Quantifying Relationships between Ecology and Aesthetics in Agricultural Landscapes
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Biodiversity decline and ecological degradation continue unabated despite accumulation of ecological knowledge, proliferation of sustainability research, and efforts to conserve natural resources. This paradox underscores the failure of scientific research to communicate its social relevance, acceptability, and applicability or to connect with what humans find ecologically understandable or worthy of care. Acceptable and applicable approaches to nurture long-term, mutually beneficial nature-culture relationships must be conceived within the scale of human perception and linked to experiences that attract our concern. Through established theory and supporting empirical evidence, this research explores and quantifies the potential and limitations for enlisting the human aesthetic connection to landscapes as a mechanism for behavioral change. The cultural, ecological, and biophysical attributes of agricultural landscapes provide a compatible and influential context for examining relationships between ecology and aesthetics. However, the emotional power of aesthetic experiences to motivate conservation behavior in agricultural settings will likely depend on the coincidence of ecological function and aesthetic appeal in visual landscape structure. Parallel concerns, intentions, and spatial scale between the disciplines of landscape ecology and landscape architecture expose a potentially synergistic collaboration for investigating landscape structural alternatives that harmonize ecology and aesthetics. The empirical research undertaken herein combines current spatial analysis, design, and modeling tools; digital image simulation; and a landscape preference survey to ask, Can ecological function and aesthetic quality coincide in visible landscape structure? Using geographic information system analysis and digital image simulation software, varying extents and configurations of natural vegetation are integrated into the small-grain farming landscape of Whitman County, Washington. The capacity of these landscape-scale buffer systems to enhance ecological function by reducing soil erosion rates and improving water quality is measured with the Water Erosion Prediction Project model. The influence of the alternative landscape scenarios on aesthetic preference is measured by residents' scenic quality ratings of the simulated scenes presented in a mail survey questionnaire. Results reveal a statistically significant, positive relationship between landscape preference and landscape structure indicative of improved ecological function. Thus, the visually perceptible structural attributes of agricultural landscapes can provide an accurate and coincident indication of both ecological function and aesthetic quality.
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