Is ‘sense of place’ important to good garden design?

And if so, how does it fit alongside standard garden design principles?

My hypothesis is that all great gardens (ie gardens that foster strong engagement) have three things:

  1. A strong IDENTITY

The garden relates to one or more of:

a) people eg a gardener’s personality or specific passion

b) time eg historical features or events; seasonality

c) place eg local traditions/flora/materials/landscape/architecture

to create a:

distinctive             (can distinguish it from other gardens),

relatable                (not random; can see how it fits with people/time/place)

identity                  (overriding concept: the garden ‘knows what it is’).

  1. A specific ATMOSPHERE

A specific atmosphere is lain over an identity to influence the type of experience sought. There are an almost infinite number of atmosphere types that can be created but these can be simplified into categories, based on common experiences and types of engagement sought by garden visitors (see Table 1). Garden visitors tend to move up the categories over time, as needs at the lower levels are met.

Gardens can successfully combine more than one experience type, although going too broad can compromise the depth of engagement, due to conflicting objectives. This is particularly the case where the garden has a very broad visitor base. For example, Wisley very successfully delivers levels 5 to 8, whilst a garden like Great Dixter primarily delivers at levels 2 to 4. Rousham, which does not allow children into the garden, delivers levels 1 to 3 and arguably domestic home gardens, with a very narrow audience, are best at simultaneously delivering every level of experience. They can more easily educate at the same time as providing connectedness; for example, education comes in forms other than plant labels and information boards which can adversely affect feelings of harmony and tranquillity.

Table 1: Hierarchy of garden types according to experience sought, engagement type and corresponding atmosphere, showing link to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs

Whilst creating the appropriate atmosphere for the experience sought is likely to be enough to engage the visitor, engagement can be increased by ensuring the garden has a distinctive, relatable identity. A beautiful garden without a clear identity can evoke a pleasant experience but it is likely to have a short-lived, shallow effect on emotions. Similarly, a garden designed for learning that lacks an identity may be confusing: full of random, disjointed facts that are hard to understand and remember, given little context. Even at a social engagement level, a garden lacking an identity is more likely to please in a more practical way: the details of the surroundings may be of little relevance to the occasion.

  1. Acceptable PREREQUISITES

Whilst identity and atmosphere have the strongest impact on engagement, other factors (‘prerequisites’) can negate their effectiveness if absent:

Good structure                   (eg balance, proportion and hierarchy)

Good maintenance          (of soft and hard landscaping; healthy plants;

avoidance of unintentional planting gaps)

If a visitor rates any prerequisite poorly (eg less than a 6 out of 10), they are likely to become distracted by it and even uncomfortable. With all garden types, a visitor needs to be able to lose themselves in the moment in order to fully engage. These prerequisites do not necessarily drive high engagement in themselves, but they are a necessary (at an acceptable standard) for identity and atmosphere to deliver their potential.

Sense of place

The definition of ‘sense of place’ that seems to best fit the context of gardens, is ‘a place that evokes strong engagement’. It may be positive or negative engagement (eg love or contempt) that is evoked, but something about the garden draws you in and prompts a strong reaction. It is a garden that stands apart from other gardens. This definition, by default, aligns with distinctive, relatable identities and strong atmospheres: which foster strong engagement.


Sense of place is often used to describe gardens that provoke strong engagement but is a term that has not been articulated clearly or consistently and hence has been of limited value. In ascertaining: i) a clear and simple definition which describes its outputs (‘evokes strong engagement’); ii) the component parts (inputs) which drive it (primarily identity and atmosphere); and iii) a framework for applying this to all garden types (identity types and hierarchy table); we can see how the term could provide practical insight to garden design and ongoing maintenance.

Design principles such as harmony, repetition and contrast provide a useful suite of tools but little guidance as to when to apply each. Equally, the findings by landscape architects Kaplan and Kaplan that show a strong preference for mystery and complexity provide useful concepts, but there are many green spaces without these elements that are still highly engaging. They are ideas, more than practical frameworks applicable to any garden. Each design principle ‘idea’ can be slotted in to the framework, demonstrating where it is applicable and why (eg harmony for relaxation, unity generated through the identity).

So is ‘sense of place’ important to good garden design? If you believe good garden design should strongly engage, then yes, the elements of sense of place are essential. The question remains, not of the importance of its elements, but whether the term, given its ‘baggage’, is still a useful overarching phrase.

Janna Schreier, 26 April 2017