PAP 49 : Local elected officials, key actors of landscape approaches

Jean-Pierre Thibault, April 2021

Le Collectif Paysages de l’Après-Pétrole (PAP)

Anxious to ensure the energy transition and, more generally, the transition of our societies towards sustainable development, 60 planning professionals have joined together in an association to promote the central role that landscape approaches can play in regional planning policies. This April article, written by Jean-Pierre Thibault, founding member of the PAP collective and Inspector General of Administration and Development, questions the reality of the status of elected officials in the landscape approach and their key role in the requalification of landscapes in the service of collective well-being.

Concerned about ensuring the energy transition and, more generally, the transition of our societies towards sustainable development, 60 planning professionals have joined together in an association to promote the central role that landscape approaches can play in regional planning policies. This April article, written by Jean-Pierre Thibault, founding member of the PAP collective and Inspector General of Administration and Development, questions the reality of the status of elected officials in the landscape approach and their key role in the requalification of landscapes in the service of collective well-being.

After a period of errors and inconsistencies, many interventions are now requalifying our landscapes. Whether they concern a large territory or a village square, they are the result of decisions taken by local actors who have understood the interest in terms of sustainable development and the immediate well-being of citizens. A tandem of project owner and project manager leads these interventions : it associates the political decision-maker who launches the operation and the professionals - designers and technicians - who carry it out. The skills of these two types of actors combine to produce operations which are often successful.

These call for the determination, agility and forward-looking vision of the project owner, and the inspiration, innovative capacity and technical mastery of the designer. In the current state of the profession, it often happens that the local elected representative does not succeed in recruiting the person whose team would be able to give the best possible expression to the ambitions and potentialities that he or she may have had the intuition to see 1. On the other hand, there are too many designers lacking relevant orders, because of the lack of landscape project leaders who would know how to fit into the sustainable development perspective 2.

Due to a consequent evolution of the mode of governance in our societies, this sometimes untraceable duo now shares the initiative with the populations concerned, the third major component of development projects. International texts define landscape as « part of the territory as perceived by the population ». Powerfully relayed by the law 3, the inhabitants are increasingly asking to be involved in decisions that will transform their living environment. Any project today therefore requires consultation, which can even become co-construction with the inhabitants or local residents. Whatever some people still think, it is clear that this citizen participation enriches and consolidates projects. It feeds the dynamism and the validity of the projects, thus reinforcing the capacity of elected representatives to carry out landscape projects based on a fair consideration of the knowledge, expectations and uses of local populations. However, the elected representatives concerned must be able to carry out these consultations with the necessary technical skills; above all, they must perceive the interest and show the will to do so. In the trio of elected representatives, population and designer who carry out the projects, the elected representative remains the pivot of the relationship thus constructed : nothing can be done without his democratic legitimacy, and everything depends on the overall view that is expected of him, on the territory for which he is responsible.

What is the reality?

Motivated but often powerless elected officials

With a few exceptions, we can assume that the commitment of elected officials is based on their deep attachment to the territories they represent. The non-accumulation of mandates allows them to focus their interest and their time on the local mandate. Moreover, the recent evolution of their sociology leads them to (re)position themselves at the centre of the decision-making process by favouring solutions that integrate and are anchored in the unique character of these territories. We can also note - and they are the first to do so - the weakness of their training in the techniques required, more and more often, by the versatility of their function. When they are poorly educated in planning, they are led to rely, in many cases, on public or private engineering whose proposals may be partial, fragmented or formatted. At the end of the day, the only decision that often falls to the local elected official is to ratify the only solution proposed by the design office : a wastewater treatment plant will be in such and such a place, and configured in such and such a way; a road structure will obey specific templates that will justify sacrificing, for example, the few trees that have long marked the entrance to the village… A certain standardisation of the development solutions adopted can be observed almost everywhere in France. Their technicality, which is poor in spatial qualities, is based on a concern for efficiency, normalised by fussy instructions, and equips the crossroads with innumerable roundabouts, which in the space of a few decades have become an expensive but undisputed national speciality for technical services obsessed with functionality. The generalisation of urban sprawl that disdains the value of spaces deemed ‘ vid 4 ’ is also due to the same lack of knowledge and consideration of territorial singularities. A few organisations, few in number and unevenly distributed throughout the départements, are trying to propose solutions that meet the requirements of a landscape approach, i.e. that are both global and rooted in the specificity of these territories. However, among these potential supports for a landscape approach to development, the CAUEs are limited to upstream advice, the urban planning agencies still invest little in the countryside, and the Regional Nature Parks are only present on one sixth of the country’s surface. Breaking with the banality and sharpening their will to act and their demand for quality due to the orientations given by these support and advisory organisations, a good number of mayors and presidents of inter-communalities are now involved in local landscape approaches. It would be important for them to be able to exchange information with each other in order to consolidate their practices and to organise themselves in order to make their colleagues aware of their interest. Although surveys have not yet been conducted in this respect, we can feel a growing demand from elected representatives to act as « project leaders 5  » with an overall vision to organise the fragmented operations - with sometimes contradictory effects - that are too often proposed to them.

