May 20, 2015

[Preservation Glossary] Today’s Word: Cultural Landscape

  • By: Jamesha Gibson

150519_blog-photo_w&m
The College of William and Mary's campus was strategically designed to reflect a symmetric layout of brick walkways and vegetation.

The term “cultural landscape” is frequently used in preservation dialogue, but it isn’t always clearly defined or understood. If you’ve ever heard this tricky term but never had a grip on its definition, you can relate to the frustration in trying to understand exactly what a cultural landscape is and how to use it to make your case for preservation. But today, Preservation Glossary is here to help!

The National Park Service’s “Preservation Brief 36: Protecting Cultural Landscapes: Planning, Treatment and Management of Historic Landscapes” defines it as:

Cultural Landscape, noun


A geographic area, including both cultural and natural resources and the wildlife or domestic animals therein, associated with a historic event, activity, or person or exhibiting other cultural or aesthetic values.

Word in Use: “The article talks about ‘whole place preservation,’ and reminds us that ‘historic buildings stand in a larger context, and preservation goals are well served if we focus on protecting the settings and larger cultural landscapes as well as the structures.’” -- Priya Chhaya, “Celebrating the Landscape, Partnering with Land Conservation”

According to the Park Service’s Preservation Brief 36, there are four types of Cultural Landscapes:

Historic Designed Landscape -- a landscape that was purposely designed and laid out by a landscape architect, architect, or horticulturist according to design principles. Historic designed landscapes can be associated with a significant trend, person, or event in landscape architecture. The photo at the top of the post shows a portion of the College of William and Mary’s campus which demonstrates the intentional, strategic coordination, and symmetric layout of brick paths and vegetation around the campus. It highlights the large role aesthetic value plays in defining a historic designed landscape.

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Acoma Sky City has been shaped by the everyday activities of the Pueblo people.

Historic Vernacular Landscape -- a landscape that was shaped and developed through the activities of the people who live in the area. Historic vernacular landscapes reflect the physical, biological, and cultural character of the people’s everyday lives. Acoma Sky City, whose adobe houses, plazas, and walkways have been used for nearly one thousand years, is a great example of how the Pueblo people’s activities have shaped and defined the physical and cultural character of the desert in New Mexico.

Historic Site -- a landscape that has significant connection to a historic event, person, or activity. The African House at Melrose Plantation is an excellent example of a historic site because of its connection to slavery in Louisiana and, later, folk artist Clementine Hunter.

Ethnographic Landscape -- a landscape that possesses a variety of natural and cultural resources that an associated population can define as heritage resources. Chimney Rock in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, was a sacred site for Ancestral Puebloans over 1,000 years ago and is recognized today for its spiritual significance and geological splendor, making it a great example of an ethnographic landscape.

Note: The four types of cultural landscapes are not mutually exclusive, and a specific site could reflect the characteristics of more than one type of cultural landscape.

So now that you know the definition(s) of cultural landscape, you can use it with confidence to enhance your conversation about preservation or make a solid case for preserving a historic site.

Jamesha Gibson is an Editorial Intern at the National Trust. She is passionate about using historic preservation as an avenue for underrepresented communities to share their unique stories. Jamesha also enjoys learning about other cultures through reading, art, language, dancing, and especially cuisine.

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