From scenic to ecological aesthetic – why landscape planning in New Zealand needs to embrace pattern and process (tipping point 3 of 3)

“Let us green the earth, restore the earth, heal the earth” – Ian McHarg

* This is part 3 of a 3 part series inspired by attending the Environmental Defense Society’s (EDS) conference Tipping Points.

Tipping Points Conference Overview

The conference provided us with a solid two days of presentations, conversations, and thinking about the ecological tipping points Aotearoa New Zealand faces.  It covered the cumulative degradation of terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats, with a big focus on the impacts of agriculture, fishing, and tourism.

As the conference wrapped up, one of my friends posed the question “what learning outcomes are we going to take back with us from this conference?” My response was basically what I have been suggesting since I started working in Aotearoa New Zealand:

landscape planning needs to evolve to embrace ecological pattern and process (function) and the profession needs to fill the gap that exists between ecology and landscape and urban design…it would be a positive environmental tipping point towards resilience

I have been unsuccessfully advocating for this since I started my job here nearly two years ago. The absence of landscape ecology (pattern and process) in my work made me feel very conflicted, keeping me up most nights with concern that I was doing more harm than good for the environment by following the approaches here. The reality for me was that I had very strong philosophical differences about landscape, its connection to ecology, and the role of a landscape planner and designer than my newly adopted country. I know this sounds dramatic, but it would ultimately be one of the major reasons why I left my job and the profession behind (at least while I am here).

In my presentation of landscape ecology principles and critique of landscape planning in NZ, I would like to acknowledge the following:

  • I am not trying to suggest that one way is right and the other is wrong. I simply want to present proven concepts and approaches that could enhance and expand current landscape planning and design strategies in NZ.
  • I write this with considerable bias as my educational upbringing was highly critical of the scenic focus and methodologies of landscape architecture in the UK…the same that would be adopted here.
  • I will (sometimes randomly) interject a series of Nature is Speaking videos to highlight the foundation and logic behind my response to my friend’s question. These videos are a part of the Conservation International’s effort to protect nature in a way that benefits people.

Current Global Trends

It is generally accepted that the world is experiencing an environmental crisis due to anthropogenic climate change.  This crisis can be categorized by three major themes:

  • Rapid population growth and urbanization (land use change)
  • Depletion of both non-renewable and renewable resources
  • Extensive and intensive damage caused to ecosystems and biodiversity

There is an urgent need for society to respond to climate related issues not only because of the negative impacts on our natural natural environment, but the resulting human consequences of our cultural, social, and economic organizations as well. Communities on the frontline of the Antropocene are becoming highly vulnerable as they lose their capacity to deal with unpredictably and extremes associated with climate change.

Landscape and Urban Planning Meets Landscape Ecology

The environmental crisis can be attributed to inappropriate landscape and urban planning and design that inadequately integrated and often neglected ecological concerns. Although Ian McHarg introduced an ecological understanding that would help us Design With Nature and emancipate landscape architects from static scenic images back in the 60’s, we continued to industrialize and urbanize within disconnected short term thinking models that destroyed and degraded our ecoscapes and their ability to deliver ecosystem services that are vital for human health and well being.

Landscape and Ecosystem Services

Before continuing the landscape and urban planning discussion, I think it is important to define both landscape and ecosystem service.

  • Landscape – a heterogeneous mosaic of ecosystems that is constantly being adapted by humans to increase its perceived value (Source: Design in science: extending the landscape ecology paradigm).
  • Ecosystem Service – the benefits gained from the complex interactions between the human environment and the functions of an ecosystem (Source: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment). These services are broken down into the following four categories that contain further definition and examples:

ecosystem service

Human health and wellbeing, the relationship of people and their culture, and persistence of society are strongly linked to landscape and the environment’s ability to deliver ecosystem services. Although ecosystem services are often quantified using monetary units, in many planning circles, the term refers to the values necessary to maintain the self-maintenance of physical, chemical, and biological processes of an ecosystem, while supporting cultural, socioeconomic, and political needs.  Edward Norton does a great job highlighting the value of one of the earth’s ecosystem services – the soil.

