Enlivening and Deadening Green and Gray Spaces: an exploration of Christopher Alexander’s features of living design

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Enlivening and Deadening Green and Gray Spaces: an exploration of Christopher Alexander’s features of living design

Isis Brook


The evidence that green spaces in urban areas contribute to human wellbeing is well established and supported by theories such as the evolutionary hypothesis, biophilia, psychological countertransference, and phyto-resonance. The rise in hard landscaping, especially in places that were previously green spaces, would appear to be a very bad development in urban living. However, the architect Christopher Alexander claims that good design can impart an aliveness to objects. This presents the possibility that gray spaces (those dominated by hard landscaping) could also be alive and similarly contribute to human wellbeing. Alexander’s proposed structural features are examined in the context of public spaces. The theory of responsive cohesion is also suggested as a way of explaining the aliveness of a design. Although green spaces have a greater wellbeing benefit than  gray spaces, these design ideas counter-intuitively suggest that some green spaces could be so badly designed as to be, in the design sense, dead.

Key Words
aesthetics; eco-psychology; green space; hard landscaping; phyto-resonance; responsive cohesion; wellbeing.


1. Introduction

The idea that green spaces have a positive impact on human wellbeing is very well supported by evidence.[1] How they do this—what processes are involved—is still a matter of some debate.[2] We do know that it has something to do with our experience of living things,[3] our love of life,[4] and our evolutionary responses to landscape affordances[5]. We do know that green spaces means living plants.

However in the urban context, contemporary public space designs often include extensive hard landscaping. Whether for ease of and therefore cost of maintenance or for “health and safety” reasons, the gray stuff is increasing even in areas designated as parks.[6] There is a growing resistance to this expansion of concrete, particularly in densely populated urban areas where the health and social benefits of green spaces are joined by the benefits of green infrastructure to mitigate, for example, surface water from increased rainfall and higher temperatures.

Though these debates form a background to this paper, I want to examine one specific claim in the context of the contrasting qualities of green or gray spaces. Rather than assuming that the green spaces are the only ones that can engender a sense of aliveness, by virtue of their living components, I will examine an idea proposed by Christopher Alexander. He suggests that what we think of as dead matter—timber, stone, metal, concrete— in particular configurations can be alive.[7] If Alexander is right, then well-designed hard landscaping could increase wellbeing in a similar way to planted green spaces. A rather striking aesthetic question then presents itself: does this mean that poorly designed green spaces work against the aliveness and therefore wellbeing potential of the plants they contain? Could they, in Alexander’s sense, be “dead” even though they are alive?

I will test out this idea with my own aesthetic response to two examples of planting design that could be thought of as working against their lively potential.

2. Claims about green spaces and wellbeing

The term ‘green spaces’ usually means areas in an urban environment that have been saved for or converted to planted grounds with living plants. For example: street trees, shrubs, lawns, and even planters of perennial or annual flowers. More beneficial are those green spaces that are public and can be entered and time spent in them; even better are those where some active engagement with nature can take place.[8] We often think of city parks in this context, but beneficial effects can be measured with very small areas of what Stephen and Rachel Kaplan call ‘nearby nature.’[9] Nearby nature can be street trees, window boxes, and even houseplants. In horticultural therapy, it was recognized early on that the beneficial effects of plants can be brought about by small changes to someone’s everyday experiences. A classic, early study demonstrated the impact of having a window looking out onto a tree rather than a bare concrete space, or having a seedling in a pot next to a hospital bed.[10]

Evidence of the beneficial effect of nature on human health has been mounting, and there are now studies that cover a wide range of medical conditions in addition to general relief from stress symptoms.[11] People recover from illness quicker, and they are less likely to fall ill from a range of physical and mental health problems if they have some nearby nature. Green spaces are also able to foster better community relations, and this seems to have a direct effect on individuals’ health.[12] People who live near green spaces just seem to get out and meet each other more, and this brings about “stronger feelings of belonging.”[13]

A great deal of the health benefits seem to point to green spaces as able to relieve the stress of living in urban environments. Why this is the case has been explored by many biologists, aestheticians, and psychologists, and many theories point to our liking for or feeling at home in nature as an evolutionary adaptation.

3. The evolutionary thesis

The experience of pleasure afforded by nature is a commonly felt and a well-established phenomenon.[14] For example, in landscape-preference studies, people of all ages and all cultures seem to prefer those landscape forms that simulate a hospitable landscape for hunter-gathering survival. The savannah hypothesis[15] and prospect refuge theory[16] both point to an inbuilt preference for that which would have sustained our primeval ancestors. It does seem entirely reasonable to suppose that radical change in the environments in which we live, while bringing warmth, access to water, and broadband or other comforts, could impact on our psychological comfort if they are too far removed from that which sustained humankind for tens of thousands of years. Living in cities devoid of nature and spending most of our time at the computer does not use the evolutionary adaptations that had been honed in the natural world over the considerable majority of human history. So there is at least a reasonable supposition that living lives so detached from our evolutionary past could have detrimental effects or at least deny us some beneficial effects of nature.

