Changing cultural landscapes

Symposium organised by:

Graham Fairclough, The University of Newcastle, UK.

Jonathan Porter, Countryscape, UK.


Debate and uncertainty about the relationship between nature with culture never seems to go away, but is highlighted in potentially new ways by landscape-focussed transdisciplinary perspectives. The presentations and posters in this symposium all in their different ways raise questions about the naturalness of landscape and of ecological patterns. They demonstrate some of the many ways in which ecological processes that might be seen as natural are as strongly underpinned by cultural process and interpretation, and – conversely – how cultural processes are now natural.


The term ‘cultural landscape’ is currently much-used, and gains in traction through its association with UNESCO designation, which by tying landscape to a preservationist agenda seeks to naturalise the cultural by persuading us to see certain human-affected landscapes as so significant and so well-established, that to all extent and purposes their modified and managed ecologies need to be seen as natural(ised). In such landscapes, to use an archaeological metaphor, any wholly natural ecosystem is so heavily buried beneath centuries, indeed millennia, of human actions and decisions that to all intents and purposes it might be considered irretrievable, despite the fashionable pursuit of re-wilding and similar policies.

The withdrawal of long-established (though continually changing) human influence does not always enable a gentle drift back to nature, but often a sort of natural anarchy, or well-meant introduction of new species designed to re-balance nature. Ecologically-driven landscape change are necessarily as ‘cultural’ as any form of human land management, and in landscape perceptual terms derive from particular culturally driven aesthetics or ideologies. The diverse papers in this symposium all share in common a concern with how nature is required to accommodate itself to culture, and they all lead us to ask which landscapes are not cultural; it is dangerous to restrict the term to where the human influence is currently deemed ‘harmonious’. Is it better to ask whether the term ‘cultural landscape’ is tautologous?

The papers also raise other issues, for example about monitoring, about how knowledge is gained, tested, and passed on (or not) and about how knowledge is turned into policy and action. The papers straddle many different disciplines, seeing landscape ecology as one of many siblings and they thus hold up a mirror for us, in which we can see the limitations of isolated disciplinary standpoints but hopefully the benefits, indeed necessity, of interdisciplinary working. It is through the entwining of different disciplines that landscape becomes truly cultural.


Materials from the symposium will be published online together with a record of discussion. Opportunities for collaborative research will be explored amongst the participants.

Oral presentations