Water – secret ingredient

Studies of water in the landscape Click here
Why is water an important landscape element? Click here
An alternative explanation Click here
Conclusions Click here
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Water in the landscape tends to be dominant because of its visibility, its movement, reflections, and color, its consequent contrasts to adjacent earth surfaces (Litton, 1977).

Why does water elicit such a strong response from people? Why can just a glimpse of water yield the same response as a large expanse? What is it about water that compared with any other feature in the landscape, gives it an inordinate influence way out of proportion to its extent? 

Water has long fascinated us. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about it in his poem, Water:

The water understands
Civilization well;
It wets my foot, but prettily,
It chills my life, but wittily,
It is not disconcerted,
It is not broken-hearted:
Well used, it decketh joy,
Adorneth, doubleth joy:
Ill used, it will destroy,
In perfect time and measure
With a face of golden pleasure
Elegantly destroy.


In this theme, the why about water is examined; why it is that it provokes such positive response. It does not detail the findings of the many studies of the perception of water. Here a brief synopsis of the role of water in the landscape is provided.

From Dr Lothian’s own studies (Lothian, 2000, 2005a, 2007, 2013b, 2015), water has been found to have a positive effect on landscape ratings regardless of the extent of water in the scene. Even a glimpse of water is sufficient to lift ratings. Figure 1 compares the scenic quality ratings with the score for water, which measures the visual significance of the water in the scene. Scenes without any water averaged 4.43 (1 – 10 scale) but even a glimpse of water, i.e. score = 1, lifted this to 5.78, an increase of 1.35. Increasing the visual significance of the water in the scene to the maximum score of 5 increased this to 6.78.

Fig 1

Figure 2 provides similar results from a survey in the Lake District in England. Whereas the rating for valleys without lakes averaged 6.27, that for valleys with lakes was 7.02, an increase of 0.75. A glimpse of water lifted ratings to 6.71, 0.43 above scenes without water. Thus water of any quantity has a strong influence, and it is not so much its extent but its presence that is important.

Fig 2

In Dr Lothian’s study of the World’s Best Landscapes (Lothian, 2016), 17 of the top 20 scenes contained water – in the form of waterfalls, rivers, lakes and the sea. Figure 3 compares the mean ratings of various forms of water.

Fig 3

It is evident from the range of studies that water has a profound effect on landscape preferences. The studies reported that scenic value increased with:

  • water edge (Anderson et al, 1976; Palmer, 1978; Whitmore et al, 1995);
  • water area (Anderson et al, 1976; Brush & Shafer, 1975);
  • channel stability & depth are important factors in river scenic quality (Gregory & Davis, 1993);
  • moving water (Craik, 1972; Dearinger, 1979; Hammitt et al, 1994; Whitmore et al, 1995).

Several researchers have found that preferences increased with river flow but peaked and then decreased as the river flow increased (Brown & Daniel, 1991; Hetherington et al, 1993; Pflüger et al, 2010). It implies that the risks associated with high river flows outweigh their beauty.

In the Rockies, Jones et al, (1976) found that water bodies were the third most important landscape component in defining preferences after the high mountains and forests. In New Zealand, Mosley (1989) found water ranked fifth in importance after forests, view angle, relative relief and snow and ice. In the less spectacular landscape of the Connecticut River valley, Palmer & Zube (1976) found that after landform, water was the second most important dimension.

Herzog (1985) assessed the preferences for different kinds of water bodies and found in order: mountain waterscapes; large water bodies; rivers, lakes & ponds; with swampy areas last. He provides a useful review of the information processing approach to water preferences, drawing on the work of Gibson’s affordances (See theme: Visual perception), the Kaplan’s information processing model and Appleton’s prospect and refuge model (See theme: Landscape theory). Given that water is essential for survival and that the key tenet of the information processing approach is that humans evolved in environments wherein the processing of spatial information was crucial to survival, it would be expected that the preference for water therefore lies in its survival enhancing qualities. Good-quality water – fast flowing, large bodies would be preferred over swamps and small ponds which may be of lesser water quality.

Herzog’s findings about the preferences for different water bodies support this. He concluded from his study that the results confirm the general usefulness of the informational approach in accounting for waterscape preferences. Based on the results, he suggested that clarity and freshness of water, as embodied in mountain lakes, and rushing water are highly valued. In information processing terms, the most preferred waterscapes are moderately high in both the making sense (i.e. legibility and coherence) and involvement (i.e. complexity and mystery) variables.

In examining the links between landscape preferences and the individual mood states of excited, happy, relaxed, upset, ill, stressed or scared, Regan & Horn (2005) found that water induced relaxed and happy moods.