Putting the landscape into politics…

In an interview with the magazine «  Interco  » published by the Association des communautés de France (AdCF), the geographer Anne Sgard recalled in 2014 that the emergence of this political dimension of the landscape is due to the fact that with an overall vision, the contradictions and conflicts inherent in public action can find a calming. When it takes in hand all these issues to find an inventive solution, political arbitration can be an essential lever: «  The landscape approach can be a tool for consultation and consistency. Many experiences have shown the interest of participative approaches around the landscape, exploiting [its] resources as a mediation tool, precisely because it addresses subjectivity, the senses, attachment, memory, and allows the territory to be talked about, its history to be shared and its future to be discussed 6 ".

Lolita Voisin, a landscape engineer and doctoral student at the Ecole de la Nature et du Paysage de Blois, of which she has since become the director, developed the same analysis in 2011 in an article for the journal «  Landscape Projects ". The aim was to show «  how landscape, more than just another responsibility of local elected officials, can be used by political actors as a tool for designing the territory ". Initially, the elected representatives had tended to prioritise sector-based action criteria that were apparently more manageable than landscape: «  the environment (the setting up of ecological networks, for example), heritage (the heritage image of Blois developed since the Loire Valley was listed as a World Heritage site), and more recently agriculture ". This trend, she deplored, fails to recognise the « multi-scalar project potential » of the landscape. In fact, « the (apparently) particular argument of the landscape  » turns out to be able to define « the economic, social or aesthetic « good territory » of the agglomeration 7 ".

Christophe Degruelle, president of Blois-Agglopolys, has been for seventeen years a teacher at the landscape school : these joint responsibilities have led him for a long time to be involved in landscape matters. Moreover, as vice-president of the Association of French Communities (AdCF), he has been in contact with a number of elected officials of all origins and sensibilities. He learns from them about their capacity to take up or not the landscape approach.

Turner and his fog

For Christophe Degruelle, the landscape approach gives substance to the elected representative’s project. Far from being an ornament or a set of vignettes aiming at mere visual pleasure, it allows the elected official to embody a territorial project, to make his identity, the basis of social belonging, sensitive: «  it is crucial that elected officials develop and politically carry a landscape vision. Oscar Wilde said: «  Before Turner, there was no fog in London ". Well, the elected official must be Turner with his fog : he must show the daily landscape that he wishes to carry through his political project 8« . Putting his money where his mouth is, Christophe Degruelle had a landscape architect recruited by the urban area and positioned her « directly under the director general of services, which guarantees her a place and a transversal role in the organisation chart ». As a wise political decision-maker, he also undertook two symbolic and inexpensive projects: the acquisition and demolition of a petrol station which was a black spot on the road between Blois and Chambord, and an operation called « Windows on the Loire » which created openings in the vegetation that masked the river, along the cycle path on the banks of the Loire. These two operations have helped to raise awareness of this issue. It was then possible to be more ambitious: a «  agricultural park and urban nature  » project was thus implemented to restore the former Bouillie spillway to its function as a flood attenuator for the Loire, a function which had been lost over the decades due to the unfortunate implementation of numerous buildings and facilities. Finally, a territorial food project is being studied at the level of the « Châteaux Country » to regenerate the functional and human link between Blois and the surrounding agricultural land. Christophe Degruelle nevertheless analyses, with lucidity, that « the landscape is not yet a concern for elected officials ». He puts forward three reasons:

1. «  Firstly, it is a concept that is difficult to make concrete. There is no « landscape code », but it is found in five codes: urban planning, environment, heritage, agriculture and forestry. It is therefore a very diffuse concept, which elected representatives do not identify.

