Prospect — refuge theory

Image by Esther Sugihto

It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon, and you find yourself surveying your local park to find the most comfortable place to sit. Amount of shade, quality of grass, proximity to play areas for the kids, level of noise — all these play a part in your assessment. That, and prospect-refuge theory undergirds all of this.

“To see without being seen.” Konrad Lorenz, ethologist

Prospect-refuge theory was developed by Jay Appleton, an English geographer and academic in 1975. In his book, the Experience of Landscape, he proposes that humans seek out to satisfy an innate desire when reviewing a space — to have opportunity [prospect] whilst being safe [refuge]. This stems from evolutionary survival, where the predator must be able to see their prey without being seen.

Prospect-refuge theory suggests that spaces we find most acceptable to be in present us with great opportunity, yet we must be in a place of safety at the time.

Whilst we are no longer hunters and gatherers, the landscapes we find aesthetically satisfying is actually rooted in the environment’s capability to answer a biological drive.

So what is prospect and what is refuge?

Prospect examples:

  • a distant vista
  • an elevated view
  • large natural wonders — mountains, oceans, lakes, sky expanse

Refuge examples:

  • an interior space
  • a bench seat with a wall behind
  • a cave or grotto
  • a physical impediment to hide behind

This plays out everywhere we go — this image of an outdoor space at RMIT University, Melbourne, shows that people gravitate to edge conditions. Nobody has chosen to sit in the middle of the green space, nor along the wooden path. They wish to have the refuge of the bench edge, the tree trunk or the concrete wall, whilst maintaining their prospect to survey the remainder of the outdoor space.

The introductory image above of the State Library of Victoria forecourt shows that the elevation permits the prospect over the pedestrians of Swanston Street, granting refuge for the occupant to sit on the grass.

How does this relate to the design of spaces?

  • edge conditions encourage people to sit and survey (confirmed by urban planner Kevin Lynch)
  • expansive spaces discourage occupation, but invite surveying of the space
  • size of spaces matter to the number of occupants able to use it
Therefore, in the design of space, provide good quality spaces of refuge where people can oversee an area of opportunity/activity.
Image by Caleb George, via www.unsplash.com

In our cohousing project, the communal north-facing front yard is the play space for the kids of the development. The deck forms an edge condition, raised to approximately seat height, so one can have refuge sitting here whilst surveying the children at play.

So, in the design of your spaces, whether it be your backyard, restaurant, living room, common room, ensure there are good refuge spaces that have an aspect to good opportunities. Remember, these don’t have to be on your site — use the prospect of spaces beyond your title boundaries.

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