Historic Landscapes Part I: What Are Historic Landscapes?

Temple Square, probably Utah's most well known historic landscape.

Temple Square, probably Utah’s most well known historic landscape.

The documentation and preservation of Historical Landscapes represents a relatively new and frequently misunderstood branch of the preservation movement, especially in Utah. Many historic landscapes are being lost before their significance is recognized. The preservation of historic landscapes is important because they provide the setting for historic buildings and structures, and the context for historic preservation in general. Through recognition and preservation of our Historic Landscapes, we can better understand our own history, our current societal trends, and begin to work toward a more comprehensive land ethic – embracing both historic and environmental preservation for a sustainable future. This is the first part in a 5-part blog series looking at understanding, identifying and preserving historic landscapes.   Because I live and work in Utah, some of this is specific to this state. However, many of the general principles can be applied nationally (and even globally).

Before we can delve into the issues surrounding historic landscape preservation, it is first important to understand what historical landscapes are. According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s website, “Cultural landscapes can range from thousands of acres of rural land to homesteads with small front yards. They can be man-made expressions of visual and spatial relationships that include grand estates, farmlands, public gardens and parks, college campuses, cemeteries, scenic highways, and industrial sites.” www.tclf.org

Because historic landscapes can range so greatly both in terms of scale and their individual evolutions a number of categories have been developed. The following types of historic landscapes have been defined by the United States Park Service (Preservation Brief 36):

Historic Designed Landscape, Central Park, NYC.

Historic Designed Landscape, Central Park, NYC.

  • Historic Designed Landscape–a landscape that was consciously designed or laid out by a landscape architect, master gardener, architect, or horticulturist according to design principles, or an amateur gardener working in a recognized style or tradition. The landscape may be associated with a significant person(s), trend, or event in landscape architecture; or illustrate an important development in the theory and practice of landscape architecture. Aesthetic values play a significant role in designed landscapes. Examples include parks, campuses, and estates.
Historic Vernacular Landscape, Bingham Canyon Copper Mine

Historic Vernacular Landscape, Bingham Canyon Copper Mine

  • Historic Vernacular Landscape–a landscape that evolved through use by the people whose activities or occupancy shaped that landscape. Through social or cultural attitudes of an individual, family or a community, the landscape reflects the physical, biological, and cultural character of those everyday lives. Function plays a significant role in vernacular landscapes. They can be a single property such as a farm or a collection of properties such as a district of historic farms along a river valley. Examples include rural villages, industrial complexes, and agricultural landscapes.
Golden Spike National Historic Site, UT

Golden Spike National Historic Site, UT

  • Historic Site–a landscape significant for its association with a historic event, activity, or person. Examples include battlefields and president’s house properties.
Ethnographic Landscape, Mesa Verde National Park

Ethnographic Landscape, Mesa Verde National Park

  • Ethnographic Landscape–a landscape containing a variety of natural and cultural resources that associated people define as heritage resources. Examples are contemporary settlements, religious sacred sites and massive geological structures. Small plant communities, animals, subsistence and ceremonial grounds are often components.

Despite these definitions, many question the reasoning behind the landscape preservation movement. Many do not recognize that the landscape preservation movement is a continuation of the historic preservation movement in America dating back to the late 17th century. Initially preservationists sought to safeguard our American history by preserving the architecture associated with our early government. This patriotic preservation movement expanded to include other historic sites and structures such as battlefields and the homes of our nation’s leaders. Over time society began to recognize the value in preserving vernacular architecture. Now this same expansion of logic is being applied to historic landscapes.

While history has been recorded through writing, drawings, and photographs, it is the products of our society – the things we make and how we shape the world around us – that speaks volumes about our cultural workings and values. This is especially prominent with historic landscapes argues The Cultural Landscape Foundation, “Through their form, features, and the ways they are used, cultural landscapes reveal much about our evolving relationships with the natural world. They provide scenic, economic, ecological, social, recreational, and educational opportunities which help individuals, communities and nations understand themselves.” www.tclf.org

The preservation of our history and historic landscapes also looks forward to the future in terms of its relationship to the recent sustainability movement. Much like historic preservation, sustainability seeks to examine our societal relationship to the world around us. Preservation also advances sustainability. By re-using existing structures rather than continually building new ones we are reducing our need for raw building materials, while significantly reducing waste products. We are also helping to preserve large tracts of land that may include open spaces, farmland, and vernacular landscapes.   The historic landscape preservation movement has also evolved parallel to the environmental movement in America, and consequently has been influenced by similar philosophies and can share conservation strategies.

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