We might be happy with the idea of our evolutionary past leaving us a practical inheritance that needs to be worked with or worked around in order to sustain us happily in our urban existence, but some commentators go further. The zoologist E.O. Wilson claims that beyond the practical-needs-type picture, humans have also evolved a love of nature, which he termed ‘biophilia.’[17] Biophilia is basically the idea that humans have an innate, emotional bond with other living things. This idea has been taken up as a key part of eco-psychology—a discipline that brings together the psychological, particularly as understood in psychotherapy and psychiatric circles, and the ecological, particularly as understood in environmental concern circles.[18] Here is not the place to discuss this idea and its attendant social movement in detail, but it is worth mentioning for two reasons. One, it provides an interesting intensification of the preference-based-on-evolutionary-needs picture that takes us beyond our needs as instrumentally understood. And two, it brings to the fore a correspondence between healing ourselves of our current alienation from nature and healing the earth from our alienated actions upon it.

In terms of explanations, various forms of the evolutionary thesis and the concept of biophilia have been criticized not for coming to the wrong conclusion—it is the case that people like and benefit from time with nature—but for overemphasizing the needs-driven evolutionary story.[19] The stress-reduction impact of nature is sometimes explained in terms of information overload in the urban environment and looking at nature as a “time out” experience, where we escape and relax.[20] In horticultural therapy, it seems to be the aliveness and dependency of the plant on us that bring about change and healing in the human being. Whatever the explanation, it does seem to involve some relationship between the human being and another living thing. We seem to relate to its aliveness in some way. The soul wakes up to something outside our daily concerns. For example, tiredness can be forgotten in the presence of an unfurling frond of a fern; we seem to take on some of its vitality, and life is infused with burgeoning possibility.[21]

In psychological theories this is sometimes called counter transference or physical resonance.[22] It perhaps works in this way:

Physical resonance, the effect of observation of what plants do to rest and move, activates a human neurobiological program which could help to perform a similar activity. The concept of physical resonance may explain how the sensory effects on the body tissue provide impulses to the muscle tone and to the organs. Thus, plants can evoke a relaxing, soothing and restoring effect, spreading throughout the body including the sympathetic nervous system.[23]

Thus there is a resonance between our sense of aliveness and having living plants in our immediate environment.

4. The spread of hard landscaping

Given the choice, people do seem to gravitate to areas with green spaces to live, work, and play, and even as their final resting place. And yet in our urban areas, many people live their day-to-day lives where there are no gardens, parks, street trees, or planted road verges. Moreover, even those areas designated as public parks or green spaces are giving way to hard landscaping or more controlled activities, such as organized sport on tarmac areas. As Lorna McRobie, from English Heritage, said:

The quality of detail in park design, which is so important in defining local character and sense of place, is often eroded or lost, being replaced with bland concrete, mass-produced products and poor quality repairs.[24]

Hard landscaping is perceived by those who have to maintain public spaces as safe. And it is, of course, cheaper to maintain, as it does not require skilled horticulturalists to maintain the planting. Even mature street trees are sometimes removed to allow for clearer CCTV coverage. The irony here is that the studies establishing human wellbeing benefits from green spaces also establish that they bring about a decrease in crime and antisocial behavior.[25] Even in areas and cities with the wealth to develop and maintain inspiring green spaces, the designs chosen and implemented for public spaces are often devoid of nature. For example, see the paucity of planting and acres of concrete—inventively arranged concrete but concrete nevertheless—in many prize winning contemporary spaces.[26]

Against the expanding concrete, there is a growing drive to include additional green infrastructure to promote wellbeing benefits and create more livable spaces. This drive has been given increased emphasis following flooding in European cities that previously did not have that problem. The paving over of front gardens in cities to provide parking, together with the increase in heavy rainfall due to climate change, has demonstrated the benefit of parks, gardens, street trees, and green verges to soak up rain and slow the passage of water to overloaded drainage systems.[27] An interesting example of this drive can be seen in Sheffield, UK, through their Gray to Green initiative.[28] Moreover, the benefits of domestic gardens were recently underlined by their re-evaluation during lockdowns for the Covid-19 pandemic.[29]

However, before saying that all we need to do is plant more trees or develop more truly green spaces, I want to examine a claim by the architect and builder Christopher Alexander: that design can impart aliveness to objects. Alexander’s description of the expanding gray could not be starker. As he says:

The wasteland in our hearts does not come only from the breakdown in society. It comes in equal measure, from the breakdown of the physical environment. More and more buildings and roads, and parking lots have accumulated, in heaps, nihilistic worlds, where there is little that can be loved, among the enormous tracts of land developed into office parks, tract houses, and public children’s parks—all indeed necessary; sometimes very vaguely pleasant, but more often dead and abstract. It is hardly possible to experience a profound relationship with these places. So the landscape of our era has become, and continues to become, a wasteland.[30]

