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Cultural Landscapes BlogWP3: Sharing and comparing landscape histories

WP3: Sharing and comparing landscape histories

20 September 2016/by Matthias Bürgi & Maria García-Martín/Tags: landscape history, dynamics of change, WP3

“Everything is done for speed now, so there is no time to watch and gaze around the countryside like we used to.” Studying landscape history is not about getting nostalgic about the good old times – despite sometimes it’s tempting… especially, as long as we simply look at the appearance, and don’t think about what and especially who shaped the traditional cultural landscape into a beautiful arrangement of habitats, structures, elements and outlooks. It is people, who did it all, by using and managing in their daily activities the natural resources surrounding them. For sure, sometimes these people had time to gaze around the countryside, but most of the time, their backs were bent and they were concentrating on their tools and the ground they worked.
WP3: Sharing and comparing landscape histories

Studying landscape history requires having a clear notion, of what a landscape actually is: Is a landscape, what we see on topographical maps and on aerial photographs? Or do we have to be ground-based, to see the landscape? In this Work Package, we tried to combine both perspectives, by complementing a classic map-based Land Use/Land Cover analysis with oral history interviews on landscapes. The aim was, to find out how landscapes have changed and what driving forces were responsible for the changes observed. We did this in six of the HERCULES study landscapes for the last 100 to 150 years, using everywhere exactly the same procedures for the map analyses and the oral history interviews, to make a comparison possible. The results have not yet been published, but analyzing the data reveals how rewarding it is to combine the birds-eye perspective of maps and aerial photographs with the human perspective on the changing landscape. And we gained insights into the diversity of drivers of change: Sometimes it’s a new and big tractor forcing the farmer to remove a hedgerow, or a new law on forest protection which is slowing down changes in forest areas. Sometimes, a new road opening up new markets for perishable crops triggers shifts in cultivation pattern, or the same new road can also lead to a decline in agriculture, if it is making commuting to non-farming jobs easier. And, for the last decades, we see how climate change leaves first traces in the landscape by melting away glaciers, which today are no longer visible from the valley bottom. 

In a separate activity within this WP, we went beyond asking people how and why landscapes changed, but we wanted to get at the perception of “landscape values”, to increase our understanding on the interactions between people and the landscape. We did this in the same set of six HERCULES study landscapes by asking the residents of these communities to map the places where they perceived ten different landscape values connected to: aesthetics, personal and social fulfilment, existence, culture, nature, regulating ecosystem services, outdoor recreation, local production, and harvesting. This research method is called Public Participation GIS, by which answers are geographically located and synthesized, resulting in novel topographies of perceived landscape values. Increasing the knowledge on how people perceive the landscapes they live in help us to look into the future dynamics that might affect these landscapes, as these values are connected to people’s understanding and actions towards their environment.  Sometimes these values are deeply rooted in the local history and can be better understood when looking into the past (e.g. existential values, spiritual meanings, and social fulfillment); but values are also dynamic and change with society. An example would be the appreciation of harvesting possibilities, which are still valued by the older groups but not so much by the youth. Although the perception of landscape values is an individual process affected by the personal life experience and knowledge system, many times these values are building clusters in specific areas of the territory where for example, a heritage site is located, or where the topography allows a panoramic view.  A sample of the results of this study is  available in the Knowledge Hub of HERCULES, where we have created a section called “Landscape values perception using Public Participation GIS” also to share the results of the surveys with the participants. The results are open to everybody under this link:

Searching for pattern of change in the rich diversity of trajectories of European landscapes was methodologically challenging, but also very rewarding. This diversity is rooted in history and challenged by the present and future driving forces. The European landscape will experience further continuous changes, and so will be values that local people perceive therein. Studying landscape history as done in this Work Package looks into the past, to understand the dynamics and the changing values of European landscapes.


Figure caption:

Gutenbrunnen, study municipality Lenk, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland. © Albert Sommer. More historical photographs can be found on

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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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