Types of Cultural Landscapes

Types of Cultural Landscapes

“Virtually all landscapes have cultural associations, because virtually all landscapes have been affected in some way by human action or perception” (Alice E. Ingerson).

The concept of the Cultural Landscapes is strongly related to the human influence over the natural environment, the questions that arise here is what type of landscape should be considered as cultural landscape? Is it the obvious visual extravaganza or the symbolic meaning ascribed to the everyday landscape that defines whether a landscape falls in the category or not? is it the distinctive or the commonplace that is considered as cultural landscapes? Cannot we still find places of pure nature?

When we look at the words Culture and Landscape, the word cultural comes from the Latin “colere”(colui,cultum) which originally means to cultivate (the soil), a clear human action to subdue nature with the aim of profit. The word  “landscape”(shaping the land) also implies, at first sight, a human intervention. It seems then, that we cannot speak about our natural environment in terms of the landscape without introducing ourselves as a determining factor.

The story goes that since man appeared on the surface of the earth, he has influenced the environment that he found in order to make it a “more friendly place”  to live in (to shape it as a landscape: a place where man has his place)Whereas the first hunters-gatherers had only a small influence on their surroundings, being still very well integrated into the natural food chain-this situation changed completely with the invention of agriculture. The necessity to clear wilderness in order to obtain land to produce food was coupled with the necessity to guard his land (e.g. against trespassing animals, or against hostile tribes). The clearing of the land (often by a slash and burn technique) got rid of large parts of the primary forests that almost entirely covered the earth, whereas the ‘guarding’ aspect provoked the establishment of the first settlements and the development of a network of roads between these settlements. Both evolutions created the first cultural landscapes. Striking examples are of course Ancient Egypt at the Nile; Mesopotamia (with eventually the dramatic silting of the soil due to over irrigation-and the desertification of the region), or the Indus Valley civilization (Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro).

Early human settlement

Cultural Landscape of Jericho

As humans have roamed the earth during some thousands of years, it is tough to find primary landscapes with no human traces. Recent research has shown that even the rainforests are regularly rejuvenated by the slash and burn strategy of the nomadic indigenous tribes. Even more strikingly: apparently the rainforests are as densely organized with roads as rural India in the Gangetic plain. Moreover, with the exploration of both the North pole and south pole, humans have left their mark even in these most untouched spots of the globe, not to mention the “mass colonization’ of Mount Everest.1

With a small sense of exaggeration, one could conclude that no landscape in the world escapes human influences in a greater or lesser degree, and every landscape should, therefore, be called a ‘cultural landscape’.

A natural landscape is a landscape where nature has been able to create a relatively stable situation without the intervention of man, regardless of the fact that may be in a far or not so far past, humans had been very instrumental in shaping that landscape. A Cultural Landscape, on the other hand, is a landscape where nature is guided by human action, both attempting to arrive at equilibrium. It also emphasizes the presence of tangible and intangible values ingrained on to the natural landscape.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (CLF) explains, “Cultural landscapes can range from thousands of acres of rural land to homesteads with small front yards. They can be man-made expressions of visual and spatial relationships that include grand estates, farmlands, public gardens and parks, college campuses, cemeteries, scenic highways, and industrial sites. Cultural landscapes are works of art, texts and narratives of cultures, and expressions of regional identity. They also exist about their ecological contexts.”2

Different categories of Cultural Landscapes defined by various organizations :

For understanding, assessing and conserving cultural landscapes various organizations have developed different approaches; the most prominent ones are discussed below.

United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO):

Since its inception, the UNESCO has fought to preserve many cultural, natural, and historical areas throughout the world. UNESCO, created in 1942, 13 is a major international agency with a rigorous scholarly view on cultural landscapes and how to preserve them. In 1992 the World Heritage Convention became the first international legal instrument to recognize and protect cultural landscapes. The Committee at its 16th session (Santa Fe, USA, 1992) adopted guidelines concerning their inclusion in the World Heritage List. The Committee acknowledged that cultural landscapes represent the “combined works of nature and of man” designated in Article 1 of the Convention. They are illustrative of the evolution of human society and settlement over time, under the influence of the physical constraints and/or opportunities presented by their natural environment and of successive social, economic and cultural forces, both external and internal. 3

The operational guideline states that the term “cultural landscape” embraces a diversity of manifestations of the interaction between humankind and its natural environment. They should be selected on the basis both of their outstanding universal value and of their representativity in terms of a clearly defined geo-cultural region and also for their capacity to illustrate the essential and distinct cultural elements of such regions.