2. [Secondly], when we talk about public policy on landscape, we too often think of the protection of remarkable landscapes : not all elected representatives feel concerned.

3. Finally, we are confronted with a problem of understanding the profession of landscape architect, too often associated with the work of plants. Degruelle adds that «  the local authorities lack landscape skills in their teams, and are therefore not able to organise a quality dialogue with landscape professionals (design offices), etc. ".

How to overcome this contradiction between the objective interest of using the landscape approach to give substance to a territorial project and the insufficient clarity of the proposals formulated so far for this purpose? In our opinion, two complementary levers should be used.

Landscape at the Congress of Mayors ?

Firstly, large-scale acculturation/training work should be carried out for associations of local elected representatives. Under the aegis of the Association des maires de France (AMF) or associations that group together various categories of municipalities or inter-municipalities (the already mentioned AdCF, France Urbaine, the Association des maires ruraux de France, etc.), one could imagine awareness campaigns followed by training cycles on the landscape approach or even, during the annual Congress of Mayors at the Porte de Versailles in Paris, the presentation of a range of landscape interventions showing, from the overall territorial project to the qualitative reclamation of public spaces, the multiscalar, multifunctional character and factor of social cohesion of this type of approach9. These steps directly addressed to elected officials should be completed by an awareness-raising and training action aimed at strengthening the landscape skills of their immediate collaborators. In addition to the recruitment of landscape designers, for whom the competitive examination for territorial engineers is now open, local teams made up of non-landscape designers should be trained in this approach by greatly increasing the number of training courses offered by the Centre national de la fonction publique territoriale (CNFPT) in these fields 10.

Secondly, the virtuous process of mimicry between elected representatives must be played out in parallel. The more convinced the latter are, the more the example of their successful initiatives will spread among their colleagues.

The Grands Sites de France, the first network of elected representatives of the landscape

The Réseau des Grands Sites de France 11 is undoubtedly the richest breeding ground for « landscape elected officials » in our country. In 2019, it published a «  framework document ", «  Landscape at the heart of the Grands Sites de France approach ", where we can read that, far from limiting themselves to the management of their exceptional label, «  the Grands Sites de France wish to be, among others, spaces of reference and inspiration for a better taking into account of the landscape in the development of the territory ". To this end, by «  following a dynamic and prospective vision of the landscape, [they are] a laboratory for all landscapes  » 12, i.e. for the benefit of everyday landscapes. With such a support, the elected members of the network know how to speak about landscape in a strong and sensitive way. The mayors of the Vézère Valley, one of the last sites to be awarded the label, express themselves as follows: «  our approach consists above all in (…) ensuring that the visitor entering this magnificent valley understands the place that has linked mankind to nature for such a long time  » declares Philippe Lagarde, mayor of Les Eyzies. Anne Roger, mayor of Fanlac, evokes the landscape of the valley in these terms: «  a land of balance between plains and hills, meadows and forests, cliffs and waterways. Balance also in the activities : agriculture, crafts, tourism which keeps its authenticity. Balance also in the population with a good understanding between natives and newcomers. In fact, (she concludes), if the Valley has been populated since prehistoric times, it is probably not by chance : it is still and always a territory where life is good 13 ". Other « landscape elected officials », the mayors of the Charente-Arsenal estuary of Rochefort, also recently awarded the label, Michel Gaillot, mayor of Echillais and Pierre Chevillon, mayor of Saint-Hippolyte 14 give a particularly inspired reading of the landscape of the Grand Site: « the «  archipelago  » reading of our landscape allows us to see, despite the low amplitude of the reliefs, the ancient marine gulf with the ancient islands where the villages are perched and between which the Charente river winds today. Our «  archipelago  » is deeply marked by a fine cohabitation between the highlands - those of our farms, our hamlets, our villages and our towns - and the lowlands, those of our marshes of the ancient gulf whose waters beat our shores 2000 years ago 15 ".

