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By Rebecca Hughes

The evolution of landscape character assessment

Landscape planning is now a substantial and important part of the practice of landscape architecture, and has been maturing for three decades to a point where it is a core area of work for many landscape architects. As we approach the vote on Scottish independence, we examine the differing approaches in the devolved nations, and look at how landscape character assessment can straddle boundaries.

There was a time in the late 20th   century when the validity of    considering and caring mainly for those places that ‘made the mark’ which justified special designation, whether for ecological, cultural or landscape reasons, was beginning to be seen as an incomplete way to recognise and manage our land-based resources. Within the sphere of landscape planning, it became increasingly apparent that there was a need to consider the wider landscape and landscape scale processes and systems, such as river catchment systems, whole watersheds or topographic units. This belief led to the need to compile comprehensive landscape inventories from a clearly structured and rigorous method of landscape survey in order to produce a factual rather than an evaluative database which defined the landscape characteristics of different areas of countryside. This inclusive approach ultimately gave rise to what is now called landscape character assessment (LCA) and now provides the foundation or backbone of many aspects of landscape planning practice today.

Why did the LCA method develop?
The LCA method developed partly in response to a change in the way that environmental resource inventories were conceived in various disciplines. It became clear that, in order to provide more effective advice in land management, it was necessary to scale up land-based inventories and to use a perspective that put  natural systems at the forefront.

The LCA approach required field survey considerations to be at a landscape scale, spatially defining and describing areas and the diversity they displayed. Hence since the late 1990s, a fairly complete record of the distribution and description of all landscapes no matter what their condition was assembled. This included the spatial determination of all landscape character types and areas, descriptions of their key characteristics, patterns and attributes at
a scale of at least 1:50,000 of all rural parts of the UK. 

It is worth remembering that the LCA method of mapping and survey recording was developed at a time when GIS was not yet in mainstream use. Since then all this material has been converted to digitised map versions and electronic datasets which can be used in combination with other environmental data sets and for monitoring landscape change over time. Before this period, data, information and spatial records of many UK landscapes were often at best incomplete, or at worst non-existent.

What is the basis of landscape character?
The complex pattern and diversity of landscape character on these islands owes much to its remarkably complex geology which underlies the natural and managed land cover, as seen on the BGS Solid Geology and Stratigraphical Map. In some areas the BGS map also demonstrates the commonality and continuity of this baseline topographic structure between different mainland areas of each of the devolved nations. Look for instance at the common geology between parts of coastal Northern Ireland and Southwest Scotland or the marches of Wales and the West Midlands or the border hills of northern England and southern Scotland.

Unsurprisingly this is also reflected in the identification of certain landscape character units found in various regional-scale landscape character assessments. The landscape character types and areas defined may have different names and will have substantially different cultural landscape histories and patterns of land use as a result of human engagement and intervention. However their underlying commonalities will be found in the detailed descriptions of physical attributes of their landscape character which is essentially derived from their baseline geological formation, history of geomorphological processes and resultant topography.

Crossing boundaries
The reason for focusing on this is to reiterate that the administrative boundaries of the devolved nations do not necessarily reflect changes in landscape character on either side of these boundaries, nor would we expect them to.

When landscape planners undertake LCAs in these areas, they can assist any dialogue and continued liaison between neighbouring administrations and local authorities. This may be by advising on potential landscape change or policy review processes which may affect the wider landscape of bordering landscapes regardless of which administration they are governed by.

It is often the case that the boundaries of different landscape character areas are not necessarily definitive lines on the ground and do not follow a feature, such as a road or a forest edge. Instead they often present a zone of transition from one character area to another where features or patterns change as one moves from one area to another. Due to the presence of transitional landscape areas there may also be a need for different administrations to seek advice on potential landscape implications which may be due to the activities or decisions proposed in neighbouring areas which may be the subject of statutory consultations.

Today there is a general consensus that the pace and scale of actual or potential landscape change is increasing. As noted in the European Landscape Convention ‘developments in agriculture, forestry, industrial and mineral production techniques and in regional planning, transport, infrastructure, tourism and recreation and, at a more general level, changes in the world economy are in many cases accelerating the transformation of landscapes’.

This rapid change makes it all the more important that Landscape Character inventories are reviewed or updated periodically so that they can also be used as the basis for monitoring landscape change. This monitoring can also feed into any advice that may be requested on the capacity of landscapes to accommodate further change of different types. This enables the sustainability of landscape character to be possible rather than ‘tipping points’ of landscape change being passed so that diversity of landscape character may be lost over time. There is now a second generation of refined or specific LCAs, which are landscape capacity studies. These are frequently commissioned by public bodies that are faced with complex scenarios for particular development types such as housing or wind farms. These studies can inform and assist
in decisions on future policy and suitability of different planning applications, including cumulative effects of multiple proposals.