Cultural landscapes fall into three main categories (Operational Guidelines 2008, Annex3), namely:

The most easily identifiable is the clearly defined landscape designed and created intentionally by man. This embraces garden and parkland landscapes constructed for aesthetic reasons which are often (but not always) associated with religious or other monumental buildings and ensembles.

Aranjuez Cultural Landscape

The second category is the organically evolved landscape. This results from an initial social, economic, administrative, and/or religious imperative and has developed its present form by association with and in response to its natural environment. Such landscapes reflect that process of evolution in their form and component features.

They fall into two sub-categories:

(i) a relict (or fossil) landscape is one in which an evolutionary process came to an end at some time in the past, either abruptly or over a period. Its significant distinguishing features are, however, still visible in material form.

Quebrada de Humahuaca (Argentina)

(ii) continuing landscape is one which retains an active social role in contemporary society closely associated with the traditional way of life, and in which the evolutionary process is still in progress. At the same time it exhibits significant material evidence of its evolution over time.

Sukur Cultural Landscape

The final category is the associative cultural landscape. The inclusion of such landscapes on the World Heritage List is justifiable by virtue of the powerful religious, artistic or cultural associations of the natural element rather than material cultural evidence, which may be insignificant or even absent.

Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (Japan)

UNESCO acknowledges that these sites face major challenges. Of particular significance is the fact that it is the work of local communities and indigenous people that see these sites maintained often through their own protection measures, rather than by official legal provisions. Notably therefore with the adoption of the cultural landscape categories, customary law and management systems have been accepted at a global level.

National Park Services (NPS) :

The NPS has been and still remains a major player in the practice of landscape preservation and more recently cultural landscape preservation in the United States. Managing expansive holdings of land owned by the federal government, the NPS probably presents the largest organized system of preserving identified cultural landscapes worldwide. The standard definition of a cultural landscape, accepted by NPS is as follows:

A Cultural Landscape is defined as a geographic area, including both cultural and natural resources and the wildlife or domestic animals therein, associated with a historic event, activity, or person, or that exhibit other cultural or aesthetic values. 4

For the purpose of management, they chose to categorize cultural landscapes into four distinct but non-mutually exclusive categories:

Historic Designed Landscape—a landscape that was consciously designed or laid out by a landscape architect, master gardener, architect, or horticulturist according to design principles, or an amateur gardener working in a recognized style or tradition. The landscape may be associated with a significant person(s), trend, or event in landscape architecture; or illustrate an important development in the theory and practice of landscape architecture. Aesthetic values play a significant role in designed landscapes. Examples include parks, campuses, and estates.

Historic Vernacular Landscape—a landscape that evolved through use by the people whose activities or occupancy shaped that landscape. Through social or cultural attitudes of an individual, family or a community, the landscape reflects the physical, biological, and cultural character of those everyday lives. Function plays a significant role in vernacular landscapes. They can be a single property such as a farm or a collection of properties such as a district of historic farms along a river valley. Examples include rural villages, industrial complexes, and agricultural landscapes.

Historic Site—a landscape significant for its association with a historic event, activity, or person. Examples include battlefields and president’s house properties.

Ethnographic Landscape—a landscape containing a variety of natural and cultural resources that associated people define as heritage resources. Examples are contemporary settlements, religious sacred sites and massive geological structures. Small plant communities, animals, subsistence and ceremonial grounds are often components.

Snow_McFaddenFarm (5)

Stones River National Battlefield

UNESCO and the NPS each offer categories and definitions for the different types of cultural landscapes, and there are many similarities between their lists. Each organization’s definition of a cultural landscape addresses how humans have affected an environment or area of land. In terms of similarities between the two organizations, the ideas behind the NPS’s “Historic Designed Landscape” and UNESCO’s “Clearly Defined Landscape” are parallel. Each organization argues for the importance of protecting a landscape that has been consciously designed by man. UNESCO offers ideas on the “Organically Evolved Landscapes”, which has similarities with the “Historic Vernacular Landscape” of the NPS in the way they each deal with the social aspect of humans interacting with the land. In addition, the “Associative Cultural Landscapes” (UNESCO) and the “Ethnographic Landscapes” (NPS) also contain parallels, since they each reflect ideas towards natural and heritage resources, such as religion or art. Finally, each organization agrees on the major point: that there should be a historic event or activity that took place at the site. In many cases a historic event made the land important, therefore UNESCO and the NPS each conclude that the land should be protected. However, the differences between the two are harder to spot, and often times they involve a difference in ideas or interpretations. For example, the NPS offers ideas on how animals have affected the land over time as a way to define cultural landscapes. In addition, the NPS suggests perspectives on aesthetic values of their cultural landscapes. With regard to the subcategories UNESCO and the NPS describes, UNESCO offers three, dealing with humans and things humans have touched. They do include room for religious or artistic associations, as well as evolutionary ideas, while the NPS does not list any ideas related to evolution. In turn, each organization offers ideas on geological structures and agriculture. As a whole, UNESCO’s definitions appear to be primarily focused on human interaction, while the NPS allows for a more natural or spiritual approach towards these sites, believing that not all aspects of cultural landscapes need a human element.5

