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1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences



Paul H. Gobster
U.S. Forest Service Experimental Station
845 Chicago Avenue - Suite 225
Evanston, IL 60202
Tel:  (847) 866-9311


Savanna-type landscapes have aesthetic appeal to many people. However, while anecdotal evidence and environmental perception research indicate that the vegetative structure of the savanna is highly preferred, savannas that exhibit a high degree of ecological integrity may be seen as unattractive, untidy, and even "unnatural," especially in an urban context. By the same token, management activities that aim to restore the ecological processes that sustain these communities often produce conditions that are perceived as ugly and potentially dangerous. Landscape design and interpretation offer important ways in which the inner beauty of natural ecosystems and processes can be revealed to the public, and can help facilitate an enhanced understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment. 


Although the Midwest oak savanna is one of the rarest ecosystems around today, many of the structural qualities that define natural savannas are commonly found in the residential and park designs preferred by most people. In this paper I examine why the vegetation structure of savanna-type landscapes have such a broad aesthetic appeal, but why activities aimed at restoring and maintaining the ecological function of these and other natural ecosystems are often perceived negatively. I close with some recommendations on how we might better express the intentions behind restoring natural ecosystems and processes to public groups. 

The context of my discussion focuses mainly on urban areas, especially on restorations around the Chicago region. Because many remaining fragments of the oak savanna in this region exist in proximity to large concentrations of people, it is critical to understand how the general public perceives management and restoration activities. And while in this context the challenges to success may seem formidable, ecological restoration in urban areas opens up exceptional opportunities to reach mass audiences, not only to educate people about the importance of preserving and maintaining natural ecosystems and processes, but also in helping to bring about a higher consciousness and appreciation of nature and how we can coexist with it.


Looking at the early accounts of explorers and settlers of this region is one way we can begin to understand people's feelings about the oak savanna. Written descriptions often waxed poetically about the aesthetic qualities of the oak savanna, as illustrated in this excerpt from J. W. Hoyt's Natural Resources in Wisconsin (1860):

The Burr Oak Openings... are, moreover, the most beautiful portions of the varied and picturesque surface of the country. Grouped here and there, like so many old orchards, on the summit of a gentle swell of land, or on the border of marsh, prairie, or lake, there is nothing in the whole catalogue of American sylva that equals these Burr Oaks for their charming, homestead-like expressions they give to the landscape. The timber they furnish is brittle and of but little worth, except for fencing and fuel; still abounding as they do in what would otherwise be a prairie country, and constituting so charming a feature of Wisconsin scenery, they possess a value which is beyond computation (from Curtis, 1959: 329).

The aesthetic qualities of this mixed prairie, woodland, and savanna landscape were emulated in many park and residential designs for growing Midwestern cities. Particularly notable were the efforts of landscape architects such as Jens Jensen, Ossian Simonds, and Walter Burley Griffin, who defined a regional "prairie style" of landscape design. The prairie style emphasized the use of native plants, restoration of altered ecosystems, and emulation of the lines, forms, and spaces found in this diverse natural landscape (Miller, 1915). And while today's park and residential designs often feature non-native species, the preferred vegetation structure-- height, density, arrangement, and so forth --is similar to what we might find in many natural savanna communities. In fact, although we often refer to park, street, and residential vegetation in cities as the "urban forest," studies of urban vegetation structure argue a more appropriate term for these preferred designs might be "urban savanna" (Dorney, et al., 1984).

Contemporary research on people's aesthetic landscapes preferences has generated useful information for managing urban and rural park and forest areas (e.g., Schroeder, 1989; Ribe, 1989). While no detailed studies have been conducted specifically on savanna ecosystems, a few studies have compared people's preferences for savannas with other natural and human-influenced landscape types. Looking at natural biomes, Balling and Falk (1982) found that savanna scenes were rated highest compared with coniferous forests, deciduous forest, tropical forests, and deserts. In an urban park context, Gobster (in press a) found that children preferred savanna type settings to forests, wetlands, or prairies as places they would enjoy to be in. Additionally, Raffetto (in press) found that woodlands, wetland/ponds, and oak savannas were preferred over lakeshore wetlands and prairies as landscapes people felt would be acceptable for ecological restoration within a popular Chicago lakefront park.

