Community member post by David Brunckhorst, Jamie Trammell and Ian Reeve
Landscapes are the stage for the theatre of human-nature interactions. What does ‘landscape’ mean and what integrative function does it perform?
What is landscape?
Consider a painting of a landscape or look out a window. We imagine, interpret and construct an image of the ‘landscape’ that we see. It’s not surprising that landscapes (like the paintings of them) are valued through human perceptions, and evolve through closely interdependent human-nature relationships. Landscapes are co-constructed by society and the biophysical environment. Landscape change is, therefore, a continuous reflection of the evolving coupled responses of environment and institutions. Landscapes are especially meaningful to those who live in them.
We consider ‘landscape’ to refer particularly to the social-ecologically defined geography of a space, its related institutional and organisational configuration. Such a landscape region might be termed a bioregion, ecoregion, eco-civic region or cultural landscape.
The integrative role of landscape
Defining meaningful places and spaces in relation to underlying ecological processes is valuable for resource management and other sustainability challenges such as climate change adaptation. In particular, understanding the local landscape and its interactions in larger systems allows us to see processes that materialize at broader landscape scales, which cannot otherwise be seen at a local scale.
Identity with, and attachment to, a place is often reflected in how local people invest in shaping the landscape, where they live and interact, over time. Such relationships with a place generate contexts in which to integrate and operationalize cross-scale interactions of resource use, property rights, agency jurisdictions, ecological patterns and processes, and conservation. Put another way, a landscape is the geographical area in which a local community of interest exists and where residents interact, have networks of trust, and have an interest in local civic affairs and ‘their’ environment – the ecosystems that shape that place and resource use.
To understand and geographically delineate landscapes representing meaningful spatial ‘contexts’, three characteristics of social-ecological systems are important:
- the landscape should share relatively similar biophysical and ecological characteristics
- the landscape should represent residents’ communities of interest, attachment to place and identity, and also the area that is important for civic engagement
- the landscape should be a unit for ‘nested governance’. This relates to social-institutional nesting of formal and informal networks of collaboration, which are related vertically by institutions and horizontally by geography.
Nested or polycentric governance delivers local decision making and actions, as well as allowing up-scaling of representative decision making, as necessary. Such upscaling may be required when decisions affect others outside the local area or when ‘externalities’, must be dealt with. For example, most local communities do not identify with a whole river catchment. Catchments usually have very different ecological systems along their length, from mountain to sea. Nevertheless, when pollutants or flood impacts move downstream, communities need to work together – ‘nesting’ for communities to collaborate at the next spatial ‘level’ for integration and implementation, providing flexibility, under different circumstances or externalities.
Place-based contexts are important for engagement in ecological stewardship and adaptive practices because they inherently integrate ecological elements. This integrative role of landscape enables social and ecological information to be synthesized into meaningful, appealing and applicable frameworks communicating clear (often visual) pathways of future change and related impacts.
Integration for Landscape Futures
Geographical understanding of social-ecological contexts provides appropriate regional scales to evaluate trajectories of landscapes (and their inhabitants) and designs for alternative landscape futures.
Strategically integrated, holistic planning assumes change and manages for uncertainty and adaptive capacity. Understanding of other plausible pathways for various alternative futures (ie., multiple feasible options relevant to a particular context) helps deal with uncertainty and provides adaptive capabilities. Such integration directs policy makers to what they have previously failed to learn (or ignored) from the emergent conditions (eg. ‘natural disasters’) of complex social-ecological interactions.
Scenario analysis techniques exploring alternative landscape futures are powerful integration and analysis tools to assess impacts and, to visualise policy and community preferences of linked social and ecological processes and change. This allows multi-level policy and decision making on social-ecological interactions between socially constructed spaces and the ecosystem function.
Social-ecological interactions within a landscape context also produce circumstances amenable for ‘positive’ change, and a transformational opportunity might arise (ie., for a more sustainable and climate change resilient configuration). Context relevant alternative landscape futures analyses can contribute foresight intelligence to assist human adaptation.
Are there other ways in which you have used ‘landscapes’ as a useful integrator in addressing complex social and environmental problems?
Find out more:
Brunckhorst D., Reeve I., and Coop P. (2006). Eco-civic Optimisation: A nested framework for planning and managing landscapes. Landscape and Urban Planning, 75: 265-281.
Brunckhorst D. (2010). Using context in novel community based natural resource management: Landscapes of property, policy and place. Environmental Conservation, 37, 1: 1-7.
Morley P., Trammell J., Reeve I., McNeill J., Brunckhorst D., and Bassett S. (2013). Past, present and future landscapes: Understanding alternative futures for climate change adaptation of coastal settlements and communities. National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility. Australian Government. Online at:
Trammell E. J., Thomas, S., Mouat, D., Korbulic, Q. and Bassett, S. In Press. Using alternative land use scenarios to facilitate natural resource management across jurisdictional boundaries. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management.
- These principles were used to develop a nested eco-civic regionalisation for the state of New South Wales, Australia. Implementation of agricultural, natural resources management, catchment management and emergency services is now integrated through the decentralized government agency, Local Land Services, based on local eco-civic regions. The level 3, eco-civic landscape allows for local and regional natural resource management and catchment management to be better co-ordinated and representative of local communities, their ecosystems and land uses.
Biography: David Brunckhorst is taking up roles at the University of Queensland in the Global Futures Institute and as President and Principal of Emmanuel College in 2017. He has worked in Federal environmental policy and was formerly principal advisor to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment. Through that work, he was chiefly responsible for establishing the National Reserve System Program, the Indigenous Protected Areas Program, and Bioregional Assessment and Planning across State and Federal governments in Australia. He was inaugural Professor and Director of the Institute for Rural Futures at the University of New England and is emeritus Distinguished Professor of that University. His interests relate to integration and implementation in sustainability sciences and policy.
Biography: Jamie Trammell is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Alaska in Anchorage with the Alaska Center for Conservation Science and the Geography and Environmental Studies department. He is a landscape ecologist interested in modeling landscape change with an explicit focus on the integration of socioeconomic and biophysical drivers. He is particularly interested in modeling alternative futures in order to better understand how various landscape drivers combine to determine the future condition of both terrestrial and aquatic systems. He works to translate disparate data sources into a common geospatial framework for landscape-level analyses with the goal of developing better cumulative impact assessments and a more comprehensive understanding of the status of landscapes and ecosystems.
Biography: Ian Reeve worked in the former Rural Development Centre and the Institute for Rural Futures at the University of New England until his recent (semi) retirement. He has wide ranging interests in rural social and environmental issues and is an expert in a variety of complex multi-variate statistics, multi-criteria analysis and spatial statistics.