Reflection on the European Landscape Convention

Jacques Abelman, Amsterdam Academy of Architecture

jacques.abelman [at] gmail dot com


The European Landscape Convention – Is it useful?
This piece of European policy serves to encourage member countries of the European Union to protect, manage, and plan the future of landscape. Once a country signs, the convention functions as guidelines to shape future action. In order to create a clear call to action, however, it must first define landscape, which has attached to it an enormous amount of cultural and historical baggage.

The convention defines landscape as “an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and / or human factors.” This effectively describes the entire surface of the planet, since there is no area on Earth that has not been either perceived or affected by humans – the Earth is the definition itself of a “natural factor.” The definition is extremely ambitious in scope, but at the same time problematically non‐specific.

The spirit of the Convention is laudable. Its intention is to value and protect the quality of landscape, but how useful is it? Without a structured and progressive definition of what landscape is, and without a compelling argument for why landscape is important to the future, and with no larger vision to encourage participation, the convention falls far short of what it could ultimately be. Landscape is complex and far‐reaching. Landscape is interwoven with climate change and ecology, development, economics, politics, and culture. Landscape is cultural heritage, and in that sense often perceived visually, but landscape extends to land use as well. As remarked by Jorgen Primdahl 1, the convention contains no “pointers” of a transition to sustainable landscapes that address contemporary issues of land use in the context of globalisation. Landscape is the platform that holds the discussion for the future of civilization. Why doesn’t the convention proclaim the importance of landscape in these terms?

The focus on the idea of perception within the convention’s definition goes back to an understanding of landscape as a visual phenomenon. I would argue that decision makers, without a relevant introduction to the idea that landscape is essential to the areas that I list above, will fall back into clichéd ways of looking at landscape, which are not relevant to a discussion of the complex issues we are now compelled to face.
Perception can and should also mean also mean engagement. In historical terms, the aristocrat perceived the landscape through his eye while holding a paintbrush; the peasant perceived it with his muscles while guiding a plough through his fields. Framing perception by physical engagement feels like a much more valuable way of reaching out to landscape. It says something about our modes of consuming, manipulating, and changing the earth. We are both aristocrat and peasant, using the land for agriculture and cities as well as admiring and preserving its beautiful aspects.

Ultimately, landscape is about people and their relationships to a living planet. Landscape in this sense is not only image. It is the sum of how we act as a society towards the world that we perceive. The ecological reality of a living planet cannot be perceived totally, and so does not constitute a “landscape.” But global systems are what sustain us. Herein lies the problem. The call of the convention should first challenge our preconceived notions of what landscape is, and then frame the importance of landscape in ways that underscore its vital importance and potential for the future: living cultural heritage, thriving and connected ecological systems, natural resources to be maintained for future generations, testing grounds for sustainable urbanism. The convention in its present form is a useful as a first step down a very long path where the real work is still waiting to begin.

1 Jorgen Primdahl, “The Interface with Globalisation” in Multiple interfaces of the European Landscape