Korpela & Hartig (1996) examined ratings of favorite and unpleasant places and found that for favorite places, 73% were associated with water, compared with only 17.9% for unpleasant places.

Felsten (2009) found that among wall posters of various scenes, those with water rated highest among students for their restorative effects.

The serenity and tranquillity of still water
Emerald Lake, British Columbia, Canada

Serenity and tranquillity contrasting with awe and arousal were found to be psychological factors deriving from water bodies (Gobster & Chenoweth, 1989; Herzog & Bosley, 1992; Schroeder, 1991). Water holds one’s attention and has a stabilising effect on emotions (Ulrich, 1981). Still water has a calming effect (Nasar & Lin, 2003); viewing artificial fountains and pools, participants had higher preferences for jets of water and the combination of flowing water, falling water and jets. They rated still water as most calming and moving water as higher in excitement than still water. Nasar & Li (2004) found reflecting water to be highly preferred over transparent water.

Overall, water was found to be a major and positive factor by Calvin et al, (1972); Choker & Mene (1992); Dearinger (1979); Dunn (1976); Felsten (2009); Herzog (1985); Herzog & Bosley (1992); Hull & Stewart (1995); Korpela & Hartig (1996); Orland (1988); Regan & Horn (2005); Shafer et al (1969); Ulrich, 1981; Vining et al (1984); and Zube (1973).

Factors which were found to decrease the scenic value of water included pollution and waterlogging (Choker & Mene, 1992), water color (Gregory & Davis, 1993), and rubbish, erosion, water quality, surface foam and industrial backdrop (Nieman, 1978; Wilson et al, 1995). Interestingly Hodgson & Thayer (1980) found that water bodies labelled as artificial rather than natural (e.g. reservoir instead of lake) scored lower than natural labels. 

The importance of water is also reflected in the higher prices fetched by properties with a water view. For example, in a study of houses along Lake Erie, houses with a view of the lake averaged $527,184 compared with $285,518 for those without a view. After controlling for house characteristics (e.g. lot size, house size) the premium added to homes with a view was $256,545. A Swiss study of the profit derived from two hotels found that the hotel with a view of Lake Lucerne and the Alps added $16.3 m to their property value in present value terms compared with $4.3m for the hotel without the view (Lange & Schaeffer, 2001).


While the studies have thus far established the importance of water in the landscape, they offer little explanation of the reasons for this importance. Is it simply, as Bourassa (1991) notes, that humans have consistently had a need to remain fairly close to bodies of water because humans need a constant supply of fresh water?

A significant textbook, Water and Landscape – an aesthetic overview of the role of water in the landscape (Litton et al, 1974) approaches the subject from an objectivist viewpoint as a landscape architect or designer might, and offers no discussion on the role that water might play in our psyche. However, other literature provides some discussion of this.

Ulrich suggests that the appeal of water may be partly biologically-based and largely independent of the Kaplan’s informational characteristics (Ulrich, 1983). Earlier (1977), he suggested that water may serve:

“as a focal element and by enhancing subjective depth. The major preference effects of water, however, probably stem more from content per se than from informational factors.”

Balling & Falk (1982) explored the evolutionary model in a study of preferences for differing biomes, including savannas and although their study specifically excluded water, they recognized its importance to their model.

The attraction of fountains – especially for babies
Larnaca, Cyprus

The Kaplans noted (1989) that the appeal of water is not just as a pretty picture – people love to live near water, and many recreation activities involve water. Ryback & Yaw (1976) traced the historic value of water as a sacred element, noting the importance of springs to the Greeks; the mythical “fountain of youth” and “water of life,” and the concept of Eden being associated as a place of eternal spring. The Christian sacrament of baptism symbolizes purification and rebirth, and fountains have been symbols of purity. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all associate water with life events: baptism (Christianity), immersion before marriage (Judaism and Islam), and cleansing the body prior to burial (Burmil & Daniel, 1999).

The practice of throwing coins in fountains for a wish or good luck may have developed from an appeasement to the gods of the waters. Water is an important landscape element in the gardens of history (Whalley, 1988).

Multnomah Falls, Washington State, United States
Waterfalls attract people like bees to honey

In a series of wonderfully evocative papers (1998 – 2006), Brian Hudson documented people’s love of waterfalls, and touched on possible reasons why waterfalls hold such attraction. These include their sexual arousal, symbolism and the hazards they provide in terms of Appleton’s prospect: refuge theory (see theme: Landscape theory) but found these reasons still lack full explanatory power.

