This collaborative essay grows out of a debate about the relationship between aesthetics and ecology and the possibility of an “ecological aesthetic” that affects landscape planning, design, and management. We describe our common understandings and unresolved questions about this relationship, including the importance of aesthetics in understanding and affecting landscape change and the ways in which aesthetics and ecology may have either complementary or contradictory implications for a landscape. To help understand these issues, we first outline a conceptual model of the aesthetics–ecology relationship. We posit that:
1. While human and environmental phenomena occur at widely varying scales, humans engage with environmental phenomena at a particular scale: that of human experience of our landscape surroundings. That is the human “perceptible realm.”
2. Interactions within this realm give rise to aesthetic experiences, which can lead to changes affecting humans and the landscape, and thus ecosystems.
3. Context affects aesthetic experience of landscapes. Context includes both effects of different landscape types (wild, agricultural, cultural, and metropolitan landscapes) and effects of different personal–social situational activities or concerns. We argue that some contexts elicit aesthetic experiences that have traditionally been called “scenic beauty,” while other contexts elicit different aesthetic experiences, such as perceived care, attachment, and identity.
Last, we discuss how interventions through landscape planning, design, and management; or through enhanced knowledge might establish desirable relationships between aesthetics and ecology, and we examine the controversial characteristics of such ecological aesthetics. While these interventions may help sustain beneficial landscape patterns and practices, they are inherently normative, and we consider their ethical implications.