The Four Types of Historic Landscapes

A picture of a stairway outdoors surrounded by trees.

The documentation and preservation of Historical Landscapes represents a relatively new and frequently misunderstood branch of the preservation movement.  Many historic landscapes are being lost before their significance is recognized.  Historic landscapes are important because often they provide context for historic buildings and structures. But historic landscapes can also exist without historic buildings, or can consist of larger cultural landscapes that encompass dozens or even hundreds of structures and entire communities. Historic and cultural landscapes are part of the story of place played out on the landscape. Not only do they tell us about our history, the reading of these landscapes can speak volumes about the unwritten history including social patterns and our relationship with our environment. Through the recognition and preservation of historic landscapes, we can better understand culture (our own as well as others), gain a sense of continuity and context in time and place, and achieve a new appreciation for the land itself.

But what exactly is a historic and cultural landscape? 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.”

Because historic landscapes can range so greatly both in terms of scale and their individual evolutions they can be hard to identify.  It helps to be able to break them down into categories. The following are the 4 types of historic landscapes have been defined by the United States Park Service (Preservation Brief 36):

Freeway Park, designed by Lawrence Halprin, in Seattle Washington, is an excellent example of a Historic Designed Landscape. Photo by Shalae Larsen.
  • 1 – 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.
The former Ogden Union Stockyards is an example of a Historic Vernacular Landscape. Io LandArch completed a (Historic American Landscape Survey) HALS documentation of the site in 2014. Photo Courtesy of Weber State University Special Collections.
  • 2 – 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.
Promontory Point is an example of a Historic Site, associated with a historic event. Here the Golden Spike was driven in the spring of 1869, marking the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Incidentally this historic site was recently elevated to a National Historic Park in anticipation of the 2019 sesquicentennial anniversary!
  • 3 – Historic Site–a landscape significant for its association with a historic event, activity, or person. Examples include battlefields and president’s house properties.
Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado is an example of an Ethnographic Landscape. Photo by Tonya Randall.
  • 4 – 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.

The first step in documenting and potentially saving historic landscapes is being able to identify them. By understanding the criteria by which they are categorized, you get a sense for what characteristics and features to note when looking at landscapes that might be considered historic. In future blog posts, I’ll discuss common methods for identification and recording of historic landscapes, as well as appropriate treatments for them!