Spatial Enclosure/Sense of Place is Appealing. But Why??

Mike.Zimney's picture


I was hoping someone might be to answer a question that has been lingering in my head.  Why do people find places with good spatial enclosure appealing and enjoyable? 

I understand that buildings/trees help define and frame the public realm and that 1:3 ratio creates an environment where the human eye sees more building in their peripheral than horizon and that makes you feel like you are in an ‘outdoor room'. 

So what is it that when buildings and/or trees frame the public realm it is so universally appealing?  I understand that these appealing places also have buildings that engage the street, active street level uses, prominent windows/doors, and other urban design features that contribute to a pleasant environment.  So why is it when these design features are combined with a well-defined public realm it is so appealing or enjoyable.

Your average person doesn't walk through Savannah or Paris and think to themselves what lovely spatial enclosure, but generally everyone loves to walk and spend time in these places.

It's got to be something biological, something hardwired into our brains. 

Maybe the easiest way to answer this is by explaining why people do not like public realms that lack good spatial enclosure, i.e placeless.  I know that people find this environment unappealing, but what happens people feel unsecure or vulnerable? 

I'm hoping someone out there might be able to explain the universal psychological or biological reaction people have in places with good spatial enclosure and places that don't have spatial enclosure.  I want to be able to explain to the general public or commissioners on why well-defined public realms makes people happy. 



Why do people also pay a premium for river, lake or ocean views?

After first hearing of the "outdoor room" concept from Denver planning director Peter Park (then in Milwaukee), I've often found myself using it to explain the bond people feel with wonderful welcoming city spaces, whether they're store-lined streets, sidewalk cafes or public squares or gardens. 

Maybe it's not that unusual to wonder whether there's something in the wiring of our brains that makes us feel reassured around certain kinds of spaces. Is part of the reason people relish hotel rooms and vacation cottages with views of bodies of water because of primal concerns about proximity to sources of freshwater (in the case of lakes and rivers) or abundant food sources (oceans). Or does our attachment to such places have more to do their ability to tap into fond memories from childhood vacations? And what would it be about a great outdoor room that registers with us in such a positive way — it may have something to do with a sense of security (it's a space we can quickly survey and determine no dangers are present) and a sense of discovery (plenty of city life to explore). Beauty helps too. 

I wonder if Alain De Botton looked into these issues (and research that may shed more light on them) for his Architecture of Happiness.



Propsect and Refuge

One of my landscape architecture colleagues was finally able to provide me a theory to answer my spatial enclosure question.  She described the Prospect and Refuge Theory which I learned was developed by the English geographer Jay Appleton.

Jay Appleton - The Experience of Landscape

Propsect and Refuge describes a space where we have the best view, but don’t feel exposed, or unprotected.  This preference, he theorized, is tied to our ancestor’s hunting, where an edge of a clearing provided long sight lines to see prey, but also limited a person's visibility from both the prey we hunted and the predators hunting us.  Appleton notes the survival of this ethological preference in aesthetic preference for landscape scenes that contain a balance of prospect and refuge

The Origins of Architectural Pleasure - Grant Hildebrand

Although we no longer need to protect ourselves from predators or hide to entrap prey, the edge conditions of our buildings enable us to selectively participate in the larger world. The inside-outside space enables us to choose whether to engage in the life of the street or to retreat into privacy.





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