International Union for Conservation of Nature(IUCN) :

As the advisory body to the World Heritage Committee on natural heritage, IUCN takes an active interest in the natural values of cultural landscapes, working with ICOMOS as the advisory body which leads on advising on cultural aspects of World Heritage nominations and related monitoring. IUCN has identified a number of natural heritage qualities that cultural landscapes may possess, these include:

(i) Conservation of biodiversity in wild nature (in particular natural and semi-natural systems, wild species of fauna and flora)

(ii) Conservation of biodiversity within farming systems

(iii) Sustainable land use

(iv) Enhancement of scenic beauty

(v) Ex-situ collections

(vi) Outstanding examples of humanity’s inter-relationship with nature

(vii) Historically significant discoveries

IUCN is also responsible for the development of the international IUCN protected area management categories system. This system outlines the concept of a “protected area” and defines such as a “clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”.6

It organizes protected areas into the following six categories distinguished by their management objectives :

Category Ia: Strict nature reserve Strictly protected areas set aside to protect biodiversity and also possibly geological/geomorphological features, where human visitation, use and impacts are strictly controlled and limited to ensure the protection of the conservation values. Such protected areas can serve as indispensable reference areas for scientific research and monitoring.

Category Ib: Wilderness area Usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, protected and managed so as to preserve their natural condition.

Category II: National Park Large natural or near-natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes, along with the complement of species and ecosystems characteristic of the area, which also provide a foundation for environmentally and culturally compatible spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities.

Category III: Natural monument or feature Set aside to protect a specific natural monument, which can be a landform, sea mount, submarine cavern, geological features such as a cave or even a living feature, such as an ancient grove. They are generally rather small protected areas and often have high visitor values.

Category IV: Habitat/species management area Category IV protected areas aim to protect particular species or habitats and management reflects this priority. Many will need regular, active interventions to address the requirements of particular species or to maintain habitats, but this is not a requirement of the category.

Category V: Protected landscape/seascape A protected area where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value: and where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area and its associated nature conservation and other values.

Category VI: Protected area with sustainable use of natural resources Category VI protected areas conserve ecosystems and habitats, together with associated cultural values and traditional natural resource management systems. They are generally large, with most of the area in a natural condition, where a proportion is under sustainable natural resource management and where the low-level non-industrial use of natural resources compatible with nature conservation is seen as one of the main aims of the area.

IUCN recognizes that protected areas can be classified according to one of four governance types: governance by the government; shared governance; private governance; and governance by indigenous people and local communities. 

Despite many conceptual overlaps between World Heritage cultural landscapes and protected areas as recognized by IUCN, it is important to set out and define some conceptual differences. The IUCN protected area management categories system and its definition are meant as an international standard framework for the national or sub-national application. The values that IUCN categorized protected areas protect may be of local, regional, national or international significance. By contrast, all World Heritage sites must meet the global test of being of OUV, and logically are all sites which are also regionally, nationally and locally significant.7

Above discussion throws light on different types of Cultural landscapes defined by various International organizations for better understanding and management. However, one must understand these are just broadly defined categories and there are still many unique landscapes which may not fall under any of these categories, as these landscapes are the result of unique historical, geographical and anthropological interactions.


  1. Robberechts, G. (2010) Cultural Landscapes: A Program for UNESCO. Journal of Landscape Architecture 28(3): 42-46.
  2. Coons, A (2007) ‘What is Cultural Landscape’, [Online] Available at: http://www.sohosandiego.org/reflections/2007-1/cultural.htm
  3. UNESCO World Heritage Center, 2008, Operational guidelines for the implementation of the world heritage convention UNESCO, Paris, France (2008)
  4. National park Services. (n.d) Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes: Defining Landscape Terminology [Online] Available at: https://www.nps.gov/tps/standards/four-treatments/landscape-guidelines/terminology.htm
  5. Cultural Landscape Preservation In United States National … (n.d.). Retrieved from https://rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/rutgers-lib/37384/PDF/1/play/
  6. Dudley, N. (2008). Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories [Online] Available at: https://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/iucn_assignment_1.pdf
  7. Finke, G. (2013). Linking Landscapes. Exploring the relationships between World Heritage cultural landscapes and IUCN protected areas, Switzerland: IUCN

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