The idea that urban environments affect wellbeing depending on the design of the buildings has been established in more recent psycho-geographical studies, such as those by Colin Ellard.[31] He emphasizes the negative psychological impact of a lack of complexity in the design of modern buildings and streetscapes. This is a position echoed by the designer Thomas Heatherwick.[32] The negative nature of a lack of complexity or interest also emerges in Warwick Fox’s theory of responsive cohesion, as does the idea that things that are more alive, either in fact or metaphorically, make us feel more alive and in turn will be more aesthetically positive. I will return to responsive cohesion later. The socio/cultural problem of badly designed or more likely thoughtlessly created urban space is discussed in Arnold Berleant’s work on negative aesthetics in everyday life. He says of urban environments, “The forms, characteristics, and ambiance of this environment are rarely chosen but are shaped by geographical, political and economic forces.”[33] Berleant makes the important point that we can become insensible to both the absence of positive aesthetic qualities and the presence of negative aesthetic qualities.[34] In everyday environments, it does seem that we become inured to their negative impacts. However, as Ellard’s work has shown—with examples such as pedestrians in chaotic Mumbai traffic self-reporting calmness but whose physiological markers exhibited stress responses—the physical and psychological impact is there.[35]

If negative design (or absence of design) creates poor urban environments that have such a creeping, numbing impact on our responses to the world, good design is of huge human/social importance. The approach that Alexander takes is to look for and create designs that, in his words, are more alive. Here he is using ‘more alive’ as a marker of the kind of positive aesthetic qualities that create good urban environments. Thus, his work could be used to say that even hard landscaping, if well designed, could be alive or at least generate a sense of aliveness that is similar to the effect that we see with plants and green spaces. To see if this is feasible, I will look more closely at Alexander’s work.

5. Christopher Alexander and aliveness

Running through the work of architect Christopher Alexander is a constant theme that relates good architecture, good landscaping, good urban design, and in fact good design of anything to the degree to which something is “alive.” His concept of a pattern language is all about identifying the objective patterns that create a sense of life and using them to inform our building.[36] It is only in places that have this quality that he believes human beings will be properly free. We might think of liberation as a political or psychological state of being, but for Alexander the environment plays a crucial part. It is in places that have a sense of life that we are able to be our true selves, to act freely, and where, as he says, “experiences are deeply felt.”[37]

In his four-volume work, The Nature of Order, Alexander is very specific in laying out the fifteen structural features that appear in “things which have life.”[38] An exercise he undertook for twenty years that helped him to arrive at these structural features was to spend two or three hours a day looking at pairs of things, comparing them, and asking, “which has more life?”[39] We could view this as a training of perception or, better, a training of aesthetic sensibility. He also tested out these judgments by getting the audiences of his talks and students at his lectures to choose which of two objects was most alive. I suggest you try this out for yourself with object pairs—two cups, two spoons, two doors, and so on—that you encounter. In my experience, it is possible to make this distinction with many objects. Moreover, through the activity of trying this out one does get better at tuning into the aliveness that Alexander is referring to. Another way to look at this is to ask oneself questions after an unconscious choice has been made. For example, why is this mug the one you tend to reach for? Or, why on a walk do you slow down and linger in this part of the park?

To get around arbitrary preferences creating interference effects, Alexander uses the notion of “liking from the heart”[40] or asks: which of the two objects is a better picture of the true self? This seems to rely on us thinking or perhaps feeling ourselves into the objects or places; it does seem easier or more comfortable to do this with the one that could be described as most alive. For Alexander we sense the greater wholeness achieved by the alive object.

6. Alexander’s key structural features

The full list of structural features that Alexander identifies as productive of this aliveness is: 1) levels of scale, 2) strong centers, 3) boundaries, 4) alternating repetition, 5) positive space, 6) good shape, 7) local symmetries, 8) deep interlock and ambiguity, 9) contrast, 10) gradients, 11) roughness, 12) echoes, 13) the void, 14) simplicity and inner calm, and 15) not-separateness.

This is too many to discuss in full, and I wouldn’t want to claim that I can reliably see all of them. I have selected seven that seem particularly relevant to the context of hard landscaping in urban public space and explore what these mean. I will illustrate some of these with photographs of details from a building designed by Alexander: The Visitor Centre at West Dean College in England.[41] (All photos taken by the author.)

Fig. 1. The Visitor Centre at West Dean College.

Structural feature 2, strong centers

Centers have a key role in Alexander’s approach. By ‘a center,’ he means something like an intensification of a field. This isn’t the geometric center of a form or a point; it is more like an area to which other features are directed. In a city square, there will be numerous centers, for example, the curve of a bench leg or the place where a simple paving pattern has to turn a corner and does so with an elegant solution. A strong center might be the focus of attention, such as a fountain. The eye is drawn to the fountain, and the square seems shaped around it. If it were removed, the sense of wholeness created by the square would seem broken. The other centers would no longer work as centers, but would dissolve or become meaningless accretions.

Fig. 2. Detail of the smaller window design.


Structural feature 3, boundaries

The linking of one area to another is important and is assisted by boundaries. This could be the border of a carpet design—Alexander draws a lot of his examples from Turkish prayer rugs. In a public space, it is the way that the transition from private to public, from inside to outside, is negotiated. The boundary needs to be in scale with the space. Thus a large square or plaza might have an extensive colonnade; a small one could have something more token, like bollards or a wide strip of decorative paving.

