Visual landscape assessment

Routes are important operative structures in landscape architecture because they play a crucial role in mediating or facilitating the use and reception of (designed) landscapes. Routes are the ‘silent guides of the stroller’ and facilitate the primordial act of walking as an aesthetic and social practice. The shape of a walk refers not only to the formal aspects of routing such as the tracing and gradient of the routes, but also to the landscape space as people perceive it. This perceptual space indicates the visual reality, the sensorial experience that emerges only by bodily movement and is affected by topological, physical, social, and psychological conditions. The psychologist Kurt Lewin proposed in 1934 the term Hodological Space to describe these factual conditions a person is faced with on its way (‘Hodos’, a Greek word meaning ‘way’). The psychogeographical maps of Guy Debord in the 1950’s and Hans Dieter Schaal in the late 1970’s are inspiring attempts to visualize perceptual space.


Psychogeographical mapping of hodological space (drawing by Hans Dieter Schaal, 1978)

Mapping hodological space (drawing by Hans Dieter Schaal, 1978)


Visual perception and kinaesthesia

The shape of a walk as a concept connects visual perception to the ‘sense of movement’ or kinaesthesia. In traditional Asian culture it is common to link visual perception with movement as exemplified by the Chinese character for ‘to see’ 見 in which the upper part symbolises the eye 目and the lower part symbolises the feet of a person 儿. Kinaesthetic experience involves several sensory channels for an active participation with the spatial environment. The brain integrates information from proprioception and the vestibular system into its overall sense of body position, movement, and acceleration, which is important for spatial orientation as described by the neuroscientist Alain Berthoz.

Bodily sensation and muscle movement are thus closely related to visual perception. As James Gibson elaborates in his seminal work ‘The ecological approach to visual perception’: “Locomotion is guided by visual perception. Not only does it depend on perception but perception depends on locomotion inasmuch as a moving point of observation is necessary for any adequate acquaintance with the environment. So we must perceive in order to move, but we must also move in order to perceive.” The shape of a walk is therefore determined by a kinaesthetic experience of the designed landscape where visual perception is inherently connected to one’s abilities and possibilities for movement offered by the design.


Bodily sensation and muscle movement are closely related to visual perception (photos by Eadweard Muybridge, 1887)

Bodily sensation and muscle movement are closely related to visual perception (photos by Eadweard Muybridge, 1887)


Walking as field of study in landscape architecture

The shape of the walk is thus of crucial importance in landscape architecture because it is not possible to perceive space without movement of the eye, head and body. It determines the tactile and kinaesthetic experience and is the means to organise the visual logic of a site by directing the individual’s gaze at views or focal points and their sequence. From this follows that the shape of a walk is an important unifying and structural principle in landscape design and the discovery of landscape from past to present. According to the garden theorist and historian Erik A. de Jong it must be considered the hinge that steered more than anything else the changing options for use, experience, and design and contributed fundamentally to both personal and cultural developments.

From this perspective the shape of a walk becomes a highly relevant field of study in landscape architecture. Not only in the sense that it addresses the phenomenological dimensions of landscape as proposed by the sociologist Lucius Burckhardt with his Science of Strolling (called: Strollology or Promenadology), or that it offers an alternative approach to landscape design that integrates intense space perception, encourages intuition and supports organization as elaborated by landscape architects such as Henrik Schultz and Günther Voght. The shape of a walk is also an important container of design knowledge available for systematic exploration, description and classification. It is an invaluable source of design principles that effectively shape the relation between formal space (‘space of coordinates’) and perceptual space. Studying the shape of a walk can help landscape architects to get a grip on space as perceived from eye-level, kinaesthetic aspects, wayfinding, and the phenomenology of landscape in order to become tools for landscape design.