A further idea relates the preference for water to its utility value (transport, fishing, recreation, industry, etc.), but this use is unrelated to aesthetic preferences One uses a road, a mineral, air or land for a variety of purposes without necessarily feeling any aesthetic delight being associated with its use. While the ever-changing appearance of water (changing light, sparkling, smooth or rough) contributes to its enjoyment, it is insufficient to substantiate the strength of preference for water. Clouds exhibit similar changeability and consist of water vapor but they do not stimulate the same level of preference apparent for liquid water.


All of these explanations – information processing, evolutionary, cultural, historical, and utility, all fail to explain sufficiently the depth of attachment and affinity which humans have for water and the positive role it plays in landscape preferences. For example, the survival theory fails to discriminate between fresh water and undrinkable seawater despite cues such as sandy beaches and the hint of salt laden air.

Human preferences for water appear to be present in all cultures and across time. Any explanation needs therefore to be common to all people regardless of their location, culture and time period in which they live. A problem with many of the above explanations is that they are unique to a particular people, time and place.

An alternative explanation for the human affinity for water approaches it from the pre-birth state of every human being inside the womb prior to birth when the baby is enveloped by watery amniotic fluid. It is proposed that this intense, prolonged pre-birth experience of water results in the human delight in water.

Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0
10 week baby inside the amniotic sac, surrounded by fluid

The amniotic fluid is a pale straw-colored liquid, 99% water, formed from maternal plasma and for the first half of pregnancy has a similar composition. Later, in the second half, its composition becomes similar to fetal urine. The fluid is in constant change with a complete turnover every three hours. The growing baby thus has a close, vital relationship with its watery environment, drawing from it as well as passing waste into it (The information about the amniotic fluid is largely derived from: Reece, E. A., J.C. Hobbins, M.J. Mahoney & R.H. Petrie, 1992. Medicine of the Fetus and Mother. J.B. Lippincott & Co.).

The amniotic fluid is of vital importance to the baby permitting movement, protecting it from umbilical cord compression and helping to maintain an even temperature in the womb. It allows symmetrical external growth of the fetus, prevents adherence of the amnion (i.e. the membrane sac) to the fetus, cushions it against injuries and impacts received by the mother, and enables it to move freely, thus assisting musculoskeletal development.

Baby sucking thumb in 20th week

There is general agreement that the fetus is certainly capable of registering its environment from early in the second half of the pregnancy, i.e. from 20 weeks. There would seem no reason, therefore, why it should not start to perceive, albeit in a primitive way as the brain develops, the amniotic fluid in which it is located. The unborn baby derives information about its habitat through senses such as hearing, touch and possibly smell. The amniotic fluid is the first external contact for the baby as they are immersed in it. Thus the first experience of the world outside of self is of fluid.

Ryback & Yaw (1976) come close to this when they suggest that the in-utero experience is our first environment and may be the basis for ‘pre-conditioning’ of our psychological responses. They suggest that the soothing rocking of a cradle for the baby, and of music for the adult, replicates the monotonous biologic rhythmicity of fluid and organ movement while immersed in an aqueous medium.

The in-utero baby’s ears are sufficiently well developed by 16 weeks to start to hear sounds –  sounds of the mother’s stomach, the whoosh of air in and out of the mother’s lungs, and, importantly, the sloshing of the amniotic fluid inside the womb. The ears continue to develop and by 24 weeks, the baby even turns their head in response to sounds outside the mother’s body such as voices. They hear the mother’s voice particularly well as it is amplified by the body.

Hearing the amniotic fluid slosh around for over half of their term in the womb imprints the sound of water on the baby. Later as children and adults, hearing fountains, waterfalls and rivers gurgling as they fall and pass over rocks may remind them subconsciously of these sounds in the womb of which they cannot actually recall. Thus sound can trigger and reinforce the delight in water.

A gurgling stream in Montana, United States

Hetherington et al (1993) found that when people see and hear the sound of water, preferences rise to a certain point as the water flow increases and then drop away rapidly as the water flow continues to increase beyond a threshold (see theme: Findings of Landscape Studies – Water). This corresponds with the experience of a baby with the sound inside the womb which is always constant and reassuring. Sudden excessive sound would provoke anxiety and distress in the baby.

It necessarily takes a leap into the unknown to suggest that the in-utero experience of a warm, cosy, safe and nutritious environment in which every human begins life also provides the explanation for the human preference for water. From a purely psychoanalytical perspective, however, it is reasonable to propose that it is the unconscious desire for the pre-natal in-utero state in the amniotic fluid which all humans share that provides the foundation for human love of water.

The psychoanalytical model may provide a vehicle for understanding this. The basis of psychoanalysis is the unconscious needs and desires of which the person is scarcely aware, and which develop during the individual’s earliest years (psychoanalytical concepts were discussed in the theme: Psychoanalysis and aesthetics). There is little in the literature on the development of such outcomes from the pre-birth period.