Fig. 3. Detail of the boundaries helping the transition from one flooring type to another.


Structural feature 4, alternating repetition

In good design, there is often a rhythm established that goes beyond the simple harmony of repeating forms. There might be a subtle variation or inexactness that avoids “a banal repetition of elements.”[42] Primary and secondary centers might alternate in the design. In a square, a flight of steps could be interrupted at intervals by a much wider step.[43]

Fig. 4. Detail of corner brickwork with the different widths and lengths of the horizontal lines breaking what would be an overly strict rhythm.


Structural feature 5, positive space

Looking at the space created around objects or buildings often shows our inability to design well. Spaces between buildings are what is left over, rather than being consciously designed to be positive in their own right.[44],[45] By ‘positive,’ Alexander means having strong centers or where the creation of strong centers is possible. The proliferation of public space that is only the amorphous leftovers of buildings, created as if in a vacuum, says a lot about a society’s attitudes to public space. Without courtyards, squares, and interesting corners that invite lingering for the sake of lingering, the very idea of a civic life has been undermined. We become just employees and consumers whose public life mainly takes place in the prescribed environments of the workplace and the shop.[46]

Structural feature 7, local symmetries.

Alexander’s examples from carpet designs and tiles and the like often emphasize symmetry or, taken from nature, bilateral symmetry. However, strict overall symmetry he finds deadening and gives the example of Fascist architecture.[47] In complex wholes, strict symmetry is broken down by asymmetrical forces of “location, and context, and function.”[48] What then emerges is an interweaving of local symmetries, and this creates the enlivening of a space. It is coherent, it makes sense, and it avoids chaos, but doesn’t have that deadening imposed order of strict symmetricality.

Fig 5. Detail of the repeating but not rigidly symmetrical angled bricks motif. (It is unfortunate that the drainpipe rather over clutters this already busy corner of the design.)


Structural feature 10, gradients

Alexander observes that there is a softness about things with more life. They don’t change abruptly, they change to accommodate new circumstances, and this results in more gradual transitions and a coherent variety. For example, a marketplace doesn’t end at the river edge; it passes from clear flat paving to steps to wide embankments with seating. The character of the riverbank segues into the market place, and each carries something of the other as the transition takes place.

Structural feature 15, not-separateness

This feature for Alexander is the most important.[49] It is experienced when the object as a living whole is also at one with the world. It melts into its neighbors humbly, yet still has its own character. There is a lack of arrogance about things that are not separate. Our public space needs character, but one that accommodates its neighbors and connects to them rather than turning its back on them.

Fig 6. The context of Alexander’s 1995 building is the substantial manor house that is West Dean College. Its nineteenth-century enlargement and refurbishment make extensive use of the local traditional brick-and-flint masonry that Alexander adopts for the new building. This masonry craft is still taught at the college.


7. Designing from nature, not copying natural forms

In developing the idea of aliveness, Alexander does link features in designed objects to features in natural objects. The bilateral symmetry,[50] the repeating patterns, the gradual morphology, and the connectedness could all indicate a copying from nature. He does speak of the fifteen features as always in nature and how any configurations that occur in nature will be a small subset of what could occur in nature. The human designer alone can be unnatural by breaking with those features. However, there is nothing overly organic or simplistically copied from nature in his designs or those he describes as alive. It is an application of an extrapolated list of principles from nature that he appeals to, not an inappropriate copying. The idea of inappropriate copying calls to mind the famous pineapple-shaped building in South East Queensland. A more serious example of something that I think attempts to capture the organic form itself and thereby misses these principles is some of Antonio Gaudi’s work in his Parc Guell. Here, some of the forms seem almost gustatory and actually indigestible as pleasing spaces; the aliveness is driven out not by imposed order but by the inappropriately organic nature of the forms. Nature, as captured in spaces that exemplify some or all of the fifteen features, is more subtle and connects to underlying principles, not overt likenesses.

8. Is the aliveness ontological or metaphorical?

If we accept Alexander’s claim of aliveness in design, then well-designed hard landscaping would seem to potentially deliver something of the aliveness that green spaces offer. However, the wellbeing benefits of nature rely on the livingness of the plants that make up green spaces. They make us feel more alive because they are undoubtedly alive. If that is the case, how could the metaphorical aliveness of good hard landscaping do the same work?

