Nature Connection in Pennsylvania State Parks: Case Study Evaluations in Three Parks

Open Access
Powell, Jake Francis
Graduate Program:
Landscape Architecture
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
April 27, 2012
Committee Members:
  • Brian A Orland, Thesis Advisor
  • nature connection
  • Pennsylvania State Parks
  • biophilic design
  • environmental education
The human race is confronting environmental problems unprecedented in magnitude and complexity, and the critical pro-environmental behaviors needed to address those problems are strongly influenced by the importance of nature within our personal consciousness. Ironically, at the same time the need for awareness and engagement in environmental issues increases, opportunities for individuals to intimately interact and forge positive emotional connections with nature are diminishing. This disappearance has intensified pressures on public land agencies to provide places where people can experience this human-nature connection. As these agencies experience increased demands and shrinking budgets, effective design and management strategies must be employed to maximize the potential for visitors to experience this nature-connection. Research from a diverse array of scientific fields confirms that physical attributes of spaces have the ability to contribute to an emotional connection in people. However, despite the diverse body of research regarding nature attachment, place attachment, and landscape preference, designers charged with creating spaces that go beyond mere attachment to place and facilitate an emotional attachment to nature lack clear feedback from users regarding what experiences are most effective at creating this connection. Traditional research has focused on users responses to landscapes as if the landscape was holistic and unchangeable, while in reality landscape architects are challenged to craft spaces made up of discreet, malleable physical elements that work together to create an experience. This research aims to bridge the gap between what designers perceive as cogent spaces for facilitating a human-nature connection and what actual users perceive as effective or distracting from creating this connection. In an effort to understand the opinion of users, three data sources were used: questioner feedback from visitors using existing Pennsylvania state parks system landscapes, user mapping exercises, and GIS analysis of the current physical attributes compared with the user responses. The results of this research are intended to provide professionals charged with creating, enhancing, or maintaining state parks, user-response-based data. From this data difficult design decisions can be made regarding what elements or spatial compositions would prove most effective in fostering increased connection to the natural environment. This research attempts to bridge the gap between the theoretical research of the social and psychological disciplines that inform “why” deep connections to natural spaces occur and reevaluate “how” the physical spaces actually perform.