According to a psychiatrist colleague who practices psychoanalysis, water and the sea are taken to be symbolic of the mother. The nurturing mother womb is the source of creation and has primal connotations. Regarding the idea that the in-utero experience might provide the basis for water preferences, he was receptive – while this could be, it is generally held that a baby does not create fantasies in the womb. However, he admitted the evidence for this was based more on logic than on knowledge.

It may be useful to differentiate intimate contact with water from other, less-intimate contacts. Intimate or direct contact includes, apart from the in-womb experience, drinking water, washing, bathing, showering, swimming and surfing where one is either drinking water or is immersed directly in it. Indirect, less-intimate contact, includes skiing, boating, rowing, canoeing, wind surfing and yachting where the craft separates the person from the sea. A further state less intimate, but nevertheless significant, is viewing water such as rain, rivers, waterfalls, lakes and the sea, and also viewing water in fountains, home aquariums, swimming pools and spas. Viewing snow and ice also provides opportunities for indirect contact.

It doesn’t get much better than this! Immersion fountain, Cairns, Australia

The desire to view water in its many states (rivers, waterfalls, lakes, sea), to enjoy recreation in it and on it, to live near it, to have views over it, and to have water features in our cities such as fountains may all derive from the positive pre-cognitive experience of water gained while in the womb. The ubiquity of preferences for water across all cultures and time lends support to this hypothesis.

It can also be speculated that the horror in the public’s mind associated with damaging floods and devastating tsunamis is because these events are so contrary to the delight that water normally engenders in our mind. As noted earlier, research has found that when rivers flow fast, that landscape preferences decrease.

It is insufficient to point to the ubiquity of preferences for water as evidence for the hypothesis, although the types of water preferred may provide some measure of evidence. For example, the preference for both fresh water and seawater accords with it. Similarly, the preference for running water over still stagnant water fulfills it and also for bodies of water rather than water vapor in the form of fog or mist.

If this hypothesis is true, then it would be expected that children, particularly young children, would display strong preferences for water and that such preferences would wane somewhat with age but remain strongly present throughout life.

A finding that lends support to this hypothesis is Zube et al, (1983) who examined the changes to landscape preferences over a lifespan. They found that children’s landscape preferences were strongly influenced by the presence of water (Figure 4). Moreover, this preference was found to decline with age until late middle-age, when it rose slightly. The authors found Water significantly enhances scenic values for young children but is of minor importance to adults. Based, however, on this author’s research, one could disagree with the suggestion that water is of minor importance to adults.

Fig 4

Yamashita (2002) provided cameras to children and adults to take up to 50 photographs of the river environment. Interestingly, while 29% of the adult’s photos were of water, 54% of the children’s photos were of water and the extent of water in the children’s photos was also much larger than that of adults (adults 37%, children 50%), all of which suggests a much stronger interest in water by children. While adults focused on the flow of the water (41% of their photos), children focused instead on its quality (43%) which is also interesting as the quality of the in-utero amniotic fluid is important to the baby. Yamashita concluded Water in the landscape strongly attracts the attention of child residents …, whereas it plays a minor role in adult’s… perception of the landscape. His findings reinforce the strong attraction that water has for children, an attraction that wanes in adulthood.

In a delightful study of children’s play with water in a child care center in Massachusetts, Kates & Katz (1977) documented their water play and what the children thought about it. They commented:

“The sensual and affective qualities of water are important especially to the three-year-olds. Watching water was a serious activity. Some children sat on the window seat looking at the rain and others watched water flow out of the taps. Children stood with the hands under running water, poured it over their hands, swirled the tub water with their hands making waves or stood soaking their hands in the tub for quiet minutes. They were entranced for relatively long periods of time by pouring water back and forth between two vessels, or between the large tub and a cup. Most of this play was purely abstract – there was no end product or prescribed line of play to follow. Water was enjoyed for its unique qualities.”

This may be a picture of the child dreaming and re-experiencing their in-utero state in water!

Clearly much more evidence is required in order to substantiate the hypothesis that human preference for water derives from the pre-utero state of being immersed in the amniotic fluid inside the womb.


Many studies have documented the positive influence that water has on human landscape preferences but few offer suggestions of why it has this influence. Among the possibilities are information processing, evolutionary, cultural, historical, and utility explanations, but all fail to explain sufficiently the depth of attachment and affinity which humans have for water and the positive role it plays in landscape preferences.

An alternative hypothesis is proposed, that preference for water derives from the pre-birth state of every human being enveloped by water-like amniotic fluid.  This psychoanalytical explanation is that human preference for water derives from an unconscious desire for the pre-natal in-utero state in the amniotic fluid which all humans experience.


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