This study investigated public perception of a walking environment in Detroit, Michigan, pairing eye-tracking technology and landscape evaluation techniques in order to establish connections between perceptions of the general public and characteristics of the street environment. In the first phase of the study, we employed landscape evaluation techniques shifting the target from the natural landscape to the urban landscape and referred to the psychophysical method (Lothian 1999; Daniel, 2001). In this phase we administered visual questionnaires to the general public, asking respondents to rate urban scenes portraying pedestrian corridors in reference to walkability. Pictures were categorized based on visible elements included in the scene and perceived walkability was captured through a five-category descriptor of walkability (aesthetic quality, orientation, comfort, safety, and security), which was derived from literature review and on site observations. In a second phase of the project we utilized an eye-tracking tool that allowed us to monitor eye fixations, i.e. the spots in the picture the eye is focusing on, as observers viewed and rated the urban scenes on a computer screen. Eye movement research has been employed in a wide variety of areas such as reading, visual search, and scene perception, as well as face perception, typing, driving, and advertising (Rayner, 2009). The body of research on eye movement and visual cognition can assist in overcoming some limitations of landscape evaluation studies, for example the issue of multicollinearity determined by scene complexity (Bernasconi et al, 2009) and the difficulty of effectively measuring incremental values of each scene element towards the overall scene rating (Hull et al, 1987). Whereas in the traditional landscape evaluation method respondents’ ratings of scenes reflect the product of their mental processing of a scene, eye fixations reveal what aspects of the scene were of interest (i.e. selected objects or areas). This allows for a more in detail understanding of what is really looked at within the scene. Finally, we compared walkability ratings obtained through the traditional picture-based landscape evaluation approach and those gathered through the eye-tracking tests. Results allowed us to determine which elements in the scene were looked at more often and for longer periods of time when the observers were questioned separately on each of the five descriptors of walkability. Scene elements included people, street furniture, environmental graphics, cars, sidewalk, vegetation, and building facades. Findings will be discussed together with considerations of the applicability of eye-tracking techniques to landscape assessments.
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