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Reading the Landscape

Highway MarketIn "The Monument and the Bungalow," Peirce Lewis talks about the importance of learning to read the built landscape for the stories it has to tell of our history and culture, and he sets out to give readers the tools and strategies he believes they need to encounter and interpret our everyday environments. In the last few decades, many others—geographers, historians, landscape architects, and urban planners—have contributed to the scholarship of cultural landscape study (also called the study of public space, built landscape, vernacular environment). Paul Groth, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, has been teaching students how to "read" the American built landscape for many years. His undergraduate classes in American Cultural Landscapes (1600-1900, and 1900 to Present day) fill quickly every semester. When I was a student at Cal, I took several classes from Paul Groth and have come to believe that his approach to teaching and reading landscape, involving looking for the way the landscape "connects" us to present and past social realities, is extremely valuable. Like Peirce Lewis, Groth believes that anyone can learn to read the landscape. In the folllowing article, Groth describes the criteria by which one might analyze a landscape to determine its cultural meanings. His criteria may be very useful to you as you develop your next essay.

"Criteria for a Healthy Landscape," Paul Groth, School of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley.

Note: You can listen to a 2010 lecture by Paul Groth at USC in which he discusses his criteria for a healthy landscape in some depth and provides excellent examples.


A. Problems in applying landscape study: the need to discuss criteria for healthy landscapes

All outsiders' lists about given landscapes are suspect, since the essence of a landscape is its meaning and connections to the people who have managed it and in turn belong to it.

Caveats: this list is subjective, not objective; humanistic—a statement of one person's values and beliefs based largely on reading Landscape magazine's first 18 years; tentative and personal—how I think today with no guarantee of how I will think tomorrow; this is intended as a place to begin discussion.

B. Seven Criteria for Healthy Landscapes

Although phrased below as "connections to," each of the criteria could also be phrased as "separations from." Each criterion is also a double-edged tool: its use can be beneficial, while single-minded overemphasis can be harmful.

Each of these is also a veiled threat: if we ignore a positive criterion, it tends to negatively force itself into our landscapes (i.e., if we ignore healthy personal involvement, it appears as personal violence and graffiti; if we ignore the needs of the bioregion in our landscapes—if we don't reach out and connect to them—they will reach in inexorably).

park benches1. A healthy landscape connects its participants to themselves as individuals. At its most basic, this means physical and psychological survival (making a living, food, shelter, health); these being available, then the "unfolding of the individual."

  • rich sensory experience plays an important role in personal connection. Sensory aspects are an invisible (internal, inside-the-mind) aspect.
  • personal involvement: making "I am" somehow visible; the apparent necessity of the chance to create or modify some part of our world.

2. A healthy landscape connects its participants to their important social groups. This is part of social survival—saying "we are" in physical terms, expressing belonging and membership and social order. People to people.

  • equity and justice: by definition, a socially healthy landscape must recognize all people's importance and membership—women, children, adolescents, those culturally defined as ill, the physically challenged, the rich, the poor.
  • supplying significant human contact levels: richness of "hubits" (bits of human contact) available.

3. A healthy landscape connects its participants to continuity (and protects them from a traumatic level of loss and change—ultimately it protects them from a sense of chaos). It maintains order, stability, and continuity in the reproduction of social groups.

suburb Related notions: continuity is a result of the continuing viability of social and cultural systems in tune with the "wilder" parts of nature (the bioregion)—not any one particular form or landscape order. Yi Fu Tuan's evocative term "field of care" is shown in steady investments of capital and time, harmony of parts; ritual and myth made concrete by the places they happen and the images used. This is as true in commercial and industrial cultures as in traditional cultures.

4. A healthy landscape allows flexibility and thus connects its participants to change. The human relations and physical order of a healthy landscape are not too tight; they have loose edges or open spots for spontaneity, chance contact, diversity, exceptions, the unpredictable evolution of human institutions.

5. A healthy landscape connects its participants to outsiders. Social groups whose internal and external relations are sound tend to reach out; they have openness with pride; they express that they are plugged in and they invite you to join—or at least make themselves clear to non-members. People with people.

6. A healthy landscape connects itself to OTHER parts of nature. Healthy human and spatial relations must be in tune with climate, biosphere, hydrology. Western culture has had an enormous problem with this issue. Some aspects:

  • wilderolatry—the mistaken but firmly entrenched notion that nature is ONLY equal to wilderness (J. B. Jackson's term is naturology for this making a false idol out of some parts of nature). Wilderolatry, saying nature is "out there" isolates humans from themselves and their natural everyday surroundings. It thingifies nature into a side-show or freak show.
  • seeing and acting as if people are a part of nature. People are a part of nature; cities are a part of nature. Not all nature is nifty: cancer, rabid rats, dogfights, warts, wasps, and sharks are not necessarily nifty—but they are all parts of nature.
  • ignoring people brings futility. If we are not well-connected to the human side of nature, then connecting to the rest of nature is futile. If we really are connected well to the human side of nature, then vibrant concerns and connection to other parts of nature, are necessities since personal and social well being depend on them. In such a landscape, according to J. B. Jackson, "there will be no need to wonder about the place of presumptuous humans in the timeless immensities of nature, for it will have been decided . . . . A new road, a new dam, or a forest destroyed will matter deeply to us al: not because something is happening to nature, but because it is happening to us." (Landscape 9:2, Winter 1959-60, p. 1)
  • connection to the cosmos can be considered as one of these essential aspects of reaching out from a social group and its environment.

7. A healthy landscape connects people (even outsiders) to its participants' exuberance or "thrival." In a healthy landscape, everyone is doing their role as well as they know how and are able to do it; investments of time, money, thought, and talent are beyond what is needed for minimal survival an show that people are thriving.

  • women at farmer's marketintensity seems to be important in thrival. Mumford and Jackson's notion that the more functions a landscape serves, the more productive it is in terms of human values. Overlapping of experiences of dwelling, working, playing. The sites of focal, social and personal events integrates into daily life-paths.
  • "artolatry": making art an idol of exuberance, or the erroneous idea that only professional art of design indicates health. Landscapes are not timeless works of art but temporary products. Landscapes exist by the grace of the life and values that pulsate through them.
  • Positive use of artists work in a landscape connects people to their now selves, to their past, to surroundings, to change, to their political and social relations, to the rest of nature, to the cosmos. Artists' talent can be a negative tool: expressing only outsiders' tastes and values, or diverting attention away from critical social and physical problems
  • thrival shows itself in exuberantly human landscapes where care in human relations and relations with the rest of nature are manifest.

Author Note: Paul Groth is Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. Groth teaches entire courses on cultural landscape, including courses in the cultural landscape history of the United States.