Image Preference Survey

Image Preference Surveys are, quite arguably, one of the very best ways to determine what residents of any particular community like and dislike – in terms of the appearance of different kinds of development. Because of this quality, such surveys are also among the most effective ways to persuade local officials to endorse design standards for new development.

These surveys, which I conduct upon request, measure the degree of positive or negative reaction generated by a wide variety of residential and commercial development examples. When administered to public audiences, they provide critical information to elected and appointed officials, helping them to more fully understand how the residents of their communities feel about various kinds of development, when executed in different ways.

Because these surveys translate the feelings of their constituents into quantifiable terms, local officials can cite survey results as documentable evidence that their citizenry would favor the encouragement of certain development types, while disfavoring others. Thus informed, officials can have a higher degree of confidence that certain kinds of regulatory changes encouraging the former and discouraging (or prohibiting) the latter would closely reflect the wishes of the body politic.

Apart from the much more expensive community charrette process, the Image Preference Survey is probably the most effective tool for securing buy-in from a wide range of stakeholder groups, including public officials.

Thus armed with this information, these officials can be emboldened to propose certain changes in the community’s existing land-use plans and codes, referencing the published survey results as supporting proposals for progressive revisions.

The Purpose and Process: An Example

As part of the planning effort involved in the production of the guidelines booklet I prepared for Chautauqua County NY (Visualizing Our Options: Creating a Better Future), I conducted an Image Preference Survey in October 2008, in association with the Chautauqua County Comprehensive Plan update.

At a well-advertised public meeting, participants were shown 119 photographs illustrating a range of development examples, and were given about six seconds to mark down (on score sheets) their initial “gut” reactions to each image. Respondents were asked to rate each of 119 images on a 21-unit scale ranging from -10 (very negative) through zero (absolutely neutral) to +10 (very positive).

Images were divided into two broad categories, commercial/industrial and residential (single-family, two-family, and multi-family). Within each of these two broad categories, images were presented either totally randomly or in contrasting pairs (illustrating two different approaches for the same land-use), so that respondents could make direct comparisons more easily. Narration was brief, factual, and objective.

At the end of the evaluation session, score sheets were tallied and the numerical scores for each image were averaged together, creating average scores. Several weeks later at a follow-up meeting, the same 119 images were presented in the order of their average scores, ranging from lowest to highest.

The results were consistent with those produced by similar surveys conducted in other states over the past fifteen years, confirming that there is a broad public consensus regarding what most people generally like to see and what they generally do not like to see.

The purpose of the exercise in Chautauqua County was to provide all parties involved in updating the new County Comprehensive Plan with solid information regarding the preferences expressed by the survey respondents. The kinds of buildings, signage, and landscaping that people rated lowest might be actively discouraged through new, locally adopted and locally-administered design guidelines or standards. Conversely, the kinds of buildings, signage, and landscaping that people rated most highly could be actively encouraged through the same mechanism.

In order to help local officials set public policies in a manner consistent with their constituents’ desires, such information can be quite useful. Local officials can then set policies the public will see as consistent with their own stated preferences.

Description of Results

This commentary describes some of the distinguishing characteristics of the images, those aspects differentiating them, for better or worse, as rated and scored by survey respondents.

Generally, the images in the Commercial/Industrial category which were rated highest exhibited the following characteristics: visual impact of parking minimized from the road through rear locations; plantings; stone walls, fences, etc.; non-generic buildings with traditional architecture; parking lots with many trees; shops arranged around "village green" open space; two-story "Main Street" building design with sidewalks and shade trees; signs made of wood rather than plastic, and low (“monument”) signs.

Rated lowest in the Commercial/Industrial category were roadside views dominated by large expanses of asphalt in parking lots visible from the street; sparse landscaping; few or no shade trees; boxy, flat-roofed buildings; cluttered signage and tall pole-mounted signs.

In the Residential category, images rated highest were those showing homes fronting onto greens or backing onto open space, trails, streets lined with shade trees, modest front setbacks, cul-de-sac islands with trees, and streets of modest to moderate width. Rated lowest were images of neighborhoods without green spaces, streets without trees, streets that are very wide, and homes with visually prominent garage doors.

Historical Note: Image Preference Surveys, in one form or another, have been used for more than four decades by planners to help them determine how ordinary people feel about their physical surroundings. My first introduction to the technique was through my Master’s degree thesis advisor, Dr. James Hope, at the University of Edinburgh. As part of his research work, Hope surveyed the landscape preferences of Scottish schoolchildren by showing them photographs of various natural and man-made landscapes. Eight years later Ricki McKenzie, a staff researcher at the National Park Service, conducted a visual preference survey as part of her work in the New Jersey Pinelands, to learn how people perceive and value various kinds of natural landscapes. In the early 1990s this technique was further refined and widely popularized by Prof. Anton Nelessen of Rutgers University in New Brunswick NJ.

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