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When you think of a landscape, what comes to mind? A Gainsborough painting? New York’s Central Park? A civil war battlefield? Landscapes are significant for more than being the surrounding of a historic building. In fact, in many cultural landscapes, historic buildings can be just one element, along with paths, vistas, trees, markers, and boundaries. These landscapes are the result of human imprint on a natural place, transformed by growth over time. This relationship with people makes them both an object of history, and a story of history over time.

These places are ever-evolving and can’t be frozen in time. So how should they be approached? The National Park Service (NPS) has developed guidelines, outlining a process of documentation, assessment, planning, and management to ensure the longevity of the place for future generations.

In the United States, the NPS initially recognized cultural landscapes in the late 1980s-early 1990s. Cultural landscapes as a field evolved from the scholarly pursuits in cultural geography, folklore/material culture studies, archeology, landscape architecture, and the aspects of place-making and sacred spaces. The planning fields has expanded it into a holistic approach to understand and manage urban and rural places. Professional organizations have evolved in this field, including Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation (AHLP), American Society of Landscape Architects Historic Preservation (ASLA), Association of Preservation Technology International (APTI), The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), and U.S. ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments & Sites)—Committee on Cultural Landscapes.

Biltmore Estate

Fredrick Law Olmsted had already worked on several Vanderbilt family projects when George Vanderbilt approached him in 1888 to advise on a 2,000-acre North Carolina property—today known as the Biltmore Estate. 

Discussing cultural landscapes requires an understanding of the four types of landscapes and the conservation approaches to use.


Four types of cultural landscapes as defined by the National Park Service:

Historic sites gain their significance based on their association with a historic person, activity, or event, such as a presidential home, a grain elevator, or a battlefield.

Historic designed landscapes include designed landscapes by an architect, master gardener, horticulturist or an amateur gardener according to design principles or working in a recognized style or tradition. Examples include parks, estates, and campuses.

Historic vernacular landscapes are identifiable places defined by people who shape the landscape, reflecting the character of the occupants the physically, biologically, and culturally.

Ethnographic landscapes Ethnographic is defined as “relating to the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences.” Ethnographic landscapes, therefore, pertain to the cultural or religious values that a culture ascribes to—a variety of natural features or geological features that make them significant to them, examples of which include religious sacred sites and massive geological structures.


To document the historical value of a landscape through the portrayal of human use brings significance to the landscape in its own right—it is not simply defined as a backdrop to a historic building. Cultural landscapes can be evaluated through techniques such as historical research; inventorying and documenting existing conditions; analyzing the landscape itself; and documenting the integrity and significance of the features contained. Analysis establishes what is important about the landscape (significance), what is extant and what is important but not there (integrity), and what is present that obstructs the understanding of the place (subsequent unrelated uses and features).

Primary evaluation of a site rests on its integrity and significance to represent specific periods of history. The integrity of cultural landscapes can be challenging due to the dynamic nature of landscapes: Vegetation can mature, obscuring significant vistas or features, dramatically changing the original site over time. One example could be a newly planted row of trees framing a road. At first, they are twiggy and look like tall fence posts. Over time, they create a shady treelined corridor. Depending on when the period of significance is set, the date could be the time of the planting, but the intent of the design for a shaded lane was not accomplished until a later period. Since the planted trees remain and are highly integral, the process of tree growth changed what that landscape looked like from the period of significance. This natural process of change to landscapes requires comprehension of the cultural landscape that goes beyond simply understanding its appearance at a particular time. The analysis of integrity must take into account the inherent changes that occur to natural features.

Tools for this analysis include historic photos, maps, oral history, and written documentation such as deeds. All this material needs to be placed into a standard graphic format for ease of reference and for ease of comparison. Diagrams should be developed that show the configuration of the historic settlement. Overlaid onto the current configuration, both noncontributing and missing elements can be identified. This information will lead to a decision to the conservation approach to the landscape to proceed with preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, or reconstruction.

What should come out of the analysis is a vision, the goals, an understanding of the opportunities and constraints, and a notion of what programming will occur on site. This process should come from the original stakeholders, the elders, and the keepers of the culture. Their wisdom in preserving their own culture can override the tenets of the Secretary of Interior Standards.