GIS-based analysis of the shape of the walk at Stourhead Landscape garden combining height gradient, visible features and light and shade along the route (analysis by Steffen Nijhuis, 2015)

GIS-based analysis of the shape of the walk at Stourhead Landscape garden combining height gradient, visible features and light and shade along the route (analysis by Steffen Nijhuis, 2015)

The material as discussed above is excerpted from: Nijhuis, S. (2015) GIS-based landscape design research. Stourhead landscape garden as a case study. Delft, A+BE. or

The dike as a landscape element takes on many shapes [1]. Depending on their form and location, dikes determine the ‘face’ of the Dutch polder landscape. Of course vegetation, land allotment and building development patterns also play an important role. Yet dikes are vital to the landscape’s appearance: apart from their form and location, their uninterruptedness defines spaces in a landscape and connects areas with each other. Dikes make differences in the polder landscape legible: a dike in a river landscape is different from one built in a sea-clay or peat landscape or the area around the IJsselmeer lake. Dikes therefore contribute to the identity and variety of the landscape. They simultaneously provide coherence, a sense of space and a rich variety of appearances. But how do you get a grip on the dikes’ spatial significance?

The seminal publication Het toekomstig landschap der Zuiderzeepolders (literally, ‘The future landscape of the Zuiderzee polders’ [1928]) provides some leads. In this manifesto of Dutch landscape architecture, planning experts such as D. Hudig and T. van Lohuizen described the importance of dikes as follows: ‘The dike is a significant element in every polder. Located on the border, it provides a view on one side of the landscape at its foot, unfolding its particular structure; on the other side it provides a view of the surrounding land, which often has a completely different character. The long, broad slope is one of the dike’s most beautiful features (. . .)’. From this, it can be inferred that a dike’s spatial significance depends on your vantage point, on the perspective you choose for reading and understanding dikes in the landscape. There are at least two different ways of looking at dikes: from the air and from the ground. In these vertical and horizontal perspectives features such as the dike’s course, cross-section and revetment always play a different role.

The course, cross-section and revetment of the dike exert great influence on its spatial significance. Plan for a new sea dike in the IJsselmeer area (Netherlands), Jacob van Hoorn, 1737 (source: TU Delft Library, Kaartencollectie Trésor TRL33.5.07)

The course, cross-section and revetment of the dike exert great influence on its spatial significance. Plan for a new sea dike in the IJsselmeer area (Netherlands), Jacob van Hoorn, 1737 (source: TU Delft Library, Kaartencollectie Trésor TRL33.5.07)

The view from the air

You get a bird’s eye view of the dike system regardless of whether you view it from the air or on a map. It becomes clear that dikes form spatial patterns that endow the landscape with structure. They provide cohesion in the landscape and are also the interface between land and water, or between different polders that are enclosed as spatial units. Dikes ‘frame’ different types of landscape and landscape units. Like the black lines that separate the pictures in a comic book, the dikes are the green lines that demarcate the Dutch landscape. This also means that dikes are connecting structures:  through cities and nature, they meander everywhere and connect the coast with the hinterland. This is significant, not only for plants and animals but also for humans.

Dike patterns also make the history of reclamation in the polder readable: in Friesland (NL), for example, you can see an intricate, irregular pattern of dikes and quays, an echo of the early individual reclamation that from the time of the Romans gradually developed into ring dikes; you can discern the haphazard process of diking accreted silted soil in Zeeland, and the systematic reclamation of the West-Frisian and Holland-Utrecht peat areas that started in the early Middle Ages. The ring dikes mark the areas of reclaimed land that have lain low in the landscape since the sixteenth century. Dike patterns are a record of the formative force of water and the way humans have dealt with it. Natural processes of sedimentation, erosion and stagnation through water provide the foundation for a rich variety of polder landscapes in the coastal, river and peat areas. Dikes also reflect technological progress, such as the Dutch Delta works, the Afsluitdijk (the enclosing dam of the IJsselmeer) and land reclamation in the IJsselmeer area. In a nutshell, the shape of a dike makes it possible to read how we have dealt with water: from the small-scale and winding in early times to the very large-scale and rectilinear today.