Supporting Service – Soil & Nutrient Cycling


Planning and Design Crisis

At some point, the environmental crisis has revealed a planning and design crisis.  In response, scientists, planners, and designers began questioning the effectiveness of their strategies and methodologies and looked for more sustainable alternatives and initiatives to address and find solutions to many environmental problems.  In the early 21st century, landscape architects began to understand the value of ecology in developed spaces and interrelatedness of landscape components and started integrating ecological patterns and processes in planning and design.  Landscape ecology and its focus on broad-scale ecological and environmental issues in conservation planning was considered an important inclusion in urban development.

Landscape Ecology

Landscape ecology is the study of spatial variation in landscape caused by biophysical and social processes that affect landscape heterogeneity.  Linking natural science and related human disciplines, the holistic approach of landscape ecology works within a variety of landscape scales, development spatial patterns, and organizational levels of research and policy.  The core themes of landscape ecology outlined by the International Association for Landscape Ecology (IALE) are as follows:

  • the spatial pattern or structure of landscapes, ranging from wilderness to cities,
  • the relationship between pattern and process in landscapes,
  • the relationship of human activity to landscape pattern, process and change, and
  • the effect of scale and disturbance on the landscape.

Landscape ecology uses a patch-corridor-steppingstone mosaic (or matrix) as a means for understanding the effects of the spatial heterogeneity of a range of interconnected natural and human-dominated systems. The imaging, mapping and modeling technology of a GIS is an important tool in the field of landscape ecology.  Not only does it help in understanding the spatial relationships between systems, but it can be used to model dynamic systems and incorporate feedback loops. This allows users to explore, test and debate a wide range of possible planning and design outcomes.

patches mosaic

Landscape ecology is guided by similar values of landscape integrity, reinforcement of natural and cultural spirit of place, and the promotion of landscape sustainability that are intrinsic to landscape planning.  However, its methodologies focus on dynamic living systems rather than the static and fragmentary components such as aesthetics, character and viewsheds that dominate traditional landscape planning methods. In recognition that landscape is dynamic and comprised of interacting systems, landscape planning has evolved in some areas of the world to integrate the spatial and system thinking principles of landscape ecology. Landscape ecology not only contributes to methods of landscape assessment, evaluation and systems thinking in landscape planning, but has formed the foundation for landscape design and become an effective approach to urban sustainability.

Landscape Planning Aotearoa New Zealand

While landscape ecology is embraced in landscape and urban design and planning abroad, it is generally absent from practice in Aotearoa New Zealand. Landscape management in NZ follows the traditional UK ‘scenic’ model of landscape assessment that focuses on the compartmentalized, static, and fragmentary components of aesthetics, character, and viewsheds.


Landscape assessments in NZ are broadly separated into either ‘area-based’ or ‘proposal-driven’ categories:

  • Area Based  assessment of landscapes based on values to determine where management is required and to help guide appropriate management approaches. This process describes layers of landscape elements (physical and human) and character to compare and identify which areas of landscape are better (more natural) or worse (less natural).
  • Proposal Driven  assessment of new development or modification to an existing one (i.e. buildings, roads, transmission lines) to determine ‘actual, potential or cumulative landscape and visual effects’. Landscape sensitivity and magnitude and significance of effect are important components in determining effects on landscape character and composition of available views in respect to visual amenity.

Landscape values and assessment processes are highly guided by policy and case law and is heavily influenced by lawyers and the court system. For a more comprehensive summary of landscape assessment, check out the RMA (Resource Management Act) Quality Planning Resource.