These comparative studies indicate the relative popularity of savanna landscapes, but do not say much about why savannas are preferred over other landscape types. However, studies done in forested and other landscape contexts provide clues to help identify the aesthetic qualities of the oak savanna. Attributes of the oak savanna identified in Curtis's (1959) Vegetation of Wisconsin that likely relate to aesthetic preferences include:

  • Tree Age and Age Distribution: Several studies have shown high aesthetic preferences for mature trees in park and forest environments (Ribe, 1991; Schroeder, 1982), and for even versus uneven age distributions (Brown and Daniel, 1984; Ruddell, et al., 1989).
  • Tree Density and Spatial Distribution: The open, park-like appearance of the savanna is often mentioned as an aesthetically "ideal" type of forest landscape (Ribe, 1989), and studies in both urban and wildland areas bear this out. The preferred density of 40-65 mature trees per acre identified by Schroeder and Green (1985) for urban parks approaches the upper limit of what is considered savanna along the prairie-forest gradient. 
  • Tree Form: Although no preference research has been done relating to the shape of midwest savanna trees, the low, arching branches of widely spaced oaks certainly have intuitive aesthetic appeal. Landscape architects who espoused the prairie style of design were enamored with the aesthetically pleasing horizontal character of the native oaks, hawthorns, and ashes, and used them to symbolize the prairie landscape (Miller, 1915).
  • Vertical structure: Forest stand preferences for tall overstory and short middle- and ground- layer vegetation equate with what is found in many oak savannas. The lack of a tall shrub cover or young, low growing trees increases the "visual penetration" into stands, an important predictor of visual quality (Ruddell, et al., 1989).


While the discussion so far suggests that savannas are highly preferred communities aesthetically, the attributes that make them successful are largely structural ones; few attributes relate to ecological function. In fact, much of our urban and rural landscape that has the structural character of a savanna is low in biodiversity and managed to inhibit ecological function. This can be seen in the clean mown lawns that are preferred in our parks (Kaplan, 1984), the "chemlawn" yards seen as the aesthetic standard in our suburban areas (Nassauer, in press), and the popularity of fast growing and non-native tree species for our parks, yards, and street corridors (Nowak and Sydnor, 1992). 

Preference research tends to show that landscapes which exhibit high ecological integrity are often thought to be lower in aesthetic quality than more stylized and ecologically simplified landscapes. Explanations of why this pattern occurs is apparent from studies conducted in urban, rural, and wildland contexts. Schulhof (1989) found that visitors to ecological community displays at the North Carolina Botanic Garden who did not have a special interest or knowledge in ecology or native plants tended to describe the displays as "unkempt" and "overgrown." Similar responses have also been found in studies by Nassauer (1988), who examined farmer's perceptions of agricultural lands planted in native grasses under the Conservation Reserve Program, and by Brunson and Shelby (1992), who found forestry professionals skeptical about public acceptance of "New Forestry" practices that left high amounts of downed woody debris and standing dead "snag trees."

Management practices employed to maintain and restore ecological functions and processes can have similar effects for many people. Some examples include:

  • Tree cutting and brush removal: It is well-known that tree cutting and the "slash" remaining from harvest activities can have dramatic visual impacts on people's preferences for forest stands (e.g., Ribe, 1989). Although the open quality of a restored oak savanna might be more beautiful than an unrestored savanna dense with European Buckthorn, the process of restoration may have negative consequences to public groups viewing it. Brush piles and girdled trees may be seen as signs of destruction to those who may not understand intentions behind such management activity.
  • Burning: Preference studies of the use of prescribed fire in wildland forest management show that people react negatively to the immediate after effects of fire, but also that after 2-3 years fire treatments can improve stand visual quality compared to untreated stands (Anderson, et al., 1982; Taylor and Daniel, 1984). Raffetto's (in press) urban park study found respondents split over the use of fire to manage ecological restorations in Chicago parks, with those saying "no" feeling fire would be too dangerous, inappropriate, would cause pollution, or could not be controlled.
  • Herbicides and other "unnatural" techniques: In some cases the visual effects of management may not be noticeable, yet people may question whether any interference with natural processes is ecologically or ethically justified (e.g. Mendelson et al., 1992; Cowell, 1993). The issue of herbicide use is especially sensitive in natural areas management; seen by some as an essential tool (e.g., Kenfield, 1970), others see it as a "poison" that has no place in natural land management (Mendelson et al., 1992).


