Are Natural Scenes Aways Preferred over Urban Scenes? Considering City Skylines at Night

Studies have consistently found that people prefer natural environments over urban environments, and they do so with a good reason – experience of nature can better provide physiological, emotional and attentional restoration than urban surroundings (according to Hartig et al., 2003). However, there must be some city-lovers out there who wonder if there are some conditions on which urban settings can be just as likable as scenes of nature, or even more.

Sleepless in Seattle; photo by James Marvin Phelps

Folloving the logic of an undeniable city-lover Woddy Allen, who used Manhattan skyline at night as an exciting and romantic setting for his movies, Nasar and Terzano (2010) wondered if city skylines after dark would upset the consistent pattern of preference for natural scenes over urban ones.

Manhattan lights; photo by Wherever I Roam

They asked respondents to rate pleasantness of natural scenes, city skylines during the day, and city skylines after dark; and to pick the scene they would most like to have as a print in their home or office.

Full moon over Cape Town; photo by alistair.pott

The respondents rated  natural scenes as more pleasant than  the day skylines, but city skylines after dark were equally liked as natural scenes.  This suggests that contrary to more than thirty years of study, people do not always prefer nature to urban or built-up scenes. The findings for the behavioral choices go even one step further: although participants picked the night skylines and natural scenes more often than the day skylines to have it as a print in their home or office, they picked the night skylines more often than the natural scenes.

Toronto; photo by Wherever I Roam

The reasons reported for the choice of night skylines differed from those for the choice of natural scenes – people chose the natural scenes for their calming quality and the night skylines for their excitement.

This study was exploratory, and that’s why it dealt with such a basic problem as a mere preference of a scene is. Its findings, however, set ground for more detailed and interesting research – the impact of night city views on our emotions, cognition and behaviour.  I belive that there will be some important effects found because our preferences are not arbitrary – they reflect positive influence that our environments have on us, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Singapore; photo by kris.hoet

Authors were very critical in the discussion of the limitations of their work and the one limitation that I belive should be taken very seriously is that  (unintentionally) every night skyline scene had water in the foreground, while only one of the day skylines does. That could be the reason for greater liking of night scenes if we propose that water increases the appeal of a scene. (And does it? Yes – study overviews coming soon!)

Manhattan; photo by Wherever I Roam

Even though I’m all for implementing previous findings about benefits of natural environments into urbanistic practice (planning more city parks, rooftop gardens, potted plants for the interior), those findings were somewhat pessimistic, suggesting that we can never feel as good in the city as in the nature. Proving that city views can sometimes be equally or more appealing than nature views, this study provides an alternative to seeing urban environment only as noisy, stressful, crowded and aesthetically unpleasing.

Hartig, T.,Evans, G.B., Jamner, L.D., Davis, D.S., Garling, T. (2003. Tracking restoration in natural and urban field settings. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 23,  109–123.

Nasar, J.L., and Terzano, K. (2010). The desirability of views of city skylines after dark. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 215–225.

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