Our Common Landscapes For The Future: Foreword to Marc Antrop and Veerle van Eetvelde: Landscape Perspectives - The Holistic Nature of Landscapes

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Foreword for Marc Antrop and Veerle van Eetvelde: Landscape Perspectives – The Holistic Nature of Landscapes

Our common landscapes for the future
by Jesper Brandt

The solution of the ecological crisis through a transformation towards sustainable development is the most urgent challenge in our time. It is not just a question of CO2 and conversion toward renewable energy. The reestablishment and conscious development of our common landscapes at all spatial scales for the combined benefits of biodiversity, our cultural heritage and the preservation and development of ecosystem services will probably be the most comprehensive and necessary social task in the future, if a conversion towards a sustainable development shall succeed in due time. This is so because it will be necessary to ensure that the potential material wealth of modern society will be transformed into a good, fruitful and healthy life of mankind, acknowledging our multifaceted needs and our universal dependence on a continuous cooperation with nature in all its heterogeneous variability.
Our common landscapes express the unification of the heterogeneous structures and functions constituting our physical environments, a basic condition of our wealth and of the good life. We must learn this lesson – even if an ever-growing ideology of individualism tends to lure us to ignore it.
A holistic view at the landscape, expressing the intimate relationship between man and nature in the understanding and use of the landscape, has been a classical role of geography. In Europe, it developed primarily within the German tradition based on Humboldt and Ritter and within the French tradition of regional monographs developed by Vidal de la Blache and others. Each of these traditions emphasized different components of the relationship, but always as part of an integrated unity. Belgium geography developed under inspiration of both traditions giving rise to sophisticated synthesizing trends within a holistic geography. Such efforts were however in general not a success within the academic world during large parts of the twentieth century, although a certain positive response from the complex problems facing land management in the real world could be recognized, but also sometimes misused for ideological purposes. Geography as a synthesizing holistic activity went more and more isolated in an academic community, still more dominated by constant specialization and partitioning of research within science, social science and humanities in a targeted search for universal laws. Geography disintegrated as a discipline, and holistic geography was more and more seen as a mere descriptive activity, a tradition that in fact was considered a hindrance for the establishment of general laws, often considered laws working independently of time and space. Also outside geography, studies of spatial differentiation at all levels became a rare field of interest, although a remarkable part of spatial theories and methods being promoted later, in fact has been developed by individuals and schools in a variety of disciplines within this period. In addition, most applied sciences of relevance for land use, such as agronomy, forestry and physical planning, developed more and more with the presumption of a homogeneous space that made redundancies about spatial differentiation.
Changes occurred however from the 1960ties provoked by the upcoming environmental crisis. This manifested itself in a myriad of spatially differentiated problems related to the violent physical processes brought in during the post-war era that included extensive land use changes, industrialization and urbanization based on fossil fuels and non-circular flows of matter in nature and society. A strong need for studies of spatial differentiation at all levels was reintroduced to many disciplines. At the same time the development of computer technology drastically changed the technical possibilities for managing spatial analysis, and development of remote sensing technic offered the possibility to deliver huge quantities of spatially differentiated data to be used for both spatial analyses and syntheses.
This provoked the development of new, often interdisciplinary organized fields of interests to study spatial, chorological relations associated with environmental problems to find sustainable solutions that could be adapted to different landscape conditions. New disciplines developed such as landscape ecology, restauration ecology, environmental studies, cultural ecology etc., but spatial trends came also to the forefront again in many established academic disciplines, as well as within practical applied disciplines such as agronomy, forestry, landscape architecture and physical planning.
Especially in old developed countries characterized by marked cultural landscapes this renewed landscape interest also resulted in holistic oriented landscape initiatives at the political level, such as the implementation of the European Landscape Convention. The convention recognizes all kinds of landscapes at all spatial scales, including everyday and ruined landscapes, as a common concern for everybody, and recommends integrated landscape planning and management as a common social responsibility for all citizens. Its influence can be followed e.g. in the endeavor to integrate agricultural and environmental policy within the European Union – although not yet with any remarkable success.
