Layers of Landscape – Contemplative Landscape Features Series

If you have ever wondered why movie characters always seem to be entrenched in deep thought while looking out far into the distance, this post is for you as it explains the science behind this magic of long-distance views.

It all comes down to a category of contemplative features of landscapes we call ‘Layers of Landscape’. It includes features such as the depth of view, which is connected directly to the visibility of three planes and the comfort of long-distance views. As one might expect, it is divided into three distance zones, foreground, middleground and background. This is demonstrated on the photograph of Buchanan Street in Glasgow, Scotland. 

In contemplative landscapes, long-distance views are vital as they account for about 70% of the ‘weight’ of the overall score of a landscape in comparison to other categories. According to many authors, being able to see far away is a feature that significantly improves the quality of landscape through the visitor’s perception capability. Long-distance views stimulate in the observer a sense of personal freedom, mental pleasure, stress reduction, an improvement of the quality of life in the city (Skalski, 2005; Tuan, 1974).

 The importance of long distance-views has also been confirmed in environmental psychology. Long-distance views are thought to stimulate the away feeling and a reorientation from every-day life (especially life within an urban context), because being away goes beyond simple “getting away from it all”, and means switching between various activities and changing the perspective of viewing things and everyday activities.

 The image below presents the City Park of Porto in Portugal; a great example of a park with one of the main functions stated as contemplation, showing just how long-distance views help to achieve this goal. The park provides many panoramic settings with very long distance views (including views reaching the ocean horizon line), and thus a contemplative experience.

A valley-corridor enables long distance panoramic views, Parque da Cidade, Porto, Portugal.

The CLASS software we developed can identify features such as the presence of long-distance views in the images it analyses and score them accordingly. While it is just one of many features of a contemplative space, the incorporation of panoramic views in landscape designs is a good start to increase their chances of fulfilling the function of promoting contemplation and relaxation of the visitors.

In this short review, we hope to have given you a few clues as to the science behind why some landscapes are more therapeutic than others. Our advice? Next time you have a chance, gaze up and into the distance, and enjoy the benefits of contemplating a landscape far into the horizon line.

Based on Olszewska, A. (2016) “Contemplative Values of Urban Parks and Gardens Applying Neuroscience to Landscape Architecture”, PhD thesis, University of Porto, Portugal, with some parts quoted verbatim.


Other references:

Skalski, J. (2005). “Comfort of long-distance perceiving and a landscape of river valley in towns situated on the plains”, Teka Komisji Architektury, Urbanistyki i Studiów Krajobrazowych, 1.

Yeomans, W. C. (1983), Visual Resource Assessment: A User Guide. BC, Ministry of Environment.

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