Researchers at North Carolina (NC) State University have used immersive virtual reality (IVR) to examine the impact of different green space configurations in urban settings. 

High resolution, 360-degree panoramas of a downtown Raleigh, NC plaza, as well as a city park, were captured by a robot, and digitally laid over with vegetation. These virtual environments were shown to 87 participants, who rated each depiction based on its perceived restorative-ness and perceived safety.  

The results revealed a “significant interaction between enclosure indictors and setting type,” the researchers said in their study, published in the February 2018 edition of the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

In the downtown plaza scenario, participants not only wanted as much greenery as possible, but the top-rated landscape design was one with trees on all four sides in a medium-density arrangement.

“In an urban setting, being enclosed by vegetation feels restorative. It can serve as a shield from the urban environment and create a kind of refuge where people can sit and relax for a while,” landscape architect Payam Tabrizian, an NC State doctoral student in the College of Design and lead author of the research team, said.

“People preferred urban environments that were very green and being enclosed in vegetation didn’t seem to bother them that much.”

However, the opposite was true for virtual visitors of the neighbourhood park. When enclosed with vegetation, participants felt unsafe instead.


Caption: NC State researchers digitally manipulated different types of vegetation on to images of a downtown Raleigh plaza (lead image) as well as Raleigh’s Fletcher Park (pictured). Images: NC State University

Although results varied slightly based on participants’ backgrounds and physical abilities, Tabrizian said the fundamental need for safety was clear.

“To a large extent, we’re hard wired to actually feel enclosure and to react as a matter of evolutionary survival,” he noted. “We tend to use environments that give us some protection but that we also have some control over.”

The use of IVR in architecture and design is not new. For example, Australian practice BVN has established a design-centric VR team specialising in creating unbuilt environments that take audiences and clients through a future space. This allows for end users to influence a design before foundations are even laid.

The same benefits apply to landscape design—IVR is able to help landscape architects get feedback on new designs or make improvements to existing parks and green areas.

“As landscape designers, the instinct is to want to make changes, but sometimes leaving things as they are may be best,” Tabrizian says. “[IVR] technology allows us to design a true experiment in which we control the variables, without ever planting or moving a tree.”

NC State University researchers are now conducting follow-up studies to measure responses to new VR setting types, including a Manhattan high-rise environment, as well as to find out whether there are cultural differences in landscape preferences.