The development of the landscape expressed by the pattern of dikes, here visible on the island of Goeree Overflakkee (SW-Netherlands)  (drawing by: Michiel Pouderoijen, TU Delft)

The development of the landscape expressed by the pattern of dikes, here visible on the island of Goeree Overflakkee (SW-Netherlands) (drawing by: Michiel Pouderoijen, TU Delft)

The view from the ground

Viewing the dike from the ground means you stand on or next to the dike or see it from a distance. Here, conditions affecting visual perception such as vantage point, the viewer’s elevation and viewing direction, movement, and the weather play an important role. The interplay between the dike’s sideways slope, structure and revetment determine its spatial significance at eye level.

In the field, dikes are spatial borders: they determine the form of the landscape, the two- and three-dimensional composition of vertical elements that define the landscape space. The composition determines the scale, proportion, orientation and significance of the space. Every dike has its own specific characteristics, with form creating the connection between a landscape’s history and our spatial experience. Apart from the sideways slope, the cross-section and revetment are also important. The dike cross-section describes the dike’s height, the angle of inclination of its slope, and the width of the crest and the toe. This is important because a high, steep dike creates a different spatial effect from, say, a gently sloping wide dike. Whereas a steep dike makes a spatial border palpable, a dike with a gentle slope tones it down. Whether a dike is revetted with stones or only with grass also plays a role. The revetment is an indication of the function and use of the dike’s inside and outside, and it can create visual continuity or, in fact, contrast. Trees reinforce the three-dimensional effect of the dike but due to technical considerations they cannot always be planted.

The dike as landscape balcony at Wörlitz, Dessau (Germany) (photo: S. Nijhuis, 2013)

The dike as landscape balcony at Wörlitz, Dessau (Germany) (photo: S. Nijhuis, 2013)

Standing on a dike is like standing on a landscape balcony with sweeping views on either side – stretches of water or polder, or both. Movement plays an important role in how we experience these landscapes because there are often roads or cycle-paths on top of the dikes. Seen from the car or bicycle, aspects of the landscape succeed one another like a cinematic experience, as we float above the landscape. The straight or curved course of the dike then provides variation or calm and opens up perspectives on the landscape. Here, too, the cross-section strongly affects spatial experience: if the road and cycle-path are both located on the crest, for example, their width might diminish the special experience of the dike, whereas if the cycle-path is located on the dike’s flank more of the dike remains.

The dike’s continuity makes the landscape’s cohesion visible and connects the local with the supra-regional: in the Rhine-Meuse river area dikes follow the course of the rivers with  occasional sharp bends around deep lakes that bear silent witness to past dike breaches; in the peat area dikes support a system of drainage lakes and cut through the low-lying polder land; in the coastal area dikes are like the layers of an onion, enfolding and merging the land as it grew; and the dikes in the young IJsselmeer polders and the ring dikes around the polders of reclaimed lakes make it possible to experience the former stretches of water as landscape spaces.

Research through design exploring spatial qualities of re-enforced river dikes (source: Y. Feddes & F. Halenbeek, 1988)

Research through design exploring spatial qualities of re-enforced river dikes (source: Y. Feddes & F. Halenbeek, 1988, compilation: S.Nijhuis)

In conclusion

Taken together, these ways of looking create a basis for approaching the dike from a spatial perspective and endowing it with aesthetic landscape qualities. Thus, if work is carried out on a dike attention must be paid not only to safety and multi-functionality but also to scenic beauty. Carefully designing a dike’s course, cross-section and revetment ensures its contribution to the identity, spatial aspect and variation of a landscape. The design disciplines are vital here: landscape architects and urban planners play a key role in planning developments that affect the landscape, and they should take the lead in developing the expertise and tools to formulate the dike as an object of spatial design in a context of functionality and social embedding.



[1] This text is published as:  Nijhuis, S (2014). Dikes in focus. In EJ Pleijster & C van der Veeken (Eds.), Dutch dikes (pp. 72-75). Rotterdam: nai010 publishers. In Dutch: Nijhuis, S (2014). Oog voor de dijk. In EJ Pleijster & C van der Veeken (Eds.), Dijken van Nederland (pp. 72-75). Rotterdam: nai010 uitgevers. Both available at:


Landscape can be defined as “an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors” [1].This definition clearly emphasises the sensory relationship between the observer and the landscape. The major question here is: how do we know and understand the landscape through perception?

