Prospects and refuges are bound to paths

Buscot Park axis.400

The British designer Harold Peto created this axial prospect draped across a small valley at Buscot Park in the early 1900s. The pavilion on the horizon provokes our attention as a secondary prospect promising a farther view .

Prospects and refuges—landscape elements critical for conveying to us a sense of safety and mental comfort—are hardwired to walking because they are reached by paths, which also form escape routes. At Rousham—a particularly good site for studying how this bonding of walking and hiding can be designed—we are drawn forward along the primary circuit to a series of small buildings with seats inside, temples, arcades, follies, each constructed to offer both protection and a long outlook.

In designing prospects and refuges that convey a sense of safety, the two primary prerequisites are views and the possibility of movement. Blocked views prevent seeing oncoming danger; blocked routes prevent escaping. So the key to shaping paths for refuges, prospects, and escape routes is enclosure.  Walls to our sides and back prevent ambush, openings along shaded routes permit safe, furtive movement. Thus, the location and kind of enclosures (and openings) determine whether we consider a route safe or dangerous, and thus, in large measure, whether we will take it or not.

These reactions hint at the millennia of gestation of our preferences. What we think of today as safe places are, as Stephen Pinker put it in How the Mind Works, “dead ringers for an optimal savanna: semi-open space (neither completely exposed, which leaves one vulnerable, nor overgrown, which impedes vision and movement), even ground cover, views to the horizon, large trees, water, changes in elevation, and multiple paths leading out.”

This pattern forms a powerful, deeply ingrained spatial syntax, a cohesive set of elements and relationships constituting a fundamental way we read and judge landscapes. Based on this pattern, we prefer:

  • Edges of spaces because our backs are protected and because we get a better overview of the space than from the middle;
  • Places with roofs or canopies overhead;
  • Shady spots in high places;
  • Multiple screens offering a variety of levels of privacy; and
  • Places with several views and several ways of moving away from the place, permitting both surveillance and escape.

In short, on level plains or among hills, in city, suburb or country, we can fashion places along paths that provide this much sought-after combination of enclosure and openings outward that convey to the primitive part of our brain a sense of safety and comfort.


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