I say metaphorical here because I haven’t said anything about Alexander’s claims about the ontological status of the alive cup, chair, or city square. Readers will often assume that he is suggesting certain configurations make us feel more alive; they enliven us. This is the case, but he also says that they create this sense in us because they are more alive. In The Timeless Way of Building, he says: “certain patterns are simply resolved within themselves within their proper contexts—in these contexts they are intrinsically alive—and it is this that makes them good.”[51] In The Order of Nature, he is at pains to point out that when we use our perceptions to judge aliveness in ourselves, we do this not to identify which is the more satisfying to us but which actually is most alive. As he says:

All these methods are special cases of a very general type of observation that relies on the observer’s study of his or her own state of wholeness as it exists in front of different things or systems being observed and that then uses the observer’s experience as a measurement on the system being observed to determine that system’s objective degree of life.[52]

And later:

The living structure I have described is highly specific and real. Whether or not it is present in a particular part of space, and to what extent it is present there, are questions of fact.[53]

I do not think he means that a well-designed teapot is alive in the same way as a dormouse. In fact, the “to what extent it is present” above suggests something different from organisms, which we commonly think of as either alive or dead. In The Order of Nature, Alexander does take us, with a range of everyday objects, through a rather different division of matter than a traditional view allowed by physics. A teapot would be a system of centers that is part of a living context in a process of flux; it remains alive whether a human being is there to appreciate its aliveness or not. Thus it is not merely metaphorically alive and not alive only for us. The crucial distinction here, and one that crops up again and again in discussions of aesthetics, is that judgments of aesthetic qualities can be objective even though we rely on a sensitive subjectivity to discern them.[54] There is a similar discussion in Joona Markus Hulmi’s paper on atmosphere in architectural aesthetics.[55]

From Alexander’s perspective, it is clear that some hard landscaping is going to be better than others at making welcoming, productive, urban places that invite us to linger and inhabit a properly civic space. Can their attendant aliveness promote as much wellbeing as green/planted city spaces? To me, this seems doubtful. Even if we set to one side the additional benefits to air quality and flood prevention, living plants present their aliveness—their similarity to us—very directly and we respond very directly, as demonstrated by both measurable physiological responses and a biophilic or soulful resonance. This response, which Paul Shephard termed ‘phyto-resonance,’[56] is based on a “constant subliminal and non-verbal communication between people and their environments, especially regarding plants and humans.”[57] When experiencing this phyto-resonance, its effects seem stronger and more direct than with a pleasingly designed construction. The resonance is being-to-being rather than being-to-thing. That said, beautiful objects can and often do prompt heartfelt feelings and rich aesthetic responses. They can make us feel more alive and in touch with our humanity.

We do also respond to living organisms in different ways. There can be in our response to living material certain interference effects from aesthetic preferences. For example, many park users feel upset when a feature is changed, such as a tree felled or a lawn turned over to wild flowers. Many parks in the UK and elsewhere are moving to more ecofriendly management, with fallen trees left to rot and less use of colorful, temporary bedding plants. To assist the public in understanding these changes and the reasons behind them, my local park has temporary, “What is happening here” signs to explain the ecological benefits. They do not, however, stretch to having “what can be appreciated here” signs to help draw attention to the aesthetic qualities of the sparkling emerald mosses and layered fungi burgeoning on the rotting wood. Here the dead tree has become a nursery of new life. The public’s mind-set of “parks should be tidy” can interfere with the potential for uplifting phyto-resonance[58]—at least until a mixture of information and the mutability of our aesthetic responses help us to tune in to these new qualities.[59]

Alexander foregrounds the role of structure in any kind of design, and some structures create more aliveness, more positive responses, than others. In the context of green spaces, this prompts a disquieting suggestion: a poorly designed planted area could detract from the wellbeing possibilities that its plants would otherwise provide. Could it even be the case that an egregiously badly designed green space that, for example, flouted all fifteen structural features be so undermined that it would become, in Alexander’s terms, a deadening space?

9. Are ‘dead’ green spaces possible?

To explore the possibility that poorly designed green spaces could be in Alexander’s term ‘dead,’ I will use some examples from my own experience where a planting scheme does not seem to offer the sense of aliveness that it should. The first example that springs to mind is when there is a disjunction between the design and the plant used. One often-seen plant/planting discordance is along motorways or major roads where daffodils are planted in repeating rectangular beds. Here the thought seems to be that a block of bright color will lift the spirits of commuters. The natural gesture of the plant, with its clumping habit of patches here and there amongst grass or leaf litter, is ignored. The way the yellow flower heads rise up amongst the simple linear leaves and point away nodding in different directions is ignored. Here they are squashed together (like the commuters) for the delivery of a single quality: bright yellowness. In this planting scheme, the yellow becomes garish and overbearing, not uplifting, and the exact repetition is boring. These rectangular blocks reflect the commute rather than offer relief from it. There are no gentle boundaries, no gradients or alternating repetition, and it shouts separateness. The fact that the beds are not centers is easily established by covering them from view and seeing how the uninterrupted grass banks don’t seem to be missing anything.

Another familiar exuberance is an overplanted area in a public space where “one of each and as many colors as possible” seems to have been the design brief. The eye cannot be led through the space, as each plant (often species that would normally be chosen as a focus) seems to jostle for attention. There is no alternating repetition, and only many competing small centers, so no rhythm is established. Variety without an organizing structure cannot deliver the restorative benefit of even a single well placed tree, let alone a well-designed planting scheme. Unremitting variety would not occur in nature where, for example, the unusual coloration of a single red- or purple-leaved specimen would be flanked by a naturally prolific green species. I am not suggesting that naturalistic plantings are the only way of delivering aliveness in a green space, but they will be less prone to deadening structural mistakes.

