Landscape, Culture and Sustainability



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Landscape is a result, a formal decantation on the surface of the Earth. Landscape is moreover an expression of territory. And it is also a cultural interpretation of the configuration acquired by geographical facts. So in the words of Philipp Otto Runge, the painter who managed to put all colors onto the face of a sphere, “everything converges on landscape.” By accumulating spatial elements and historic times, landscape can show the keys to territorial compatibility or disharmony in one fell swoop. Seen in this way, landscape offers proof of sustainability.

As we have said, landscape is a configured (and sometimes disfigured) place. Geography, meaning localization and territoriality, is therefore the first step to its revelation. It is a unity that integrates natural and social forces, physical and human components, and internal pieces or territorial units. The formal constructs resulting from an evolution of all these ingredients are presented as settled, and inter-assembled in a local, regional and universal chorology. The geography of landscape which makes sense of such a mosaic or map is, then, initially a morphogeography. But it does not end there. Since landscape is furthermore a cultural discovery of the territory and not merely its formal decantation, the revelation of its profound, cultured and aesthetic aspects means that the perception of place is supplemented by its comprehension, even its sentiment, and naturally by its representation, its scientific and artistic image. In using the term “landscape” rather than “territory,” I am therefore including the latter as materiality with the addition of that image received through the senses, of the study which assembles its areas and components in an integrated fashion, and of the given culture with which it has been qualified. The act of seeing a landscape is one of discovering a higher dimension in the territory. The geographical fact is there, and precedes the discovery, but without the discovery there is still no landscape. Landscape is thus the sum of an ecological, historical and geographical whole with another interpretive whole.


Morphology is therefore the basis of landscape. Its forms show the Earth’s faces, including both its physical face and the physiognomies formed out of the natural picture by lifestyles, techniques and economic functions, as well as cultural and moral styles, categories and levels. When a territory is interpreted culturally and comes to be recognized as a landscape rather than merely being viewed pragmatically, it is reorganized intellectually, aesthetically and ethically. A special dialogue with broader contents is then established with it. Historic advances in the concept of landscape, its artistic representations, its methods of study and its social significance are achievements in the history of civilization that encompass technicians, inhabitants, politicians, thinkers, artists and scientists—that is, they affect the entire cultural body. The reading of a landscape is, then, the reading of a process and a cultural system. From its very sources as a modern science, geography has assumed that the correct understanding of landscapes stems from the principle of terrestrial unity, and of the combination, correlation and successiveness of phenomena. It only remains to add that when speaking of landscapes, culture is one of those phenomena.

Cultural representations of landscapes can even teach us to see. They guide our perception. Their pressure is so great that educational levels are decisive for an understanding of landscapes, since prior images help to improve the perceiver’s vision, although it can also happen that the traveler—as Hippolyte Taine wrote of his journey to the Pyrenees in the mid nineteenth century—rebels against this and makes a virtue out of a preference for his or her spontaneous, personal and direct vision, refusing to deform it with previously acquired information of a geographical, literary or pictorial nature. This is generally inadvisable since, as Henry David Thoreau argued, we shall see all the more, the better we are prepared for it. Even the senses themselves are combined and transposed in a perceptive whole as a resonance of the unity of the real, the armature and the weave of the landscape. Implicit in the term landscape, as part of its existence, is the concept of structure. Behind forms lie invisible structures that order (or disorder) appearances. The Enlightenment and Romantic notion of “nature pictures” already rested on the fact that such pictures were the face of that geographical structure. The structure takes a form, the form presents a face, and the face is what we perceive. The function that builds up much of that structure thus lies behind any territory, which today is nothing but a cross-section of its historical process. Understanding place, however, leads to the contents and meanings that appear within any landscape. Inverting the terms, landscape for the writers of the 1898 Generation was a gateway to the spirit.

When viewed within a geographical framework, Ortega y Gasset’s “circumstance” refers to landscape. Landscape thus appears as a condition and reference for life. Ortega added that if I am myself and my circumstance, then if I do not save it, I do not save myself. This places landscape beyond the environment or any mechanical relation of mere productivity or survival. Rather than the traditional idea of the “environment,” Ortega wrote as early as the beginning of the twentieth century, we should say “landscape.” In our observation of the world, seeing the environment as landscape would thus require the revelation of a higher degree in the conception of places. In the specific case of anthropic landscapes, it would seek the correspondence between man and nature, which would make it necessary to move from a naturalist causality to a humanist one. The landscape would thus be the environment converted into circumstance. Landscape finally acquires the value of a concept that frees history of geographical determinism. In doing so, however, it entails a sense of responsibility, a behavioral ethic, as every freedom does. If we are free, we are responsible for our places and our landscapes. When the human gaze discovers the world as landscape, it also sees its depth behind appearances.

Landscape allows us to recognize a new scenario of our heritage. It has been established that administrative bodies will look after the historic, artistic and natural heritage, but the landscape heritage, which is a country’s geographical heritage and is therefore exposed to every inclemency, has not yet been included.

