Green spaces offer urban residents the chance to escape the concrete jungle and experience nature’s restorative benefits — if those spaces are well-designed. North Carolina State University researchers found vegetation density can impact a person’s feeling of safety, depending on where green space is located, and virtual reality helped them test perceptions.

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Virtual reality doesn’t only offer an escape into fantastical images. NC State University researchers employed VR to explore different types of urban green spaces. Researchers captured 360-degree, high-resolution images of a city park and downtown plaza in Raleigh with a robot, and manipulated vegetation to create multiple environments.

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They discovered virtual visitors to the downtown plaza wanted vegetation to surround them. Doctoral student and landscape architect Payam Tabrizian said in the university’s statement, “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. People preferred urban environments that were very green and being enclosed in vegetation didn’t seem to bother them that much.”

But the opposite was true in the park. Tabrizian said, “In the neighborhood park setting, people preferred the opposite in terms of vegetation density and arrangement. It seems that people have enough green surrounding them and want to know what’s happening around them. When you enclose them with vegetation, they don’t like it. They feel unsafe.”

Immersive virtual reality could assist landscape designers in testing new designs or exploring how they might improve urban green spaces. “As landscape designers, the instinct is to want to make changes, but sometimes leaving things as they are may be the best,” Tabrizian said. “This technology allows us to design a true experiment in which we control the variables, without ever planting or moving a tree.”

The Journal of Environmental Psychology published the research online earlier this year.

+ North Carolina State University

+ Journal of Environmental Psychology

Images via North Carolina State University