Definitions and Concepts
Cultural landscapes – whether in urban, rural or wilderness settings - are the embodiment of cultural practice. These places reflect the cultural knowledge and aspirations of their inhabitants. They occur at the dynamic intersection between artifact and ritual, and tend to become layered over time. The cultural landscapes of different cultural groups and sub-groups often overlap, creating a richness and diversity that needs to be celebrated and nurtured.
Cultural landscape theory and practice is used to identify, analyze and evaluate significant human habitats. The scale can vary from large rural districts to small urban cultural centres, from vision hills to religious compounds. Anywhere cultural groups express their identity through repeated practice, cultural landscapes emerge. They are both tangible and intangible, and they need to be experienced, as well as observed, in order to be understood.
The analysis and assessment of these places provides a framework for designing and carrying out interventions. The advantage of cultural landscape models is that they support ideas of diversity and complexity, but allow an understanding of how to achieve equilibrium and how to support sustainable practice. They welcome creative contemporary layers within the richly-layered historic realities that exist, but they also provide guidelines to ensure that impacts are positive rather than negative.
The Centre brings a particular Willowbank perspective to cultural landscape theory and practice. In bothEuropeandNorth America, cultural landscapes are often equated with designed parks and gardens, or with rural historic districts – the ‘designed’ and ‘evolved’ landscapes of the ICOMOS definitions. These are open spaces, green spaces, where nature’s role is evident, and where the visual character can be easily mapped and assessed. In Willowbank’s use of the term, cultural landscapes equates more with ‘associative’ landscapes, the third category in the ICOMOS system. These can range from wilderness environments with little in the way of built structures, to urban environments that are entirely built up and are composed of interior as well as exterior spaces. In all cases the landscapes are associated with the cultural imagination and continuously re-imagined and re-created through cultural practice. They can be only partially understood through visual observation – one also has to investigate the cognitive mapping of the inhabitants, the definition of space through ritual.
This more integrative concept of cultural landscapes is reflected in the current international recommendation on Historic Urban Landscapes, being developed by UNESCO.
The full richness of the cultural landscape idea is often expressed most eloquently by indigenous communities. For many of these communities, the idea of human habitats as part of larger ecological system is a given. The division between nature and culture so prominent in Eurocentric thinking has never been accepted. The Centre acknowledges the profound influence of First Nations communities inCanadain the development of its approach.
For a description of the evolution of the terms ‘landscape’ and ‘cultural landscape’, see the attached article by Willowbank’s Executive Director, Julian Smith.