Landscapes form tesserae that change gradually (or suddenly) from one to another of their principal modes of representation on the map of the Earth: those which are predominantly natural (but not necessarily exclusively natural), those predominantly rural (with their basis in nature and their references in urban groupings), and those predominantly urban (with a physical foundation and a nodal relationship with the whole functional, natural and rural system). In addition, there are mixed spaces. For a landscape is any territory that is interpreted as such, from Antarctica to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol or the vineyards of Castile, forming regional, continental and even marine spaces in more or less tangled groupings. Every landscape is a well defined average unit of understanding that participates in other larger spaces and is itself composed of smaller grouped localities. In this way, the landscape is organized on different scales where the tensions between homogeneity and diversity define its geography. This permits its cartography, and thereby its establishment, its typology, its analysis, its communication and its management. In other words, its utility.

In this way, we have on the one hand what we call the material components of the scenario, where relief enters into dialogue with climate, water, vegetation and also man to form the basic weave of any landscape. Man, the great overall active agent in terrestrial landscapes, has recomposed the planetary film of the morphosphere. We have positioned the center of geographical interest within what is proper to our own species, in our reconfigurations and artifacts, and we have also multiplied the understanding of landscape in both time and space. We tend to blur the traditional diversity of landscapes, even dispersing “non-landscapes” around the planet, similar to one another, strange to their surroundings, and distanced from the geographical sense of place. What was once the original geosphere, which still maintains its key physical features as a basic order of the world, has thus lost both its nature and its diversity. The primitive biosphere has changed in the long course of geological time, but has also done so in the short course of historical time. We human beings have modeled an ecosphere to our measure, one that is now being transformed in such a way that the original geosphere, while always subject to change, is now turning into a technosphere ruled by artificiality, homogeneity and acceleration. Landscapes arouse less and less interest.

The sustainability of landscape does not therefore lie simply in its maintenance but in suitable protection for the direction of its evolutionary dynamics, just like every living being

Landscape in which human additions and recompositions participate is, in short, a physical and anthropic complex, with increasingly rare and vulnerable exceptions. The habitual patrimony that appears on the Earth’s surface, with its different predominance, therefore consists of this complex. This patrimonial landscape is the sum and the dialogue of its varied constituents, and its understanding and treatment thus requires multifaceted professional expertise from those who try to establish its various components and the sense of convergence necessary for a comprehension of the way they interlock. Landscape heritage, then, begins with natural morphogeography and ends with human territorial action (on the rural and urban heritage, on the regional system of relations, on the monumental and functional system, on the so-called constructed landscape, and on experience, comprehension and representation). The intellectual management of such a resource requires a great deal of effort and high levels of competence, but in a technological panorama of progressively decreasing interest in landscapes, this can only be assured on a solid cultural bedrock which, as we well know, is not developed or implanted everywhere to a sufficient degree. A rigorous approach to landscape is even more complicated when the composition of the geographical scenario is followed by infinite explanations of experiences, feelings, tastes, thoughts, representations and projects, which make it necessary to enter the invisible. However, Ortega y Gasset himself wrote that the forest is more the latent than the patent, more the profound than the superficial, more the invisible than the visible, and more the inside than the outside. The forest is suggested to one within it, not seen by them, since it always develops behind the immediately perceptible line of trees, and like everything in reality, its most profound aspects are those which are least apparent. The theory is that the forest exists when it is interpreted as such. Bruno Zevi added in his book Saper veder l’architettura that humans are not accustomed to understanding space, since a vision of it requires three dimensions. To achieve this, we must situate ourselves in the midst of it. In other words, we achieve it only when the landscape contains us.

The patrimonial significance of landscape is drawn from its values. Once these are established, it has to be borne in mind that landscape is dynamic and therefore changing. The sustainability of landscape does not therefore lie simply in its maintenance but in suitable protection for the direction of its evolutionary dynamics, just like every living being. Achieving this means protection not only for its visible face but for the structure that generates it, the dynamism that gives it vitality and the change it requires, with attention paid also to the background of ideas, perceptions and images that feed it culturally. The “whole” responds only as a totality, and man and nature are within it in their appropriate place as part of its life pulse. In our care of the landscape, or in our lack of it, the positive or negative sign of sustainability is thus established. The final decantation of landscape is a central position in the system of territorial change and preservation. It lies at the confluence of three flows and vertices: the conservation of nature; the protection of resources, traditional customs and cultural components; and the regulation of activities, processes of change and educational uses.

In 1838, the Romantic writer José Zorrilla published a poem on the Creation. The earth, the hill, the breeze, the bird, the beast and man all appear successively, joining together in the landscape, until Paradise is undone by a twisted conscience: “the cool valley’s splendor was faded / the world trembled on its axes of diamond.” That was the beginning of a well-known story that will end only when “the tremendous day / of universal harm is done.” Let us hope so much drama does not have such a desolate ending. We should begin by restoring our paradises. We have the instruments for it. But the task will certainly be made easier and more acceptable if the idea of sustainable landscape becomes one of these instruments, entering the concept, regulation and practice of its management. It might be like planting an arrow in the center of the system.


Eduardo Martínez de Pisón

Emeritus professor of geography at the Autonomous University of Madrid, winner of the National Environment Prize, and author of more than 550 publications, he is the director of the Landscape Institute of the Fundación Duques de Soria, and has taken part in geographical expeditions to the North Pole, Alaska, Siberia, the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts, the mountains of Central Asia, the Silk Route, the Himalayas and Tibet. He has been a member of the Spanish UNESCO MaB committee and a correspondent for the World Glacier Monitoring System. He is a trustee of Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park, Sierra de Guadarrama National Park, and Teide National Park.

Download Paths to sustainability S.M.A.R.T. (PDF)

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