Compartmentalized and fragmented methodology

Methodologies and assessment criteria compartmentalize physical landscape elements (water, vegetation, soil, etc.), character areas, and values (natural, sensory, social, cultural, historical) into separate, individual entities and often do not consider whether the landscape being assessed is degrading or improving.  In response, I offer the following explanation and critique:

  • The extent and location of components (elements/values) are delineated using an overlay/intersection method that generally only acknowledges the presence of individual entities that may or may not overlap spatially.  This compartmentalization does not recognize the interconnectivity and interaction (feedback loop) of trophic levels maintaining ecological function and human systems that shape landscape.  Consequently it is an inaccurate representation of landscape.
  • Because systems thinking does not drive boundaries of valued landscapes in assessments (particularly area based assessments), landscapes are isolated from their spatially explicit place within the ecological-social feedback loop. Since landscapes do not end at delineated value boundaries, without consideration of edge effects, areas that are designated as outstanding or special amenity landscapes (managed landscapes) can be just as vulnerable as other unmanaged areas.  See edge effect literature for more on this.

outstanding land

  • A static and fragmented approach provides a snapshot of landscape at a particular moment in time. This removes the dynamism of landscape over space and time, which is considered to be critical for making appropriate and effective management decisions.
  • The approach assumes that by simply assessing preconceived criteria, one can understand landscape and the effects of change. It does not acknowledge the multiple sources of uncertainty within dynamic landscapes and removes exploration and experimentation that reveal truths about a landscape that may not be apparent through visual inspection of the site or interrogation of GIS layers. Without tools of decision analysis and optimization methods, there is no way to effectively explore the capacity for coping with various sources and degrees of uncertainty.

Overemphasis on ‘natural’ and scenic landscapes

The assessment process is highly focused on ‘natural’ and scenic landscapes.  I place the word natural in quotations because it offers a perception of pristine or largely unmodified by human activity and it generally refers to naturally-appearing.  I offer the following critique on this approach:

  • In the Anthropocene there are no longer areas of pristine nature untouched by humans. The same issue with boundaries of landscapes not ending at delineated value edges mentioned above is at play here.
  • By focusing on natural and scenic landscapes, valuable ecosystems services that do not meet the threshold of ‘natural’ or are not considered scenic enough can be neglected.  Examples of this include 1) exclusion of urban systems, where greenways, street trees, streams, rivers, etc. provide valuable ecosystem services regardless of whether they meet the ‘natural’ threshold and 2) An overemphasis on hilltops and ridgelines for scenic value can divert attention from less attractive, but more ecologically significant lands at lower elevations.
  • The focus on aesthetic characteristics emphasizes the visual enjoyment of natural-appearing scenery, encouraging the ‘scenic aesthetic’ rather than ecological aesthetic.  This kind of thinking can devalue landscapes that perform critical functions for healthy ecosystems and overvalue landscapes that are less valuable or even destructive ecologically.  The most notable example is the historic destruction of wetlands.  Although they are extremely important ecologically they were (still often are) considered to be scenically unattractive. Other examples include the green, freshly mowed, weed free residential lawn and the organized rows of crops and green, weed free grazed agriculture landscapes.  Through order and stewardship, these overly managed landscapes provide the perception that they are in harmony with nature, while the ecological reality is that they are typically not.

The Case for Ecological Aesthetic

Although landscape ecological science has produced knowledge about the relationship between landscape pattern and process for more resilient landscape planning, it has been less effective transferring this knowledge to society.  This may be attributed to the diversity of scales and disciplines that do not work at a scale of the human perceptible realm or do not focus on the human experience. Because human understanding of landscape translates to stewardship that is necessary to maintain the integrity of our environment, it is both meaningful and relevant to understand human perception and interaction with ecological phenomena. Aesthetic experiences elicited through perception often allow people to meaningfully engage with ecosystems. This intimate relationship between aesthetics and ecology can arguably be a key societal pathway for addressing issues associated with ecological health. This creates a case for the pattern and process paradigm of landscape ecology to extend to landscape design.

human env
human-environmental interactions in landscape

Aesthetics are often key drivers towards landscape change. As mentioned in the wetlands and hilltops example above, our attention to ecological quality is often influenced by our perceived aesthetic value. Consequently, we often care for, engage with, and conserve landscapes that are more aesthetically pleasing.  In this case, landscape perception becomes a key process for connecting and engaging humans with ecological phenomena, influencing how we intentionally change landscapes and unintentionally change ecosystem processes. Beyond perception, our senses play an integral role in our emotional processing, learning, and interpretation.  Aesthetic experiences are often tied to feelings of pleasure and this positive emotion can influence how we respond and care for our environment.

