Community image influences preferences

I recall jogging through an unfamiliar city once during a visit. It was a warm, pleasant morning, and the streets were quiet. I felt relaxed, enjoying the fresh, morning air, the solitude and the experience of being in a new place. Suddenly, however, I noticed a change in the environment. My pleasure turned to apprehension. I can't tell you exactly what I noticed or whether my inference was accurate, but I changed directions to avoid the area in which I had entered.

The importance of community appearance Many people incorrectly believe that community appearance is unimportant. My experience gives a decidedly different view. As I described, the visual character of the area in which I was jogging had a profound effect on my feelings, thoughts and behavior. Research confirms my experience. It shows that places have an ambiance that people readily feel. Contrary to the conventional wisdom about the relative unimportance of environmental appearance, research consistently shows that people feel appearance has paramount importance. Humans are visual animals for whom appearance matters.

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Think about your own personal experiences. Can you recall places you've enjoyed visiting or places you disliked due to their visual quality? Do you avoid certain areas of town after dark simply because they look fearful? Visual features shape your evaluation of those areas. These meanings become a mental landscape that then shapes your thoughts and behavior.

Some urban areas do convey a positive image. In most cities, however, dullness and disorder prevail. We neglect public appearance in downtown areas especially amidst the hodgepodge of structures, the replacement of historic buildings with parking lots, chaotic signs, highway billboards and incompatible development in areas of natural beauty.

Visual quality has powerful effects on our experience and the delight we take in our surroundings. For public places, multiply the individual experience by the many individuals who experience them. By working on visual quality, then, we can do something to make places more attractive. We can shape the public landscape into a source of delight and even as possible restoration from daily stressers. Toward this end, the development of public places should follow a visual plan, with guidelines and controls for appearance. But what should such a plan do?

The meaning behind any plan A pleasant appearance is not just out there in the environment. It also involves people's responses to the environment. To answer the question about what to do to improve appearances, we need to know how the public evaluates places. I call this their evaluative image.

Americans are surrounded with visual disorder. They may have learned to turn a blind eye to it, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to improve it. Appearance that is incompatible with our activities and goals can heighten sensory overload, fear, stress and crime. With careful attention to an area's evaluative image, however, you can resolve these problems and enhance visitors' well-being.

Many people incorrectly believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Research shows this as untrue. People ultimately agree on what looks good. Measuring this evaluative image, then, can guide planning, design and maintenance decisions.

To understand the evaluative image of a city, I asked people about visual likes and dislikes. Doing this allowed me to test the idea of the evaluative image, to find the visual features associated with it and to set guidelines for community appearance. I initially asked 400 randomly chosen residents and visitors in two Tennessee cities-Knoxville and Chattanooga-about places they like and dislike for visual quality. I also asked them to describe the visual features that led to their likes or dislikes. Each interview yielded a map of the areas as well as the reasons for people's feelings toward them. Overlaying the maps created a composite showing the shared evaluations. The composite depicted the evaluative image of each city. Though the maps differed, individuals in each city gave similar reasons for their evaluations. Five pairs of visual features stood out as influencing people's preferences:

* Well-kept vs. dilapidated * Natural vs. manmade * Historical significance vs. lack of historical significance * Open vs. restricted * Order vs. disorder.

Scores of other studies confirm the relation of popular preferences to these features.

Well-kept vs. dilapidated People like areas that appear well-maintained or clean. They dislike places that appear dilapidated or dirty. Boarded-up buildings, litter and graffiti have an additional negative effect. They convey a breakdown in public order. Research shows that this not only detracts from appearance, but it also heightens fear of crime, as well as increasing crime itself.

Natural vs. manmade As expected, people prefer naturalness (vegetation, views of vegetation, bodies of water and mountains) more than manmade elements. Therefore, it's best to preserve, whenever possible, trees, shrubs and flowers-as well as planting additional ones-buffer parking lots with vegetation, add trees to parking lots and preserve views of nature.

History vs. a lack thereof People also like areas of historical significance-as well as those that simply look historical. For example, consider a survey of Ohio State University alumni. The majority said they most liked two buildings on campus: A historical building and a relatively new building that looked historical.

Because construction costs today do not typically allow us to build with the detail and ornament of the past, communities should first try to preserve the historical buildings already standing. They should also opt for new construction that captures the historical feel.

As mentioned previously, American cities continue to lose their historical heritage to parking lots. Preservation and reuse of historical places can be an asset to vitality and the economy. Some people grouse about imitation of historical places, sneering at places such as Disneyland's "Main Street." However, most people enjoy such imitations. To improve appearance, communities should disregard the elitist view. Popular designs suit public places.

Into the great wide open People prefer places with open space and vistas vs. places with spatial restriction. Development, then, should try to preserve and add open space, as well as to preserve and add open vistas to nature.

Organization rules People like visual order. They prefer places that appear well organized and compatible. Of all the preferred features mentioned previously, order is key. Each of the other desirable features-maintenance, naturalness, historical significance and openness-build order. However, order is not enough. People also prefer moderate variety within order. This may be part of the reason for the preference for historical buildings. They tend to have visual variety in order.

The power of pleasure Research shows that exposure to appealing places or nature may have additional benefits. Such places may attract people and have restorative or healing value. For example, one study found that commuters drove out of their way to take more appealing routes. Another found that hospital patients with a pleasant and natural view healed faster than patients with the less-pleasant view of a wall.

We all have an interest in creating appealing places. Following guidelines from the research described here can help create the kinds of places people enjoy. Providing the most positive features-maintained areas, naturalness, historical significance, openness and order-should not only improve the appearance of places, however. By providing pleasure and relief from stress, it may enhance quality of life. And by attracting shoppers, renters or buyers, it can improve business.

Jack L. Nasar is professor of city and regional planning for the Knowlton School of Architecture at The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio). He also is the former chair of the Environmental Design Research Association.

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