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09/01/2020

Landscape policy needs to catch up with theory

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The way we think about landscape is stuck in the mid 20th-century, argues David Jacques. It's time for a wholesale rethink of our systems of designation and valuation 

We may have to start contemplating the post-Brexit countryside. Sustainability pressures will mean more wind turbines, decarbonisation apparently demands tree planting on an epic scale, while a changing diet will tweak the pasture/arable balance and challenge the viability of upland sheep farming.

And the recreational demands of the countryside look set to increase inexorably, as the public overwhelmingly wants the countryside to remain just as it is.

Our thinking on the appearance of the countryside got stuck somewhere in the mid-to-late 20th century, and our systems of protection have been on autopilot. We still rely on those designations of national parks and areas of great landscape vale and suchlike, mostly identified many decades ago. The most recent national park, the South Downs, was simply two previous areas of outstanding natural beauty.

And how many planners or politicians stop to think whether we have the right approach to tackle the pressures on the landscape, and whether we are protecting the right rural areas and the right qualities in them?

“Our thinking on the appearance of the countryside has got stuck in the mid-to-late 20th century”

There was once a rationale behind landscape designation. The regional planning studies of the 1960s and 1970s demanded another. They generated computerised models of land-use planning. ‘Objective’ facts needed to be fed in, and hence the various attempts to find ‘objective’ methods of landscape evaluation at that time. But these methods fell into disrepute, and ever since planners and academics have shied away from developing methods to assess why people prefer some landscapes to others.

So for the past 25 years ‘landscape character’ has been promoted. It is analytical, and has its uses, but it is not well suited to addressing the question of aesthetic preferences. So it can tell us nothing about landscape value.

Theories on this topic have never ceased to be promoted. A diverse group of philosophers has explored ‘environmental aesthetics’ for 20 years, trying to work out how and why landscape is appreciated. Another group acknowledges that public tastes are ideological and cultural. Cognitive psychologists with their MRI scanners have developed neuroaesthetics, and ecologists continue to elaborate their idea of ‘evolutionary aesthetics’.

So there is no shortage of theory; it is just that those responsible for landscape policy seem unwilling to connect the theoretical and practical aspects to prepare the planning system for the physical and attitudinal changes that lie ahead.

David Jacques, a landscape historian and conservationist, is author of Landscape Appreciation: Theories Since the Cultural Turn

Image credit | iStock

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