Landscape and public economy: a holistic vision

Landscape Dimensions - Reflections and proposals for the implementation of the European Landscape Convention

Joaquín Romano, avril 2017

This study, carried out by Joaquín Romano, expert to the Council of Europe, examines the links between landscape, as conceived by the European Landscape Convention, and the main objectives of the economy: social welfare, job creation, availability of public goods and public structures, in order to get closer to the real concerns of European societies and to make progress in the knowledge of the risks caused by the disconnection between economy and landscape, as well as the opportunities generated by their union.

It is widely acknowledged that the economic analysis of landscape is largely inspired by public economics, most often placing landscape transformations in the sphere of « non-market » phenomena and subjecting their regulation to public authority (Oueslati, 2011). But insofar as the public economy is based on doctrines with diverse and sometimes opposing interpretations of the role that the public sector should play in the economy, these controversies are also transmitted to the issue of landscape. We have highlighted the controversies related to social welfare or employment. The implementation of the European Landscape Convention is therefore an opportunity to discuss and set up an institutional framework for converging proposals and sharing experiences concerning projects, plans, programmes, strategies or other policies relating to landscape.

The European Landscape Convention is based on a principle of coherence which provides a necessary complement to the explicitly recognised principle of integration, from which the principle of cohesion is derived. This coherence is to be found both at the theoretical level, where the economic nature of landscape is discussed in order to determine the relevant public intervention, and at the practical level, where the efforts of the public authorities involved in landscape policies are harmonised and united. This harmonisation aims to avoid unnecessary redundancies and contradictory actions, which create confusion for citizens, which in some cases can slow down their participation and in other cases create confrontations or divisions that distort personal and collective perceptions defining the landscape. One of the most remarkable achievements of the Convention, from a theoretical point of view, is to offer proposals that help to overcome the intense academic debate on the nature of landscape as a private or public good, fuelled by part of the economic literature.

This overcoming is possible thanks to the conviction that landscape is a common heritage, which contributes to individual and social well-being and whose protection, management and planning imply rights and responsibilities for all, as well as thanks to the integrated understanding of economic, social and ecological aspects. In the landscape these aspects are not three independent pillars that support a common development, but, on the contrary, inseparable components that determine those individual and collective perceptions through which the landscape acquires its substance and form. The transdisciplinary character emphasised by the Convention breaks with dualisms - the public versus the private - and with gradualisms - more or less efficiency, more or less equity, more or less well-being. The economic theory that attempts to classify the public or private nature of the landscape in order to promote public intervention that is supposedly consistent with that nature, and that claims to be objective, is intrinsically contradictory and prevents any real objectivity and consistency.

The Convention, by recognising landscape as both an objective and subjective reality, places the emphasis on understanding the relationships within the landscape to ensure the sustainability of its development, rather than on the precise classification and measurement of its components. In this consideration of people’s aspiration to enjoy high quality landscapes and to participate actively in their development promoted by the Convention, the public is recognised as inseparable from the private and, conversely, personal perceptions are conditioned by value judgements and collective rules. In this sense, the contributions of neo-institutional theory should be highlighted, for which individual agents and groups pursue their respective interests in a context of collective forces, which take the form of institutions (Ostrom, 1990). These forces have historical roots and strong contextual links that shape the desires, preferences and actions of groups or individuals through which social action is manifested. The design of institutions must maintain an appropriate correspondence between their purpose and their environment (Goodin, 1996:49). Social, political and economic institutions are the most important raw material of collective life, and these have grown considerably in size in recent years and have become increasingly complex and ingenious.

Landscape, as the Convention understands it, is intrinsic to human beings in terms of their personal and social condition insofar as their activities are both causes and effects of landscape. The landscape follows a process of production which is at the same time that of its consumption. Economic and landscape theorists must help to interpret these processes, respecting the dynamics of the rural and urban landscapes we have inherited. The attention paid to « anthropological places », which have the essential common characteristics of identity, relationship and history, is a reaction to the risk of producing an economic system that creates « non-places », ephemeral and enigmatic zones that grow and multiply in the modern world, as described by Augé (1992).

This extraordinary complexity of the landscape is its richness, which according to the Convention represents nothing less than « the quality of life of populations: in urban and rural areas, in degraded territories as well as in those of high quality, in remarkable spaces as well as in those of everyday life ».

