Distinctiveness: a European Perspective

Heritage Lottery FundContinuing on from one of my more recent posts on distinctiveness in landscapes, I thought it might be useful to give a more European perspective on landscapes as well.

The most important document in this is the European Landscape Convention (ELC). This was the first international convention to focus specifically on landscape. Created by the Council of Europe, the convention promotes landscape protection, management and planning, and European co-operation on landscape issues. The document was created in 2000 and was subsequently signed by the UK Government in February 2006; the ELC became binding in the UK from March 2007.

What makes this document special is that it does not just focuses on those landscapes which are already well protected, such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Instead, the ELC defines landscape very widely, and includes all types of landscapes: rural and urban, inland, coastal or marine, outstanding, ordinary or degraded. All are deemed worthy of protection, pro-active management and planning: ‘all landscapes matter’.

The ELC’s definition of landscape is particularly interesting (ELC 2000, article 1):

An area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors

The above definition is well known; the Explanatory note to the ELC (para 38) further expands on this definition and is also worth a read:

A zone or area as perceived by local people or visitors, whose visual features and character are the result of the action of natural and/or cultural (that is, human) factors. This definition reflects the idea that landscapes evolve through time, as a result of being acted upon by natural forces and human beings. It also underlines that a landscape forms a whole, whose natural and cultural components are taken together, not separately


What is landscape? The several layers which shape landscape. Source: Landscape East, http://landscape-east.org.uk/node/193

What does this mean? In my view there are three important elements to the ELC’s definition of what constitutes landscapes:
1. Landscapes are first and foremost perceived by people: landscapes are not just about their physical components, but even more about how people view and value these: landscapes are in the mind as much as they are real. One could even go as far as saying that without people there are no landscapes. Perceptions of a landscape may vary from person to person and from user group to user group, as my previous post and its reactions have already shown.

2. Landscapes are the result of the interplay between natural and human factors. Perhaps nowhere else than in the Fens is the hand of man so very clear: most land is below sea level and only exists because of centuries of tight control and active management. Nevertheless, natural factors (geology; soils; climate; biodiversity) also shape the landscape and give it its character.

3. Change is inherent in landscape. Landscapes are not static. Changes may not only be of a physical nature, but the way we perceive a landscape may also change over time. We can and should not try and stop change – we do, however, have a say on the direction and speed of change, and can also influence how people perceive a landscape.

As an aside, on the perception of landscapes a series of books have been written; just to highlight three of those here: William-Ellis Clough’s ‘England and the Octopus’ (1928); Simon Schama’s ‘Landscape and Memory’ (1995) and Matthew Johnson’s ‘Ideas of Landscape (2007):

England and the octopuslandscape and memoryideas of landscape

Natural England is leading the implementation of the ELC in England and has worked with Defra and English Heritage to produce European Landscape Convention: A framework for implementation in England, published in 2007. The importance of the ELC has also been reaffirmed more recently as part of Defra’s delivery framework through the Natural Environment White Paper, published in 2011.

The overarching aim is to strengthen the protection, management and planning of England’s landscapes. A wider understanding and appreciation of landscapes, improved knowledge and care, as well as a sense of inspiration, well-being and connection between people and place are at the forefront of what needs to be achieved, all of this through public engagement and stakeholder involvement.

How does the HLF’s Landscape Partnership scheme contributes to the ELC’s implementation in the UK? An evaluation of the effectiveness of the programme, carried out in 2011 by the Centre for European Protected Area Research at London University Birkbeck, shows that the Landscape Partnership programme is an important element in the delivery of the European Landscape Convention. An extract from their report makes this clear:

The legacy of landscape partnership working accords well with developing national priorities and policies both in broad terms (for example in securing local engagement and participation in delivery of ecosystem services) and as an important contributor to local and national targets (for example those contained in Biodiversity Action Plans). Landscape partnership activities are also congruent with a number of important initiatives in cultural and natural heritage conservation, particularly in terms of critical priorities such as climate change adaptation. In England, for example, the landscape partnership programme anticipated key elements of the recently published Natural Environment White Paper in its emphasis on empowering citizens, consumers and civil society as a whole, and on enabling local action.

Since its inception in 2007, 68 Landscape Partnership schemes have been set up across the UK. Last year, a record number of 13 new schemes were approved, one of which is the Ouse Washes LP scheme.


So, if you have managed to get this far, you may wonder: what does all of this have to do with the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership scheme? In my opinion, quite a lot. In particular the three elements which constitute landscape – perceptions; interplay between natural and human factors; and change – are very relevant to the Ouse Washes area. Just to mention a couple of the more obvious aspects:

  • The Fens have suffered from the perception of being a backwater; we aim to turn around this public opinion by showing what fantastic, unique and internationally significant assets can be found within this landscape;
  • The future of the landscape and the legacy of the Landscape Partnership scheme will be a red threat throughout all we will do over the next four years: we will actively encourage debates about the future of the landscape, be it new habitat creation schemes, changes in flood management, agricultural practices or public access opportunities.

Distinctiveness: A Local Perspective

Heritage Lottery FundWhat makes the Ouse Washes area special? This is a crucial question that I believe we need to find an answer to.

Early on in the process leading to the stage 1 bid we already set out some reasons why we believe this is a special area worthy of attention. The stage 1 bid application clearly convinced the HLF as well, judging from its reaction on our bid.

Unlike well-known landscapes in the East of England such as the North Norfolk Coast, the Broads or the Chilterns – all of which have been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or National Park and are well-known tourist destinations -, the Ouse Washes area does not get that much attention. One of the key aims of the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership scheme is to change this around, to give the Ouse Washes the exposure it deserves: it is a unique landscape which should be better understood and much more explored.

One of the main aims of the Landscape Character Assessment which we will produce this year, is to assess what makes the Ouse Washes landscape distinct and special. Landscape character is often defined as such:

A distinct, recognisable and consistent pattern of elements, be it natural (soil, landform) and/or human (for example settlement and development) in the landscape that makes one landscape different from another, rather than better or worse.

Understanding the character of a landscape starts with the search for recurrent patterns that dominate the landscape and which are distinct from those of neighbouring landscapes. Landscapes result from the way that different components of our environment, both natural and cultural, interact together and are perceived and valued by us. The below diagram summarises some of the elements that constitute landscapes. This originates from the Landscape Character Assessment Guidance for England and Scotland, produced in 2002, and which can be downloaded here. 

What is landscape from 2002 landscape character assessment guidance

What is landscape? From: Landscape Character Assessment Guidance for England and Scotland, 2002, Countryside Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage

Going back nearly two years now, in April 2011 Cambridgeshire ACRE organised a workshop which was well attended by tens of people from organisations in and around the Ouse Washes. One of the items on the agenda that day was a word association activity. The outcomes of this are quite interesting, and I would like to present these here as well. The participants were asked from a long list of words to tick those which they thought best describe the Ouse Washes area.

The results of this exercise are shown in the image below; on the whole, the participants were surprisingly consistent in their choice of words, with the ones below chosen by the vast majority of people:

New Picture (2)

Equally interesting perhaps are those words which absolutely nobody ticked; these included: ‘Uninspiring’; ‘Pretty’ and ‘Untouched’.

My questions to you are:

1. Do you agree with the above selection of words? taken together, do these describe the Ouse Washes area, or is anything missing?

2. Do these words specify the Ouse Washes landscape, or could most of these descriptions equally be used to describe The Fens as a whole? In other words, what makes the Ouse Washes area a distinct landscape, different from the surrounding landscape?