The importance of water for restorativeness ratings of natural and built scenes

Although theorists have suggested that aquatic environments or “blue space” might have particular restorative potential, to date there is little systematic empirical research on this issue. Indeed the presence of water has, unintentionally, been a confounding factor in research comparing people’s reactions to built and natural environments. Whereas aquatic features (rivers, lakes, coasts) are frequently present in visual stimuli representing natural environments they are rarely incorporated in stimuli portraying built environments. As many towns are, for good reason, located near water this is a potentially significant oversight.

The current research collated a set of 120 photographs of natural and built scenes, half of which contained “aquatic” elements. Proportions of “aquatic”/“green”/“built” environments in each scene (e.g. 1/3rd, 2/3rds) were also standardised. Two studies investigated preferences (attractiveness, willingness to visit and willingness to pay for a hotel room with the view), affect and perceived restorativeness ratings for these photographs. As predicted, both natural and built scenes containing water were associated with higher preferences, greater positive affect and higher perceived restorativeness than those without water. Effect sizes were consistently large. Intriguingly, images of “built” environments containing water were generally rated just as positively as natural “green” space.

We propose a number of avenues for further research including exploration of the mechanisms underlying these effects.

The full study is published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology

Full citation

Mathew White, Amanda Smith, Kelly Humphryes, Sabine Pahl, Deborah Snelling, Michael Depledge, Blue space: The importance of water for preference, affect, and restorativeness ratings of natural and built scenes, Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 30, Issue 4, December 2010, Pages 482-493.