A responsibility of this magnitude has both personal and collective implications: public authorities must lead landscape protection at the operational and strategic levels, and before debating what to do, with whom and for whom, the question of « why » must first be resolved, i.e. the common objectives of the landscape, which become meaningful when defined in a participatory way. Collective decision-making processes at the strategic level are affected by many difficulties. It is therefore a question of encouraging the development of participation mechanisms that transcend formal authorities and representative democracies, and of course markets, although this does not mean that markets and authorities can be dispensed with. It is simply a question of considering them as means and not as ends to which a society such as European society should aspire. It should be remembered that democracies are not based on institutional permanence, the price of which is rigidity, which, by limiting freedom of expression and public participation, represents precisely the main threat to democracy.

Landscapes are always the result of direct participation and for this reason the decision-making processes are resolved both in a formal institutional logic, where rules are shaped, and in an informal logic, in which a personal and collective spirit develops, the final determining element of any territorial system. When the formal rules do not correspond to this spirit and social will, the action materialised by the landscape does not develop according to the indications of the institutions, but on top of these institutions, which has the contingent effect of social disintegration. Institutional models must respond to the behaviour of the cultural and natural actors present in the landscape, the preservation of which is determined by the appreciation of the stability and recurrence of its dynamics. Such appreciation requires coherence in the definition, distribution and coordination of competences, between public administrations and civil society.

The landscape is both a perception of time and space. A chronological and historical time that exists essentially in a human dimension. A space which, unique at a planetary level, has been shaped in each territory through a vast cultural process in which institutions have historically been a response to this cultural perception. Institutions are therefore the main ones interested in ensuring that their social connections do not break down, because then they would lose their legitimacy among people and communities, and any action that allowed their creation would turn against them sooner or later, as it has already happened in history. The economic dimension of the landscape achieves this double condition of public and private precisely through public participation, the level of commitment of public administrations to put this responsibility into practice depending on the participation processes they can formally develop.

This is emphasised in the European Landscape Convention which, in addition to generally promoting voluntary involvement, makes the involvement of public administrations an obligation and a main theme, while leaving the states flexibility in the choice of their means of participation.

The organisation of public administrations into international, national, regional or local levels of government must take into account the common interest in preserving the landscape, as each citizen resides in a locality, a region, a nation, a continent. When conflicts or alliances are established between different levels of authority and these do not agree with the perceptions of the citizens on key aspects, inevitable reactions can occur, in the form of a wide variety of uncontrolled demonstrations. These become violent when institutions are unresponsive to social concerns. The Convention underlines the special role of local and regional authorities by recognising the principle of subsidiarity and the opportunities for these authorities to take the landscape into consideration.

Recommendation CM/Rec(2008)3 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on guidelines for the implementation of the European Landscape Convention states in this sense that « action should be taken at the institutional level closest to the citizen ». The Convention also recognises the responsibility of public authorities for the landscape and the importance of international co-operation. The voluntary commitment of the population to landscape also helps to implement the actions developed by the institutions by strengthening the links they have with the citizens. Awareness-raising, training, education and collective public participation actions are very useful in this sense. International co-operation, which promotes the exchange of information and experience between public administrations, is proving to be a means of supporting administrations in implementing the Convention.

The Council of Europe’s Landscape Award, as well as the one that each State adapts to its own specificities, as mentioned in the Convention, is also part of this cooperation and exchange of information, with special recognition of the awareness-raising fostered by « exemplary actions carried out by public authorities and non-governmental organisations ».


In conclusion, the interpretation of landscape proposed by the European Landscape Convention « builds a bridge » to the economy so that it can promote a context adapted to the ecological scenarios and cultures of each territory, the safeguarding of which must shape private and public, individual and collective actions, starting from and beyond the markets and the powers that represent them. Insofar as this renovation of the economy is carried out, favoured by taking into account the landscape dimension of the territories, citizens develop a « culture of cultures » that contributes to promoting the diversity of perceptions of their territories and to reducing the inequalities that threaten social cohesion. This renewal strengthens democracy by giving the economy a humanism that best values each individual. It becomes a force that re-fuels well-being, employment and social life.


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