Prospect and Refuge in the Landscape

I was recently strolling through a favorite park near my home on a cool, sunny, fall day. Blue jays, cardinals, wrens, and other birds were busily flying from shrubs to trees, squirrels were chasing each other round and round the tree trunks, the dried fallen leaves crunched under my footsteps, and I could hear the trickle of water from a nearby stream. Along the path, a wooden bench beckoned me to rest and bathe in the sights, sounds, and scents of nature. Behind the bench was a towering beech tree surrounded by various smaller trees and undergrowth. I sat there for a long while, feeling completely at peace.


Earlier in my walk I had passed another bench that was next to the path. It had a lovely view of a lake in the distance, but all around it were open areas of grass. I had walked by it without the slightest temptation of sitting there. 


Why had one bench called to me so strongly while the other did not?

Well, it turns out that I’m not the only one to ask this type of question. In 1975, British geographer Jay Appleton published The Experience of Landscape, in which he proposed his ‘prospect-refuge theory’. Appleton suggested that what we find aesthetically pleasing in art and in the landscape is derived from what we need for survival - that is, our fundamental human needs of shelter, safety, food, water, light, and air. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed to have a clear view of the landscape and their prey while being somewhat hidden. This allowed them to assess potential threats from a place of relative safety. Even though the dangers we usually experience as modern humans differ greatly from those of our ancient ancestors, we continue to be drawn to settings in which we have a clear view while feeling protected. 

In the case of my preference for the bench nestled under a large tree, I had a clear view of what was in front of me, which Appleton refers to as prospect, while having the refuge of vegetation above and behind me. From an anthropological perspective, I could easily see my surroundings from a “protected” area. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t huddling in the bushes next to a savannah to avoid being seen and eaten by a lion; I was just looking for a restful spot in which to enjoy the nature around me! I find it fascinating, though, that my ancient human need for shelter and safety may have dictated my seating preference.

Keeping in mind Appleton’s prospect-refuge theory is important when designing a garden retreat. We often go to these gardens to seek refuge from the stress of our daily lives, so there needs to be a place within them where we can feel safe and completely at ease. For gardens in settings where those who frequent it might be ill or elderly, such as a hospital or retirement community, it is especially important to create seating areas that provide some sense of shelter, not only with canopies that protect from the rain and hot sun, but also with plants that provide a feeling of privacy and “protection” from behind.

There might be times when we are feeling so peaceful and safe within ourselves that we do not seek out a place of refuge; in times like those, we might just choose to lie down in an open field or on an exposed bench with our arms spread out, staring at the clouds. Ahh …. 


But often, this could cause us to feel very vulnerable, either physically or emotionally, or both.

The next time you choose to rest a bit while you are outside, take a moment to look around you. Are you out in an open area for the world to see? Or is nature providing a refuge with tree branches above you or evergreen shrubs behind you? Perhaps there is a manmade structure, such as a wooden fence or stone wall, giving you a sense of refuge. Do you have a clear view in front of you? Is the prospect one that drew you to that place? Whether we are aware of it or not, it seems that there are always reasons for our choices! 

Mary Pat Peters