When we move away from naturalistic planting, something like Alexander’s structural features could help us to avoid errors. In a designed green space, we can work with the inherently enlivening nature of plants by attending to their individual forms and seasonal changes and the underlying principles of nature, to ensure that our design delivers both the phyto-resonance and the structural sense of aliveness.

10. Responsive cohesion

Even without the complexity of Alexander’s “structural elements,” we can see that the two planting examples are less enlivening than they could be. To help tease out why, what is going wrong, these examples could be examined in the light of another approach. In Warwick Fox’s theory of responsive cohesion, judgments about quality are also aided by the confirmatory sense of making us feel more alive. He noted some parallels with Alexander in his Theory of General Ethics.[60] For Fox, the flaws of any object or system, be it political, architectural, artistic, social, relational, and so on, that tend to make us feel less alive will fall outside the living dynamic quality of responsive cohesion. Responsive cohesion is exemplified in things—anything at all—that are held together by the mutual responsiveness of the elements or salient features that constitute them. Although always context dependent, the flaws that fall outside of responsive cohesion, he maintains, are on the one hand discohesion, in which there is a lack of structure, tending in the direction of an anarchic mess, or on the other hand fixed cohesion, in which an inappropriately rigid, formulaic or dictatorial structure is imposed. This might seem a simple schema, but its explanatory power comes about, Fox claims, from the fact that these three forms of fixed cohesion, responsive cohesion, and discohesion constitute the basic ways in which things can be organized. In real life, blends of these are possible and over time movement between them can happen, but a completely new category of organization cannot be found. This is because, in very general terms, things either hang together or they don’t, and if they do hang together, they will do so either by being fixed by some kind of overarching pattern or by being responsive to each other in an ongoing dance.

This schema helps to illuminate my two examples of “dead” green spaces. The blocks of daffodils are obviously a good example of fixed cohesion. The exuberant but incoherent variety of the overplanted area is a good example of discohesion. A well-designed green or gray space would have to exhibit the dynamic liveliness that comes from the parts answering to each other of responsive cohesion. It is this responsiveness that impacts positively on our sense of feeling alive.

For Fox, unlike Alexander, the aliveness of non-organisms (rocks, buildings, paintings, and so on) is metaphorical.[61] Although the theory of responsive cohesion was initially formulated as an approach to ethics, it can be applied to questions regarding what we find aesthetically interesting, balanced, and harmonious as opposed to aesthetically boring or chaotic. Examples of the application of responsive cohesion can be found in a range of design areas: as a guiding idea for architecture,[62] in urban design,[63] and in cultural landscapes.[64] As Alexander’s statement about wastelands cited earlier suggests, design of public space is an ethical issue and the close interplay of aesthetics and ethics is an area of continuing rich discussion.[65] Gray spaces (hard landscaping) can be designed in ways that evoke aliveness, as Alexander’s work has shown. Confirmatory evidence is found by reflecting on how we feel in such places. For example, do we feel uplifted and energized? Do we want to linger or return? Is there a certain feel about them that suggests, what Alexander calls, “the quality without a name”?[66] Or do they have the opposite impact? If, for example, we feel tired, deadened, or unproductively anxious, it is likely that they fail to impart positive feelings due to either monotonous fixity or some kind of chaotic or fragmented unintelligibility. Whether we call the positive quality of the designed place alive or only metaphorically alive, for both Alexander and Fox, they have that quality outside of our discernment of it. On this understanding, our aesthetic responses and our liking for or unconscious gravitation toward such designed places is not a production of but a confirmation of their enlivening quality.

11. Conclusion

Could such hard landscaping alone deliver the same benefits as green spaces? The benefits of planted green spaces for human wellbeing are many and are well supported by evidence, as discussed earlier. It seems to me that no matter how well-designed, hard landscaping alone could not deliver all of those benefits, or at least not as easily. There is something more direct in our positive responsiveness to a living organism, particularly when it has the space and conditions to be able to fully express its own characteristic aliveness. However, as the examples of “dead” green spaces suggest, design ideas such as Alexander’s design structures to promote aliveness and the theory of responsive cohesion do offer useful rubrics. These rubrics can ensure that designs for hard landscaping, when they cannot include plants, and even designs for planted green spaces can be created in ways that help to bring about more aliveness and thus deliver the maximum benefit.


Isis Brook

Isis Brook is a philosopher who has taught environmental ethics and aesthetics at Lancaster University and the University of Central Lancashire. Her doctoral work was on Goethean science and Husserlean phenomenology. Based in the UK, she is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University and Deputy Editor of the journal Plant Perspectives. Isis’ research interests include an experiential approach to landscape aesthetics and human-plant interactions. She is also a keen gardener.

Published on January 22, 2024.

Cite this article: Isis Brook, “Enlivening and Deadening Green and Gray Spaces: an exploration of Christopher Alexander’s features of living design,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 22 (2024), accessed date.



