To create a map of restorative space on UW's campus, I’ve been researching what makes space restorative and I've come across the following framework from the Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. Big caveat before reading: Work in progress alert. I am constantly learning and reshaping my understanding of these concepts.
Rachel Kaplan is a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan. Stephen Kaplan, also a professor emeritus at UM, passed away this summer. Together and individually, they’ve authored many seminal works exploring how and why access to nature matters to human health and well-being.
So, what exactly is getting restored by a restorative environment? According to the Kaplans, it’s attention. They argue that attention is a limited, deplete-able resource and certain environments, nature being the best example, can fill that depleted attention reservoir right back up (they call this attention restoration theory). In order for an environment to restore one’s attention, it must have the following four qualities at once: being away, fascination, extent, and compatibility.
The first quality is that the environment gives a sense of being away. For an environment to be restorative, it must feel like you have escaped or withdrawn from your ordinary (attention depleting) environment.
The second quality is that the place you escape to must be interesting, it must have fascination. Fascination is tricky because there are fascinating things that are not restorative, for example a train wreck or some trollish Twitter thread. Fascination in the Kaplan’s sense is a magical (that’s my word) quality of an environment where your attention is held but not drained. To better approximate this non-draining quality of fascination, some use the phrase soft fascination (like a walk in nature) as distinct from hard fascination (like a riveting television show).
In addition to being away in a fascinating space, the third quality a restorative environment must have is extent. That is to say it must feel like “another world” entirely from the one you’re escaping. To have extent, this “other world” must be explorable without being overwhelming. Places with extent strike a good balance between 1) having lots to explore, and 2) giving you the freedom to do so, while 3) also having enough structure so you feel safe, without 4) feeling like they’re full of restrictions and rules. It should be noted that the extent doesn’t have to involve physical space, it can be an internal experience, too.
And then on top of everything, the fourth quality a restorative environment must have is compatibility. There must be a rightness to how you want to use the space and what the space is for. If you found a spot that met the other requirements (it was away from it all, had soft fascination, and plenty you were eager and safe to explore), but wasn't made for that purpose or didn't accept your presence there, it wouldn't be restorative. Indeed, it might be quite stressful or frustrating. To be restorative, the space has to work for you and you have to work for the space.