure landscape quality reflect community preferences as determined through surveys. However, the authors of expert methods may regard the inclusion of community views as reducing aesthetic assessments to the lowest common denominator.

• Utilizing a larger number (minimum 30) of participants to carry out the assessment – these should be representative members of the community, not specialists such as landscape architects.

• Testing the expert appraisals with the community.

However the adoption of these measures removes the sole advantage of this method over the subjective method, namely the ease and low cost it involves. These measures would in fact transform it into the subjective method.

The paradox in these approaches derives from their contrasting underlying premises. They cannot both be correct. The first approach assumes that landscape quality is inherent in the landscape while the second assumes that landscape quality is in the eyes of the beholder. The paradox is that in common usage, the landscape is taken to be beautiful but in actuality this beauty is literally a figment of the imagination, a product of the viewer’s own cultural, social and psychological constitution. These two views of landscape may be regarded as the objective and subjective paradigms.

Surveys of the physical landscape that define its quality on the basis of the presence or absence of certain attributes are premised on the concept of beauty being inherent in the landscape. Conversely psychologically-based studies which evaluate the feelings that people derive from the landscape and which seek the dimensions in the landscape that account for its quality are premised on beauty being in the eye of the beholder.

These different approaches to the way landscape is viewed are absolutely fundamental, either the landscape quality is regarded as intrinsic or in the beholder – objective vs subjective – there is no recognized middle ground. The two approaches cannot be combined. Few of the typologies examined acknowledge this distinction and most treat the differences in the form of a continuum. Where the physical landscape is assessed, its assessment is in terms such as field based, descriptive inventories, expert, or objective measurement. Gobster & Chenoweth (1989) touched on the difference, stating:

“All physical descriptors relate to the external dimensions of the environment – what is ‘out there’ versus what is ‘in the head’ – and herein lies a critical distinction between physical and psychological descriptors.”

Similarly, Dearden & Sadler (1989) came close to the issue in stating:

“The major philosophical and methodological division has been between those favouring a more reductionist, quantitative-objective approach and those maintaining that it is not possible to apply standard positivist techniques to such a holistic concept as landscape aesthetics.”

They proposed the distinction between physical and psychological paradigms:

• Physical paradigm = elements external to observer = objectivist
• Psychological paradigm = elements internal to observer = subjectivist

Blaise Pascal’s (1623 – 1662) pithy dictum, the heart has its reasons which the mind cannot comprehend, illustrates the dichotomy between affect and cognition.

It is proposed that this distinction should provide the basis for the major classification of landscape methods, between on the one hand, physically-based methods and, on the other hand, psychologically-based methods, the former being those based on viewing beauty as physically intrinsic in the landscape while the latter view it as a human construct.

Figure 4 contrasts the two methods for landscape assessment.

Fig 4
Figure 4 Contrasting landscape assessment methods

Daniel (2001) identified precision, reliability and validity as the criteria for judging different approaches to measuring scenic quality. A comparison of the physical and preference approaches against these criteria (Table 4) reinforces the imprecision, variability and questionable validity of physical studies.

Table 4 Comparison of Objective (physical) and Subjective (preference) studies


Table 5 summarizes the differences between these two paradigms.

Table 5 Objective (physical) and subjective (psychological) paradigmsTable 5

The subjective approach, relying on people’s subjective evaluation of landscape quality, is the only valid approach to adopt. Such an approach meets scientific criteria of being replicable, objective in its assessment of subjective evaluations, statistically rigorous and able to define how accurately it represents the opinions of the wider population.

A further reason for adopting preference studies over physical studies is based on the nature of aesthetics. Aesthetics is an affective quality (cf. affections); it does not derive from cognitive thought. In looking at an attractive landscape, one does not analyze it but rather one knows immediately and without prior thought that it is attractive. Dictionaries reinforce this distinction between the cognitive and the affective in their definition of aesthetics as “things perceptible by the senses (i.e. affective) as opposed to things thinkable or immaterial (i.e. cognitive)” (Shorter Oxford, 1973).


In this theme we have laid the basis for the approach that this website takes in conducting landscape quality assessment. It is through the subjective approach, using psychophysical techniques of survey and analysis, that landscape quality may be objectively analyzed. It showed why the objective or physical paradigm should not be used as it does not provide a true assessment of people’s landscape preferences.


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