[1] See Daniel Baxter and Luc Pelletier, “Is Nature Relatedness a Basic Human Psychological Need? A critical examination of the extant literature,” Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne 60, no 1 (2019), 21-34; S.L. Bell, C. Phoenix, R. Lovell, and B.W. Wheeler, “Green Space, Health and Wellbeing: making space for individual agency,” Health and Place 30 (2014), 287-292. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2014.10.005. Owen Douglas, Paula Russell, and Mark Scott, “Positive Perceptions of Green and Open Space as Predictors of Neighbourhood Quality of Life: implications for urban planning across the city region,” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 62: 4 (2018), http://doi.org/10.1080/09640568.2018.1439573.

[2] Isis Brook, “Gardening and the Power of Engagement with Nature for Mental Well-being,” in The Oxford Handbook of Mental Health and Contemporary Western Aesthetics, ed. Martin Poltrum et.al. (London Oxford University Press, 2023).

[3] Charles Lewis, Green Nature Human Nature: the meaning of plants in our lives (Urbana: University of Illinois Press.1996).

[4] Edward, O. Wilson, Biophilia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).

[5] Jay Appleton, The Symbolism of Habitat (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990).

[6] Kabila Abass,  Afriyie Kwadwo, and Razak, M. Gyasi, “From Green to Grey: the dynamics of land use/land cover change in urban Ghana,” Landscape Research 44 (2019). http://doi.org/10.1080/01426397.2018.1552251.

[7] Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order: Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life, (Berkeley: The Centre for Environmental Structure, 2002).

[8] Isis Brook, “The Importance of Nature, Green Spaces, and Gardens in Human Wellbeing,” Ethics, Place and Environment 13:3 (2010), 295-312.

[9] Rachel Kaplan, “The Psychological Benefits of Nearby Nature,” in The Role of Horticulture in Human Well-Being and Social Development, ed. Diane Relf (Portland: The Timber Press Inc,1992), 125-133.

[10] Roger Ulrich, “View Through a Window May Influence Recovery From Surgery,” Science 224 (1984), http://doi.org/10.1126/science.6143402.

[11] See Charles Hall and Melinda Knuth, “An Update of the Literature Supporting the Well-Being Benefits of Plants: a review of the emotional and mental health benefits of plants,” Journal of Environmental Horticulture 37:1 (2019a),30-38; C. Hall and M. Knuth, “An Update of the Literature Supporting the Well-Being Benefits of Plants: part 2 physiological health benefits,” Journal of Environmental Horticulture 37:2 (2019b), 63-73.

[12] See Frances Kuo et al., “Fertile Ground for Community: inner-city neighbourhood common spaces,” American Journal of Community Psychology 26:1 (1998) 823-851; Mardelle Shepley, Naomi Sachs, Hassam Sadatsafavi, Christine Fournier, and Kati Peditto, “The Impact of Green Space on Violent Crime in Urban Environments: an evidence synthesis,” International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health 16:24 (2019) http://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16245119.

[13] William Sullivan, “Forest, Savannah, City: Evolutionary landscapes and human functioning,” in Urban Place: reconnecting with the natural world, ed. Peggy F. Bartlett (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005), 245.

[14] Besson, AM., “Aesthetics and Affordances in a Favourite Place: on the interactional use of environments for restoration,” Environmental Values 29:5 (2020), 557-577.

[15] Orians, G., “An Ecological and Evolutionary Approach to Landscape Aesthetics,” in Landscape Meaning and Values, eds. Edmund Penning-Roswell and David Lowenthal (London: Allan and Unwin, 1986).

[16] Jay Appleton, The Symbolism of Habitat (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990).

[17] Edward, O. Wilson, Biophilia (Boston: Harvard University Press,1984).

[18] Theodore Roszak ed., Ecopsychology: restoring the earth, healing the mind (San Fransisco: Sierra Club Books, 1995).

[19] Yannick Joye and Andreas de Block, “Nature and I are Two: a critical examination of the biophilia hypothesis,” Environmental Values 20: 2 (2011): 189-216.

[20] Rachel Kaplan and Stephen Kaplan, “Preference, Restoration, and Meaningful Action in the Context of Nearby Nature,” in Urban Place: reconnecting with the natural world, ed. Peggy F. Bartlett (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005), 273.

[21] Isis Brook, “Gardening and the Power of Engagement with Nature for Mental Well-being,” The Oxford Handbook of Mental Health and Contemporary Western Aesthetics, ed. Martin Poltrum et.al. (London Oxford University Press, 2023).

[22] Michael Soth, “Embodied Countertransference” in New Dimensions in Body Psychotherapy Nick Totton, ed. (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2005).

[23] Joe Sempik, Rachel Hine, and Deborah Wilcox, Green Care: a conceptual framework, Cost Action 866 (Loughborough: Loughborough University 2010), 94.

[24] McRobie, L., “A New Set of Priorities” in The Regeneration of Public Parks, eds Woustra, J. and Fieldhouse, K. (London: London: Spon, 2000) x.

[25] See Francis Kuo and and William Sullivan, “Aggression and Violence in the Inner City: impacts of environment and mental fatigue,” in Environment and Behaviour 33: 4 (2001), 543-571; Mardella Shepley et al., “The Impact of Green Space on Violent Crime in Urban Environments: An Evidence Synthesis,” International Journal of Environment Behaviour and Public Health 16, 5119 (2019): doi: 10.3390/ijerph16245119.