Although ‘perceived by people’ refers to a holistic experience with all senses, very often it is reduced to the visual aspects. This has to do with the fact that 80% of our impression of our surroundings comes from sight [2]. Also the ‘range’ of our senses plays an important role. Granö (1929) already made the distinction between the ‘Nahsicht’ and ‘Fernsicht’. The Nahsicht or proximity is the environment we can experience with all our senses, the Fernsicht he called also landscape and is the part of our environment we mainly experience by vision [3]. Hence the identifying character of landscapes in the rural and urban realm is, to a large extent, built upon visual perception. Since visual perception is a key factor in behaviour and preference, it is crucial for landscape planning, design, and management, as well as for monitoring and protection of landscapes. But how can we comprehend the ‘face of the landscape’ and its perception? And how can we make this applicable to landscape planning, design and management?

Can you see the face? [4]

We believe that the long tradition and current advances in the field of visual landscape research offer interesting clues for theory, methodology and applications in this direction [5]. Visual landscape research is an interdisciplinary approach that combines (a) landscape planning, design and management concepts, (b) landscape perception approaches, and (c) Geographic Information Science (GISc)-based methods and techniques. While integrating psychological knowledge of landscape perception, the technical considerations of geomatics, and methodology of landscape architecture and urban planning, it provides a solid basis for visual landscape assessment in cities, parks and rural areas. It offers great potential for the acquisition of design knowledge by exploring landscape architectonic compositions from the ‘inside out’, as well as possibilities to enrich landscape character assessment with visual landscape indicators. Since they are crucial elements in landscape perception and preference it is important for landscape planning, policy and monitoring to get a grip on visual landscape attributes like spaciousness and related indicators (e.g. degree of openness, visual dominance, building density and the nature of spatial boundaries).

The field of visual landscape research is expanding every day. Influenced by national and international initiatives it is likely to continue developing in three ways. In the first place by scientific development of theory, methods and techniques. Secondly by implementation in education, and thirdly by knowledge transfer and applications in academia and society (valorisation). In order to facilitate this development a dialogue is needed between the scientific community and society through high quality publications and platforms for knowledge dissemination and discussion. We like to contribute to this dialogue via our platform Exploring the Visual Landscape (EVL), an initiative of Delft University of Technology, Landscape Architecture andWageningenUniversity, Centre for Geo-Information.

Colloquium: Exploring the Visual Landscape, March 22nd 2012, TU Delft. More information:

Book: Exploring the Visual Landscape. Advances in Physiognomic Landscape Research in the Netherlands. S. Nijhuis, R. Van Lammeren and F.D. Van Der Hoeven (eds.). Research in Urbanism Series, Volume 2. September 2011, Amsterdam, IOS press

Download from Repository TU Delft: []

Online purchase: []


[1]  Council of Europe(2000) European Landscape Convention.Florence. European Treaty Series 176. p3

[2]  Seiderman, A., Marcus, S. (1989/1991) 20/20 is not enough. The new world of vision.New York. Alfred a. Knopf. p6

[3]  Granö, J.G. (1929) Reine Geographie. Eine methodologische Studie beleuchtet mit Beispielen aus Finnland und Estland. Acta Geographica 2 (2); 202. Recently republished in: O Granö and A. Paasi (eds.) (1997) Pure Geography.Baltimore andLondon, TheJohnHopkinsUniversity Press.

[4] Source: [accessed: February 4th, 2012]

[5]  See for an overview: Nijhuis, S., Van Lammeren, R., Antrop, M . (2011) Exploring Visual Landscapes. Introduction. In: S. Nijhuis, R. van Lammeren, F.D. van der Hoeven (eds.) Exploring the Visual Landscape. Advances in Physiognomic Landscape Research.Amsterdam, IOS Press. pp15-40

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