To be in landscapes: a reminder of why they’re important

To be in landscapes: a reminder of why they’re important

I remember not that many years ago driving through one of the most beautiful valleys, at least to my mind, of northeast Victoria in Australia. It was an early Spring day, the river of the valley was full, the pastures were green from the winter rain, and the deciduous trees were getting their first sprigs of growth.

The light had that soft yellow of late afternoon in this part of the world, and the black and white cows were lit from the side, the yellow sunlight providing a lighted outline of the animals. As I looked along the valley, I could see Australia’s Alps, still with their cover of snow, and the forests and mountains of the national park protecting the Alps.

I casually remarked to my passenger how beautiful the valley was and was surprised to find he didn’t share my enthusiasm.

‘I see the remnants of Australia’s environmental destruction’ he said. ‘Farming has had such a devastating impact on Australia’s environment and you can see it all here. The valley should be rich with forests, with biodiversity and not with agriculture’.

A heavy silence descended in the car.

In one sense I understand what he was saying – the view that the only good landscape is a pristine landscape.

But there is so much more to landscapes. They are, almost by definition, shaped by people. Even the landscapes that are protected in national parks are shaped by people – protected because of people and their political and cultural institutions, protected by professionals etc. And the agricultural landscapes are landscapes of human action, identity and activity. They are both a product of history and the contemporary world.

Understanding landscapes often requires a shift in thinking, a shift in scale and a shift in values. This shift is crucial as we search for sustainable futures and the kinds of activities which will support them.

Camping site Mountain Creek

A camping ground at Mountain Creek, in the Victorian Alps, Australia. I’ve spent most of my professional life, and plenty of my down-time, in national parks like this. Yet they are only a small part of a mosaic of land and water uses which occurs in any given landscape. We must do more to understand the relationships between all these different uses.

Landscapes require integrated understanding

You can’t look at a landscape like my friend did. Landscapes are living things that are shaped by people, by ecology, by species and so on. To understand landscapes, you need to understand the interconnectedness of all of this. This is true of us as people who are interested in this, and perhaps most importantly, it’s true of the professionals, the Government policy-makers and bureaucrats that see landscapes not as integrated wholes but as sectors or natural resources. A river becomes a water resource, an ecosystem a location of agricultural production requiring agricultural policies, or a national park becomes a haven of protection rather than part of a mosaic of landuse and people’s lives.

So taking a landscape perspective we get to see interconnections and a bigger picture


A town in the Indian Himalaya. Here you can see a diverse landscape – living, agriculture, forestry, forest protection and the ecosystems housing biodiversity.

 An ecosystem-based beginning

There is one thing we know about landscapes however – that is, they are nothing without an ecosystem to provide a foundation. Landscape thinking reminds us of this far-too-often overlooked fact – without a healthy, functioning ecosystem, landscapes may well become highly degraded and therefore highly susceptible to ecological damage or collapse.

Personally, I think the ecosystem-based approach to understanding this provides very important foundations for thinking about sustainable futures – technological fixes come second to ecosystem-based fixes when looking at sustainable futures. I still can’t understand why we spend so much time thinking about how technology can save us when at the same time we continue to put stress on the ecological-functioning of the systems that have supported us for millennia.

Socio-ecological understanding

Landscapes are shaped by human activities. Increasingly, that holds true of all landscapes. In some instances, these impacts are obvious – the loss of an old growth forest in Tasmania for example, is directly attributed to logging and the politics behind it. But the impacts of human activities on landscapes that are beyond what is normally seen as negative influence cannot be excluded from thinking anymore – climate change has seen to that. So when we see landscapes, we should think about them as points of intersection of human and ecological processes. They represent the very real places where environmental challenges are human challenges, not (just) technical ones and where the human condition for cooperation and creativity can be (should be) brought together to support options for sustainable futures.

A mosaic of uses and values

Central to these ideas is the importance of landscapes being a mosaic of ecological and human values. Whilst it is well-recognised that biological diversity is the foundation for ecosystems and their health and a healthy planet, we should also highlight the fact that human cultural diversity, a diversity of values and a diversity of ideas are equally important for our sustainable futures. It was, I think, the social ecologist Murray Bookchin who railed against the ‘totalitarianism of one-ness’.

Developing a more complex understanding of sustainability

So if we think about these points, we start to get a more complex understanding of the intersection of human and ecosystem processes. And that has to be important for sustainable futures – complex issues require complex solutions.

step well

A step-well in the Indian desert state of Rajasthan. Here is the intersection point of water, desert and cultural values in its landscape.