Especially within the many new interdisciplinary fields of interest that have evolved in the wake of the ecological crises, geographers trained within the holistic traditions of their discipline, have got a special synthesizing role not only concerning theoretical and methodological aspects of spatial analysis, but also concerning the linkage between the natural and cultural aspects of landscape development, trends in land use and land cover as well as social and historical aspects of landscape perception. Geographers from Ghent University have shown a remarkable ability and perseverance to integrate these different aspects of the landscape relevant for the future use and protection of our environment. Marc Antrop and Veerle van der Eetvelde have been at the forefront for this development, so it is both logical and very welcomed that they collect and publish their experiences in a book about the holistic nature of landscape.
There are no single “objective” way to introduce “The holistic nature of landscapes”. In this book, they start by the many different histories of landscape research, originating from very different landscape practices and different related opinions on how landscapes can be perceived and understood, which basically influences the approach to research concerning the way landscapes as material or perceived units can be experienced and expressed linguistic for different purposes. They continue with the presentation of landscapes as units characterized by dynamic processes linked to spatial patterns being sustained, but also changed in different time-perspectives. They present different approaches to landscape assessment for practical purposes as well as for aesthetic, mental use and as a source of inspiration. And they end up in the discussion of the establishment of the common endeavor of taking practical care of the landscape in the future.
However, especially during the last decades, this new agenda of a growing responsibility concerning the conscious transformation of our landscapes as an important part of a future transition towards sustainable development has been challenged by the reintroduction of an alternative agenda, namely the agenda of a neoliberal globalization, closely related to the renewed demand on an open market pushed forward by the World Trade Organization. These two agendas are now running their own individual life almost independently from each other. The globalization agenda is driven by technological and economic renewal, dominated by traditional economic power, although the introduction of more “sustainable technologies” is gaining ever-increasing importance also in this agenda. In comparison, the agenda on sustainable development is more defensive and with less influence on the present rapid landscape changes. The agenda also differ in the fact that globalization is oriented towards an open market with the individual producer and consumer in focus, whereas the agenda of sustainable development is oriented towards collective goals, such as nature protection, pollution, common land use, social justice etc.
Also, when it comes to planning and management of the landscape the two agendas cannot be properly paralleled, since the globalization agenda at the political level is accomplished almost without any spatial or geographical dimension, whereas the sustainability agenda is closely related to the handling of the differentiation in the material and cultural environment apprehended at different spatial scales.
The two agendas tend to affect abstract academic thinking in different ways: Where the sustainability agenda seems to have promoted a certain showdown with the tradition of general non-spatial academic thinking, on the contrary, the Globalization Agenda seems basically to maintain it.
This is a growing problem, since abstract conceptual thinking continues to build up barriers for the understanding of spatial relations in landscapes and through that also the necessary common solutions concerning their protection and use.
The Swedish geographer Torstein Hägerstrand, mostly known for his theoretical studies on spatial innovation and time-geographical studies ended his carrier as a strong supporter of an integrated geography that could serve the study of the necessary changes in land use and landscape management related to a transformation towards a future sustainable development. Despite the growing interest in spatial studies, he was very critical to the contemporary trends towards abstract academic thinking especially within the social sciences that makes it difficult to relate concepts to the material world, always organized and conditioned in a spatial way which makes the landscape crucial both in nature and society. He once expressed the problem in such a simple and basic way that it almost got a daring character: “The most important is not to regard humans as “society” or “business”, or something else abstract, but on the other hand, as physical entities that are constantly somewhere, being involved in more or less concerted action. They carry their knowledge and assessments with them. Such do not float freely in some kind of cultural space. It is only when you stop unzipping your concepts from the specific landscape context that you are able to see how the element you are studying is incorporated into changing neighborhoods. It is important because touch is the most elementary relationship of existence.”
Thus, the challenge of sustainable development is closely related not only to the ability but also the will to adapt to the multiple varieties of specific “nabourhoods” in form of ever changing spatial landscape conditions that cannot be ignored, but presupposes a wise interpretation of the very complex natural and social processes of our common landscapes. Here we cannot rely on general political truism.
But what is a wise interpretation? What is wisdom? This question was already answered by Heracleitos of Ephese for more than 2500 years ago: Wisdom is to speak the truth, and to act obeying nature.

Jesper Brandt
June 2017
TitelLandscape Perspectives : The holistic Nature of Landscapes
ISBN (Elektronisk)978-94-024-1183-6
StatusUdgivet - 2017

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