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Cultural Landscapes BlogWhither HERCULES? Some midterm thoughts

Whither HERCULES? Some midterm thoughts

17 September 2015/by Tobias Plieninger/Tags: HERCULEs, collaborative project, inter- and transdisciplinary integration

A few days ago, HERCULES project partners met in Tallinn / Estonia to reflect on how the project has proceeded during the first half of its lifetime. Drawing on some of the discussions during these three days, I’d like to highlight some personal views on the achievements and challenges of this project.
Whither HERCULES? Some midterm thoughts

Collaborative projects are (also) fun

Collaborative projects can be a coordinator’s nightmare. Every single task, responsibility, and cost needs to be agreed upon in contracts. Many of our discussions have to be dedicated to the allocation of time and financial resources, to tasks, deliverables, work-packages, milestones, and project reports. Deviations from the project plan (that was written three years ago) create problems. In addition to that, different partners have different cultural backgrounds and therefore, for example, different understandings of the concept of deadlines. (In particular, the German and Swiss partners have a reputation of rigid top-down management in this project.) But despite our administrative corset (which, by the way, may be necessary to keep such a large and disparate set of partners together), we experience that the inspiration and cooperation that such projects create can be very enjoyable! Now that we have set the foundations in terms of project structures, work processes, and data protocols, we have much more freedom in the second half of the project to focus on those topics that are most relevant in cultural landscapes research. “Now the fun part begins” was a frequent saying at our meeting.

Inter- / transdisciplinary integration

It is always a good sign for a project when partners start self-organizing their work. While the start of HERCULES was stamped by largely disciplinary groundwork, we now experience how multiple linkages are forming out in our project. Archaeologists begin to use spatial data infrastructure technology provided by our GIS company partner. Partners are coming together to integrate their insights on the driving forces of landscape change, putting findings from local case studies, Pan-European modelling, and systematic literature reviews into a larger perspective. The divide between science, practice, and policy is diminishing as we find out how many natural linkages are between these fields, for example when it comes to landscape stewardship. “Integration” is likely to become a buzzword in the second project period.

Toward an inclusive cultural landscapes community

Landscape ecology, cultural heritage, land change science, landscape architecture and other fields are organized in their own communities, but there is not an explicit cultural landscapes community. We are far from establishing formal structures, but we strive to provide a forum for this community. For example, project partners are preparing special issues for the „Landscape Research“ and „Landscape Ecology“ journals, making the case for a cultural landscapes perspective. Others are working towards a textbook on an interdisciplinary assessment of changes and values of cultural landscapes, something that – surprisingly – does not exist until now. Also, we have introduced cultural landscapes to the Future Earth research platform and have received endorsements from the Program on Ecosystem Change and Society and other programs under the Future Earth umbrella. Ultimately, I believe that landscapes can develop into a core theme of sustainability science. But to succeed on that, we have to design our project activities as inclusively as possible for the whole cultural landscapes community and – at the same time – to link up to the sustainability debate.

The need to reach out

Landscape research is fragmented across many case studies, carried out with diverse tools and methods and within a large number of disciplines. In HERCULES, we are taking stock of this scattered knowledge and strive to provide Pan-continental syntheses. As laudable as this may be, the current refugee crisis (with thousands of migrants passing through the HERCULES study landscape of Lesvos / Greece) reminds us clearly that our continent is not at all isolated from the rest of the world. Landscape is a crucial topic outside Europe as well, and we need to dedicate more of our remaining time to exchange on approaches and experiences ‑ with global-level partners such as the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative, but also with specific partners at more regional scales, for example in Japan.

Many questions waiting for answers

The longer we work, the more questions arise. For example, what is the role of food in maintaining cultural landscapes? How can we include power relations and the politics of landscape in our studies? How can landscape and heritage studies be put into a more fruitful relationship? For sure, HERCULES will not be able to come up with answers to all such questions. Therefore, we will collect a catalogue of emerging questions for science, policy, and practice around cultural landscapes to make sure that these are not getting lost. Future European research projects may be framed around some of these questions.

So, where are we heading? Half of the HERCULES journey is over, but the journey gets longer all the time. HERCULES is hopefully only the start of comprehensive Pan-European cultural landscape research, and we need to convince the European Commission (and other funding bodies) that this mission is worth to continue.




To read the HERCULES Mid-term assessment report please click here.

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The information and views set out in this Cultural Landscapes Blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the HERCULES project nor the European Commission.

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