Ordinary landscapes
It was in the late 1980s that there was a growing awareness among those working in wider and local rural contexts, that all landscapes were important to someone.

No matter how ‘ordinary’ certain landscapes may have seemed to those who were not familiar with them, and despite the fact that they could not be compared to landscapes recognised for their special qualities or iconic status at a regional or national level, these ordinary places mattered to individuals and sometimes to whole communities.

This point has come up repeatedly in public consultations where there are particular development proposals, or in boundary discussions where new or revised landscape designations are being considered. Landscapes that can be seen from, or enjoyed close to, where people live are often very much valued.

Yet there was little comprehensive landscape information or spatial data available for these landscapes. The introduction of the LCA approach made it possible for the first time to record them on comprehensive landscape inventories.

This countrywide ‘wall to wall’ LCA coverage was achieved and led in various ways by the commitment of agencies such as CA, SNH, DoeNI and CCW. At that time these bodies served the devolved nations, working together and evolving a means to rectify the limited data and spatial information on landscape compared with that for ecology, habitats and species distribution.

At that time landscape architects in the public sector were beginning to describe their LCA work as landscape planning, rather than traditional landscape architecture, especially if they were employed by  agencies such as the Countryside Agency or Scottish Natural Heritage.

A few local authorities had in-house landscape expertise, albeit often a skeletal resource and not all LI members, who dealt mainly with land use policy and development proposal application casework, often without any knowledge of LCA or its potential applications.

So landscape character assessment programmes were established which covered all land areas of England and Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Scotland was the first country in Europe to complete coverage of LCA at a regional level as SNH used a ‘bottom up’ approach, partnering with each local authority across the country. This contrasted with the initial approach in England which commissioned a top-down approach covering the whole land area in
a single exercise that was driven by the early days of GIS, and later much refined with the Character Map of England project.

Europe and the European Landscape Convention
Several European countries, including Holland and Sweden, had watched the development of LCA and were keen to adopt this comprehensive landscape approach. Ultimately this led to a Europe-wide project and map of LCA led by researchers at the University of Wageningen which was later adopted by the Council of Europe. The early stages of the formulation of the European Landscape Convention also assisted the process of adoption and dissemination of the LCA approach in various countries, both within and outside the EU as it is essentially inclusive, comprehensive and, at the first stage, non judgemental on issues such as landscape values and quality, focusing more on condition or ‘state of health’ of landscapes. In the UK a variation in the approach of different countries was often linked with differences in the degree of detailed appreciation of the cultural landscape dimension by our heritage environment colleagues in those countries. In Wales, where the LandMap (see landscape assessment approach developed, this relationship provided a particular stimulus as historical cultural landscape relationships were already perhaps better understood at a greater level of detail than elsewhere.

LCA today
LCAs, which were originally undertaken in various ways by the different administrations to suit differing circumstances and needs, are now being updated, extended and/or reviewed, as appropriate. There is a common understanding in all the devolved nations that the inclusive approach to landscape assessment is beneficial and that the need to record and monitor all landscapes, their current characteristics and dynamics of change is both necessary and worthwhile. Armed with this data, better informed decisions can  be made for managing landscape change and the future sustainability of landscape character in all parts of the UK. The LCA approach has made it possible, both in terms of diversity retention as well as assisting in defining a landscape’s capacity to accommodate the demands of today and tomorrow.

The increased understanding of the LCA approach that now exists among policy makers and land use planning professionals in all parts of the UK, has contributed to discussions on sustainability issues and the management of the landscape resource in policy and development planning. One example of this is where regional landscape character assessments have been adopted as Supplementary Planning Guidance to inform Development or Local Plans. Other LCA applications have also advanced in the last decade or so, for example  seascape and coastal unit assessments, landscape capacity and sensitivity studies. Application of these assessments can assist decision makers in considering various changing land use patterns or increasing development pressures and potential cumulative effects, such as new settlement planning, major road or other infrastructure provisions,  or renewable energy proposals. In answering this demand many landscape architects have developed the appropriate skills and widened their experience in LCA and its various applications especially in the field of landscape and visual effects assessment. Indeed some landscape architects now work exclusively as landscape planners.

The growing importance of landscape planning  now requires further thought in the future provision and training of landscape architects in the contents and depth of this topic in the LI’s core curriculum.


Rebecca Hughes is a fellow of the Landscape Institute and is the policy consultant in Scotland.

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