Resources and Cognitive Landscape The Special Case of Therapeutic Landscapes

Most of the functions of an organism are devoted to the identification and acquisition of material (food, refuges, roosts) and un-material (social aggregation, safety, mating access) resources through the semiotic mediation of specific eco-fields. This paradigm emphasizes the importance of the perceptual interpretation of the landscape.

The role of the landscape as a therapeutic agent to assure human well-being has been recognized for a long time. From an eco-semiotic point of view, well-being can be defined as the achievement of varieties of resources that require a specific eco-field.

The term "therapeutic" (from the Greek: therapeytike, the art of assistance) and its coupling with the word "landscape" in an ecological context, has a specific meaning in a modern society. Many recreational activities act as therapeutic counterparts to contrast the hyperactive habits of modern societies.

For instance, the public parks and gardens around noble and historical houses were created to increase the recreational character of these places (Fig. 9.7).

Fig. 9.7 A Japanese garden in Maine, USA. An example of a recreational and therapeutic area in which visitors encounter peacefulness, inspiration, aesthetic contemplation, and beauty. Such a place is rich in meaningful information connected to geometrical regularity, shape, and stewardship processes.

Fig. 9.7 A Japanese garden in Maine, USA. An example of a recreational and therapeutic area in which visitors encounter peacefulness, inspiration, aesthetic contemplation, and beauty. Such a place is rich in meaningful information connected to geometrical regularity, shape, and stewardship processes.

It is quite clear that the reasons for which the metropolitan parks have been created and the wild sanctuaries preserved are not simply a matter of aesthetics and beauty, or the need to rediscover ancestral feelings, but they are tools that provide treatment for the psychological stress of present society.

For humans some natural resources that are denied by the modern lifestyle, are requested by an involuntary genetic process. The impossibility to achieve these resources produces a condition of stress in individuals and finally in society. Human stress represents a social malaise or syndrome responsible for much pathology affecting Western-style societies.

The therapeutic landscape can be represented by a remote area far from human clamor, but often such areas are hard to access or are not safe enough. As a consequence, most therapeutic landscapes are planned and built using culture, art, engineering, and scientific knowledge (e.g. Nassauer 1997). And although a common agreement exists about the importance and role of such landscapes little attention is paid to the eco-psychological mechanisms involved (e.g. Gibson 1979, Kaplan and Kaplan 1989, Appleton 1996, Jorgensen and Stedman 2001, Kaltenborn 1998).

Adopting an ecological framework we can consider the therapeutic landscapes as special cases of human niche construction in which a cultural heritage often overlaps the genetic heritage and modifies the human evolutionary process (Odling-Smee et al. 2003, p. 264). According to this paradigm every organism modifies its surroundings to adapt them to internal necessities and needs and to gain evolutionary advantages.

This hypothesis is consistent with the eco-field theory and it confirms the capacity of humans to intercept and manipulate material and noncorporeal resources.

When we visit a recreational area like an urban park or when we walk along a green path in the countryside, we perceive several signs that represent bio-semiotic symbols of fundamental resources no longer available outside these localities.

We instinctively perceive that the environment is rich in vital signs, otherwise neglected or hidden. This perception stimulates eco-semiotic processes located in our cognitive system that recall ancestral feelings connected to vital functions and this experience is finally transformed into a psychological benefit.

The larger the spectrum of resources that can be potentially utilized becomes the more benefits are achieved in terms of individual well-being.

The increase in tourism, considered one of the most important post-industrial activities at global scale, is not a simple caprice of a rich society, but a necessary tool to supply symbolically important resources, no longer available elsewhere. Tourism offers therapeutic benefits especially when natural beauty is coupled with local human well-being, peaceful attitudes of local residents and high scoring social organization.

In conclusion, a therapeutic landscape uses symbols as a substitute for material and un-material resources necessary to performing vital functions but that are no longer available in the Umwelt of individuals.

Every human activity that damages or alters the natural environment reduces the potential of the landscape to act as an eco-semiotic interface. Therapeutic landscapes are generally restricted to certain areas and used like a mental medicine; however, if they were found everywhere the quality of human life would be significantly improved. This vision, which seems consistent with the model of the "Full world" (Farina et al. 2003), may seem like a dream today, but it should be the basis for future policy decisions. This model is based on the assumption that humans can share the world with all other species, living in harmony and maintaining the diversity of living and nonliving forms. This process requires a strict connection between human beings and nature through a continuous exchange of information and adaptive decisions. Despite the risk of domestication this model has allowed humans such as those living in the Mediterranean region to live in harmony with nature for a long time benefiting resources, patterns, and processes. The resilience of the Mediterranean environment has to be considered the result of a pluri-millenarian interaction between humans and natural elements and not a simple effect of climate, soil, and biota interactions.

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