Boston Public Garden

The 24-acre Boston Public Garden was designed by Geroge F. Meacham. The paths and flower beds were laid out by the city engineer, James Slade, and the forester, John Galvin. The plan for the garden included a number of fountains and statues, many of which were erected in the late 1860s. Perhaps the statue of George Washington designed by Thomas Ball in 1869 is the most prominent.


To maintain cultural landscapes over time in concert with these natural changes, a comprehensive treatment approach must deal with both the natural and cultural resources in parallel. The conservation approach will dictate the treatments needed. Treatments approaches can include: a) a conservation approach and treatment plan, b) a management plan and management philosophy, c) a strategy for ongoing maintenance, and d) a record of treatment and future research recommendations.

The conservation approach and treatment plan are necessary for integration of information, gained through research and inventory, into the ongoing management plan of the landscape. This plan translates the original evaluation of significance and integrity into recommendations with simple steps to achieve objectives for the landscape’s maintenance. The National Park Service published “The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes,” to guide the preparation of treatment plans. They include advice for managers of cultural landscapes and related professional standards. This publication sets out four approaches to cultural landscapes: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction.

A management plan is a tool with which organizations in custody of these precious landscapes can develop plans for projects over time, funding sources and quantities, and the staffing required. This blueprint is a physical document, which provides continuity while changing personnel. The management philosophy relates to the organization to the overall goals to be achieved.

A strategy for ongoing maintenance is a necessary tool for the seasonal nature of maintaining the landscape. When left unmaintained, the natural landscape will evolve, and likely lose its visual definition.

To inform those who come after the current managers of the landscape, a record of treatment should be maintained to provide identification of subsequent changes from original configurations. Working with the landscape can also lead to a list of recommendations for future research. This list is integral to the management of the landscape, to generate tasks for subsequent staff, docents and volunteers, to continue the development of the history and circumstances of the landscape.

Cultural landscapes provide tangible relationship with a nation’s past. When sensitively preserved, cultural landscapes convey an immersion in history unparalleled with other historic resources. Stewardship and interpretation must combine the facts of the previous configuration of a landscape, while understanding the changes that have occurred over time, since landscapes change continuously.


Component landscape A smaller portion of an identified landscape that contributes to a larger landscape, such as a specific farmstead within in a rural historic district.

Character-defining feature A remarkable quality, aspect, or characteristic that is an important component of the cultural landscape, such as grand alleés, vegetation, topography land use patterns, and vistas.

Feature A physical element of landscapes such as a meadow, earthwork or pond, or a tree line, orchard, or terrace.

Integrity The wholeness of a landscape, evidenced by original physical characteristics extant during the property’s historic or prehistoric period. Qualities of integrity include location, setting, feeling, association, design, workmanship, and materials, based on the National Register criteria for evaluation.

Significance The value or meaning attached to a cultural landscape coming from a combination of association and integrity, as defined by the National Register criteria for evaluation.

Conservation Approaches Definitions

Preservation accepts all time periods and retains the most historic fabric, such as the landscape’s historic form, individual features, and specific details as they have evolved over time. There is no erasure.

Rehabilitation involves accommodating new uses or needs with alterations or additions to cultural landscapes, while maintaining the historic character of the landscape.

Restoration focuses on depicting a landscape at one particular time in history, preserving materials from the period of significance, while removing aspects of other periods which don’t relate.

Reconstruction as a concept establishes a framework for recreating non-surviving landscape elements with new replacement materials, so that interpretive goals can be met.

With thanks to Brenda Williams ASLA, Director of Preservation Planning at Quinn Evans.


Preservation Brief #36: Protecting Cultural Landscapes: Planning, Treatment and Management of Historic Landscapes (1994)

A Guide to Cultural Landscape Reports: Contents, Process, and Techniques (1998)

National Register Bulletin #18: How to Evaluate and Nominate Designed Historic Landscapes (1999)

National Register Bulletins are focused on specific topics related to the preservation of heritage resources such as #40 for battlefields and #41 for cemeteries. This document addresses landscapes that have been intentionally designed.

National Register Bulletin #30: Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Rural Historic Landscapes (1999)

This document addresses rural landscapes.

Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for the Treatment of Historic Landscapes (1995)

A Handbook for Managers of Cultural Landscapes with Natural Resource Values (2003)

Climate Change and Cultural Landscapes: A Guide to Research, Planning, and Stewardship (2017)

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