[26] Nicola Garmory and Rachel Tennant, Spaced Out: a guide to award winning contemporary spaces in the UK (London: Architectural Press, 2005).

[27] See CABE, “Grey to Green: how we shift funding and skills to green our cities” (London: CABE, 2009); Jeremy Carter, John Handley, Tom Butlin, and Susannah Gill, “Adapting cities to climate change: exploring the flood risk management role of green infrastructure landscapes,” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 61: 9 (2017): doi.org/10.1080/09640568.2017.1355777.

[28] Details of the Sheffield gray to green initiative can be found here https://www. graytogreen.org.uk/ (accessed 10.01.23).

[29] See Pauline Marsh, Lucy Dieckmann, Monika Egerer, et al., “Where Birds Felt Louder: the garden as a refuge during COVID-19,” Wellbeing Space and Society 2 (2021): doi.org/10.1016/j.wss.2021.100055; Analisa Theodouro, Angelo Panno, Giuseppe Carrus, et al., “Stay Home, Stay Safe, Stay Green: The role of gardening activities on mental health during the Covid-19 home confinement,” Urban Forestry and Urban Greening 61 (2021): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ufug.2021.127091.

[30] Christopher Alexander, Hans Joachim Neis, and Maggie Moore Alexander, The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: a struggle between two world systems, (New York: Oxford University Press 2012), 80.

[31] Colin Ellard, Places of the Soul: the psychogeography of everyday life (New York: Bellevue Press, 2015).

[32] Thomas Heatherwick, Humanise: a makers’ guide to building our world (London: Viking, 2023).

[33] Arnold Berleant, Sensibility and Sense: the aesthetic transformation of the human world, (Exeter: Imprint academic, 2010),122.

[34] Ibid., 160.

[35] Colin Ellard, Places of the Soul: the psychogeography of everyday life,130.

[36] Bin Jiang, “Living Structure Down to Earth and Up to Heaven: Christopher Alexander,” Urban Science 3:3 (2019):96 doi:10.3390/urbansci3030096.

[37] Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order: Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life (2002), 384.

[38] Ibid., 144.

[39] Ibid., 144.

[40] Ibid., 315.

[41] Details of this building can be found at https://www.patternlanguage.com/projects/westdean.html, accessed August 31, 2023.

[42] Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order: Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life, 169.

[43] An ideal would be something like a 1.4 ratio between normal and wider step.

[44] Christopher Alexander, Neis, H., Anninou, A. and King, I., A New Theory of Urban Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987): 66.

[45] This is sometimes referred to as SLOAP, an acronym for “space left over after planning.” See: Cliff Moughtin and Peter Shirley, Urban Design: green dimensions (Burlington, MA: Architectural Press, 2004) p .80.

[46] I. Brook, “The Aesthetic Qualities of Unauthorized Environmental Interventions,” Ethics, Place and Environment 10:3 (2007): 307-318, p 311.

[47] Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order: Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life,186.

[48] Ibid., 187.

[49] Ibid., 230.

[50] Alexander et al., A New Theory of Urban Design, 93.

[51] Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 116.

[52] Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order: Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life, 364.

[53] Ibid., 443.

[54] Arnold Berleant, “Reconsidering Scenic Beauty,” Environmental Values 19:3 (2010), 335-350.

[55] Joona Markus Hulmi, “Resonance and Atmosphere in Architectural Aesthetics,” Contemporary Aesthetics 20 (2022).

[56] Paul Shephard, “The Phyto-Resonance of the True Self,” in The Healing Dimensions of People-Plant Relations, eds. Mark Francis et al. (UC Davis, CA: 1994), 153-159.

[57] Konrad Neuberger, “Non-Verbal Communication Between People and Plants: physical countertransference and resonance as models for understanding people-plant interactions,” in Digging Deeper: Approaches to Research in Horticultural Therapy and Therapeutic Horticulture (Proceedings of the Tenth International People-Plant Symposium, Acta Horticulturae No. 954: Leuven 2012), 83-90.

[58] Mateusz Salwa, “Always With Green Aesthetics!,” Contemporary Aesthetics 15 (2017).

[59] Jonathan Prior and Emily Brady, “Environmental Aesthetics and Rewilding,” Environmental Values 26:1 (2017), 31-52.

[60] Warwick Fox, A Theory of General Ethics: human relationships, nature and the built environment (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 77.

[61] Ibid., 76.

[62] Antony Radford, “Responsive Cohesion as the Foundational Value of Architecture,” The Journal of Architecture 14: 4 (2009), 511-532.

[63] Antony Radford, “Urban Design, Ethics, and Responsive Cohesion,” Building Research and Information” 38:5 (2010), 379-389.

[64] Isis Brook, “Restoring or Re-storying the Lake District: applying responsive cohesion to a current problem situation,” Environmental Values 27: 4 (2018), 427-445.

[65] Ronald Hepburn, The Reach of the Aesthetic (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001). See particularly chapters 2-4.

[66] Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).