The ultimate question arising from this discussion is one that is central to the success of ecological restoration and management programs: How can we implement activities in ways that are sensitive to public concerns and work towards creating a more holistic appreciation of natural landscapes? The question is not an easy one to answer, but research and on-the-ground experience provide some guidelines for moving towards this goal. The following points are not exhaustive, but may help to expand the discussion on how we can build better connections between people and natural ecosystems, particularly in urban areas:

  • Be aware of the context/setting of the restoration: The location of restorations can have an important effect on how they are perceived. Two criteria guiding contextual decisions about restorations include the size and completeness of the restoration (Gobster, in press b). For example, in a highly urban area such as an urban park where space is limited and the potential for human conflicts high, restorations might be small and garden-like in nature (Hobbs, 1988). Plant diversity can still be high in such areas, but maintenance might include more intensive maintenance activities such as planting and mowing.
  • Employ design cues to "reveal" restoration activities and processes: Nassauer's research on landscape restoration in agricultural (1992) and suburban (in press) settings suggests that design cues can convey powerful messages that "messy" ecological practices show human care and stewardship rather than neglect or mistreatment. Design cues include fencing or other elements that signal human intention, edge mowing or selective cutting to help visually define areas; the creation of sitting areas or roadside pullouts for people to stop and look; and the planting of appropriate trees, showy forbs, or other plants in pleasing arrangements to define and frame sites.
  • Use information to interpret restorations: For some restoration activities like burning it will be difficult to employ design cues to improve public acceptability. In these and other situations, information can be an important tool in conveying the intention and purpose behind management. Inurban settings, signage, interpretive nature trails, kiosks, stewardship programs, and the like can aid in communicating messages to the public. Newsletters put out by many restoration groups are useful off-site ways to "spread the word," and could be mailed or passed out door-to-door to target local audiences. 
  • Involve the public to gain a deeper understanding and experience of "ecological" beauty: Finally and most importantly, on-the-ground participation can go far in bringing about a deeper understanding of the meaning and purpose of restoration activities. For example, groups like Chicago's North Branch Prairie Project invite public groups out to restoration sites on a regular basis to collect seed, cut brush, participate in burns, and come to know and understand prairie and savanna communities (Anon., 1992-1993).

Active participation in restoration can lead to a greater appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of an ecologically diverse and healthy environment. The beauty of prairie and savanna landscapes often exhibits itself in subtle ways, and thus appreciation is more likely to grow with knowledge of the plants and the experience of ecosystem dynamics over time. Such an "ecological aesthetic" differs qualitatively from our conventions of dramatic and picturesque scenery, yet to "see" the beauty of ecological diversity and health can be no less of a moving experience (Callicott, 1992; Gobster, in press b).


The historical accounts, preference research, and management experiences discussed in this paper can help us to better understand how people perceive and relate to the savanna landscape. Although it has been recreated in a largely symbolic, idealized, and ecologically simplified form, the savanna holds a special place in our heritage and in our hearts as an aesthetically pleasing landscape form. We can use this knowledge to bring about a positive change in the way we manage and reveal the ecological beauty of our urban savannas, whether they are used as parks and residential areas or as protected natural areas.

The rich mix of prairie, savanna, and forest ecosystems in the Chicago area is one of several heritage landscapes receiving increased attention by the general public as a regionally appropriate landscape style. Spurred on by such groups as the Nature Conservancy's Volunteer Steward's Network, ecological restoration at all levels of involvement-- from the backyard to the nature preserve --can help realize a vision for reconnecting people with the natural landscape.



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