So if aesthetics are so important, why have I been so critical of aesthetically focused landscape planning and design in NZ?  For the same reason it is ineffective to simply consider ecological process without human experience; the disjuncture between aesthetics and ecology that exists in the scenic model will often not lead to resilient landscapes. In order to expand aesthetics to include ecological processes, consideration for an ‘ecological aesthetic‘ is essential.  The ecological aesthetic recognizes that ecological processes may not conform to the visual quality associated with pleasurable landscape appearance and strives to bring these goals into closer alignment. Through both design and knowledge interventions, functional links between aesthetically pleasing landscapes and beneficial ecological phenomena can be achieved.

So how can NZ bring the concept of the ecological aesthetic into design?  It will require a shift from traditional landscape design thinking that focuses on the aesthetics, geometry and building of landscapes. While these elements will remain important, landscape design will need to evolve to be about place making that responds to the sensitivity of local ecologies to improve the health, well-being and resiliency of ecological-social systems. Designers will need to upskill to understand ecological systems at a level for which they can communicate with ecologists and other scientists so that they can successfully employ ecologically-based strategies in their work. Designers will also need to use their skills to enhance the saliency and legitimacy of landscape ecological scientific knowledge and help society embrace it in order to influence the human propensity to positively effect landscape change and improve resilience.

Now that society faces an environmental crisis due to anthropogenic climate change, it is no longer responsible to ignore ecological processes in favor of aesthetics.  We can no longer push biodiversity and ecology from our urban landscapes because they are perceived as messy or unsafe. We can no longer interrupt ecological pattern and process for the sake of design. We can no longer choose to exclude important ecological and habitat vegetation in favor of species we perceive as more beautiful.

What Next?

Landscape planning and design in NZ is currently sitting at an ecological tipping point.  If the profession chooses not to evolve in response to the environmental realities of today, I believe it will leave a landscape legacy of degraded ecologies and vulnerable ecological-social systems that lack the capacity to deal with the unpredictably and extremes associated with climate change.  I am certain no one wants to leave this legacy, so what is next?

I personally believe it is time for the profession to recognize the ecological aesthetic and to embrace systems thinking of pattern and process.  It is time for a landscape ecological perspective that creates functional links between aesthetically pleasing landscapes and ecological phenomena.  It is time to foster a complimentary relationship between aesthetics and ecology and transfer this knowledge to society.  It is time for the profession to lead a positive environmental tipping point towards resilience.

Author: angie campbell

I am an expat from the United States living in Wellington, New Zealand. My love affair with landscape, culture, and learning has led to a life filled with travel and academic institutions. Endowed with endless curiosity, I spend a great deal of time philosophizing about anything and everything, but very often pertaining to environmental issues. I should note that I am not formally trained in environmental philosophy, nor do I have the vocabulary competency to pass for someone who has. My writing is a somewhat tongue and cheek. I am using this blog as a means to work through some of this thinking and to follow my own pathway of inquiry, while providing (hopefully) some meaningful insight of what it is like to live as an American in Aotearoa New Zealand. I am sure at some point there will be some interesting travel photos once I make the leap from iphone to fancy camera. There is a secondary tab to the this blog spot. Reflections of the Watering Hole is an old blog I started during one of my academic stints studying the social and environmental impacts of oil and natural gas development in the Denver Julesburg Basin in the United States. While some of the information is a bit 'dated' (I started it in 2013), many of the conundrums remain relevant today.

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