A landscape to a geographer consists of an area or small region and the features that appear there. These features may be tangible and physically present and observable; or the landscape may be conceptual, representing a structure of cultural or social characteristics, such as a “linguistic landscape” or an “ethnic landscape.” The term in English may be derived from a Dutch noun, landschap, which indicated a specific parcel of land; or the German word Landschaft, which has the literal meaning of “land shape.” Various landscapes may play a pivotal role in the establishment and perpetuation of national identity in a nation-state. The notion of “landscape” as a conceptual tool for approaching and analyzing a location was established in academic geography in the United States by Carl Sauer and the Berkeley School in the early 20th century. Sauer’s seminal article “The Morphology of Landscape” appeared in 1925 and initiated an entirely new theoretical framework that challenged the prevailing paradigm of environmental determinism. Sauer and his students pioneered the study of cultural ecology, which emphasizes the impact of culture on the physical environment, rather than the reverse, which had been the basis for the deterministic ideas that had dominated geographic thought before the late 1920s. Sauer held that the cultural history of a place could be “read” from an examination of the landscape, and that the relationships between the features on the landscape revealed how the place had evolved through a series of cultural influences over time. Most of the work of the Berkeley School geographers was grounded in particularism, and addressed landscapes as unique phenomena that were not subject to “laws” that dictated their nature or circumstances.
The notion of landscape is engrained in the research and ideas of many cultural geographers. Two of the foremost thinkers who have promoted the study of geography via the examination of landscapes are Wilbur Zelinsky and Donald Meinig. Zelinsky earned his doctorate working under the guidance of Sauer, and landscapes of various scales and dimensions inform all of his research and publications, including his magnum opus, The Cultural Geography of the United States. Zelinsky has studied and written widely on the landscapes associated with folk culture and toponymy in the United States, as well as applying the concept to spatial manifestations of popular culture. Donald Meinig was a central figure in the emergence of new perspectives in cultural geography in the late 1970s, which was partially a reaction to the quantitative revolution that had redirected geographical research a decade earlier. One of his most significant contributions has been to integrate intellectual approaches from the humanities, especially literature, into the spatial perspective of geographical research.
The work of Meinig, Yi Fu Tuan, and other cultural geographers has given rise to humanistic geography, a subdiscipline that is centered on the landscape perspective. The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes, an edited collection of landscape research Meinig produced in 1979, has had a lasting influence on subsequent directions in cultural geography.
The past two decades in fact have witnessed the emergence of innovative ways of critically analyzing landscapes. How a landscape is interpreted is an important consideration in the so-called new cultural geography that is theoretically grounded in the philosophy of the French scholar Michael Foucault and the writings of other post-modern and post-structuralist thinkers. Some who are engaged in the “new” school of landscape interpretation regard a landscape as a kind of textual feature, which may be “read” in a number of different ways, depending on the perspective and background of the observer. A given landscape may be interpreted quite differently based on the gender, race, social class, age, sexual preference, or even political affiliation of those viewing it, and therefore the significance and meaning of the landscape varies accordingly. Other key issues for cultural geographers regarding landscapes concern how they are constructed, why they are constructed, and how they affect the behavior and attitudes of those who live within them.
Landscape ecology is a field closely related to geography that attempts a holistic analysis of the interaction between human activity and the natural environment. Studies in landscape ecology often are vital to understanding the methods and dynamics of achieving sustainable development. Geographers, ecologists, and regional planners use landscape ecology to construct a broad image of the changes brought to an ecosystem over time by human settlement and economic development. Landscape ecologists are concerned with the scale at which changes in the landscape take place. For instance, the landscape under study might be no larger than several fields, or it could be as large as a county, state, or province. Various areas within the landscape that are spatially similar are termed patches, and the number and variety of these determine the degree of heterogeneity a specific landscape indicates. Heterogeneity is an indicator of the spatial diversity of the landscape, which landscape ecologists consider vital to maintaining its stability and avoiding the degradation of local ecosystems.
Organizing space through the spatial structure of the “landscape” has applications and importance beyond academic geography. The recognition and preservation of “cultural landscapes” is a major component of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage Program. The World Heritage Program designates regions that fit a specified group of characteristics as “cultural landscapes,” which do not fit either strictly “cultural” or “natural” criteria. Cultural landscapes in this context are a blend of “natural” features and “cultural” features (which is precisely how Carl Sauer conceived them) and show the interaction of both over a considerable stretch of time. One of the first locations awarded this status by the World Heritage Program was the national park that surrounds Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia. This is perhaps the quintessential cultural landscape because it represents a combination of spectacular natural features with the sacred space of Australia’s native people. This landscape has been utilized and modified by humans for thousands of years, and today continues to be changed by human activity through the visitation of tourists. The single constant that all landscapes share is the element of change brought about by both natural and human processes.
Related Credo Articles
In one of its everyday usages, the term ‘landscape’ signifies the specific arrangement or pattern of ‘things on the land’: trees, meadows,...
Anthropologists have been slow to appreciate the potential of landscape studies. They have tended to think of landscape either in terms of...
No single ancient or medieval term corresponds fully to the English landscape , encompassing as it does an unmediated view of the natural world...