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27. Evaluation of Urban Riverscape Aesthetics in the Canadian Prairies

DescriptionThis study measures perception of an urban riverscape. Its purpose is to determine the cognitive constructs used in evaluating a non-spectacular riverscape. The constructs are then used to determine which attributes of the riverscape influence the evaluation.

The basis for this study is the Personal Construct Theory. It uses the repertory grid methodology, validated by Harrison and Sarre (1976) and Ward and Russell (1981), to examine cognition of the physical environment.

30 University of Saskatchewan students from various background and disciplines were asked to sort 40 colour prints of different reaches of the South Saskatchewan River into as many piles as they wished, based on any criteria they chose. The participants thus formed a repertory grid, based on personal constructs. This information was then used to form a matrix (the aggregate repertory supergrid) which showed the degree to which a pair of photographs were considered similar by participants.


Multidimensional scaling of the resultant similarity matrix revealed three cognitive constructs (dimensions) used to evaluate the riverscape. Cluster analysis of the matrix developed clusters of photographs which were plotted on the three dimensions. Common attributes of the photographs in each cluster were determined using the 'aesthetic factors' postulated by Leopold (1969). The dimensions were then characterised in terms of attributes: natural vs. man-made; blighted vs. enhanced; barren and brown vs. lush and green. Attributes eliciting strong responses were colour, vegetation, soil, exposure, land use, blight and cultural features.

The authors claim that:

  • the multidimensional scaling of repertory supergrids was found to be a flexible, precise and sensitive method of measuring landscape evaluations (pp. 271-272).
  • perceptual constructs derived from this study were useful in a planning and management context. They appear to delineate the perceived similarities of landscape but are not directed towards a "preferred" landscape, if one exists (p 273)
PublishedJournal of Environmental Management 17: 263-276.
AuthorsPomeroy, J.W., Green, M.B., and Fitzgibbon, J.E.
PublisherAcademic Press Inc. (London)
Pricesubscription c. 258 p.a. (3)
Keywordslandscape assessment; riverscape evaluation; South Saskatchewan River; repertory grid; multidimensional scaling; urban aesthetics.

This study sets out to gain an understanding of the public evaluation of non-spectacular scenery based on objective, quantitative research. The authors make strong claims for the reliability and applicability of this methodology (p.273):

    "The aesthetic impact of changes in landscape attributes can be measured quantitatively in a theoretically sound manner that takes into account present attributes of the region (cognitive set)."

However, there are certain criticisms of the techniques employed in this research which are worth considering. Hamill (quoted in Porteous, 1996, p203), suggests that "the prevailing establishment belief that objective knowledge is possible and that quantitative knowledge is superior to any other, leads to the making of, and persistence of, fundamental errors."

The evaluations of the participants selected for this study may not reflect the preferences of the general public or minority groups within the community. Whose evaluations and preferences should be selected and used to influence or direct management or planning decisions?

The use of the repertory grid and Personal Construct Theory in environmental research are discussed in the review of Harrison and Sarre (1975).


Harrison, J. and Sarre, W. (1976) "Personal Construct Theory, the repertory grid, and environmental cognition," G.T. Moore and G.G. Gollege, eds., Environmental Knowing: theories, research and methods. Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania: Dowden, Hutchison and Ross.

Leopold, L.B. (1969). Quantitive ccomparisons of some aesthetic factors among rivers. US Geological Survey Circular 620. Washington D.C.: Department of the Interior.

Ward, L. and Russell, J. (1981). Cognitive set and the perception of place. Environment and Behavior, 13: 610-632.

Other References

Hamill, L. (1989). "On the persistence of error in landscape aesthetics"; pp. 197-206. In P. Dearden and B. Sadler (eds) Landscape Evaluation Victoria, BC: Western Geographic Series.

Porteous, J.D. (1996), Environmental Aesthetics London: Routledge