From Dunkirk to Nantes, the landscape as an asset

Beyond the Grands Sites, this acculturation of local elected officials is benefiting from the relaunch of the « Landscape Plans » calls for projects, which have been multiplied by the State since 2013 16. There are now dozens of mayors or heads of inter-municipalities ready to testify about their positive experience of the landscape approach to their still sceptical colleagues. Bernard Weisbecker, then vice-president of the urban community of Dunkirk, declared in 2019: «  Don’t stay with an intellectual vision of the landscape : go and see it to fight against preconceived ideas (…) Dunkirk is not just an industrial zone. It is also an agricultural polder, networks of canals, natural spaces and a high-quality seaside resort. A global understanding of the challenges facing the area allows us to move away from a sectoral approach. Consultation allows for a better understanding of the expectations of citizens. The territory has a capacity for resilience, people are no longer afraid 17.

Let us conclude this series of speeches with that of Johanna Rolland, mayor of Nantes, interviewed by Laurent Miguet 18. This leader of a city of 309,000 inhabitants and a metropolis with more than twice that number sees in the landscape approach « the fight against urban uniformity [which] is in line with the ecological emergency ». She hopes that «  citizen participation in landscape policies is played out on a city-wide scale  » to «  preserve what makes each neighbourhood unique and fight against standardisation ".

An action plan for the training of elected officials in landscape ?

This increase in the number of local elected representatives’ voices in the service of the landscape approach is encouraging. But what do a few dozen, even hundreds of mayors weigh in comparison with the 35,000 others who undoubtedly still need to be convinced ? Mimicry alone will not be enough to reach the critical mass likely to trigger the general support of elected officials. As analysed above, it is they who are ultimately responsible for the development of their territory. The appeal to the major associations of elected representatives mentioned above is therefore unavoidable. To this end, the Minister of Ecological Transition has just commissioned her general inspectorate to carry out an «  expertise mission to measure the current level of knowledge of local decision-makers in the field of landscape, and their sensitivity to the landscape approach ". « Based on this inventory, » the minister continued, « proposals are expected for the development of a policy to be implemented in the direction of this public: training, awareness-raising, priorities for action.

For the awareness-raising and training of local elected representatives, an « action plan » is therefore expected by the commissioning authorities. Such terms are sometimes more a matter of communication than of concrete action. Nevertheless, at the end of this mission, we can hope to see an increase in the resources of programmes and organisations that are positioned or to be positioned in this field 19. We can also expect increased motivation on the part of associations of elected representatives as well as mayors and presidents of inter-municipalities who will have responded to the national survey planned by the mission, an opportunity for them to reflect explicitly on the potential of the landscape approach and to appropriate it. The return of the landscape could thus mean the return of politics in the planning decision. More and more decision-makers are ready to assume such a responsible choice. However, they need to be able to find the skills, in number and quality, to accompany them in this process 20, but also to have the active support of their fellow citizens. The three actors elected-population-designers mentioned at the beginning of this text must increase in power and competence : it is imperative that they do so at the same pace and in the same movement.

1 There are barely 2000 landscape designers in France, i.e. one for every 33,000 inhabitants. There is one for every 12,000 inhabitants in Germany and one for every 14,000 in the UK. Even if they do not have a monopoly on these « sustainable and harmonious territorial development projects », which our Collective calls for to be generalised, the low number of these professionals in France is questionable. Due to the lack of designer skills, many interventions are still carried out by design offices, or even surveyors whose know-how is not the same.

2 The most frequent projects are « beautification » or simple greening.

3 Provided for as early as 1998 by the Aarhus Convention, taken up again in 2005 in the Constitutional Charter for the Environment (Article 7), this consultation requirement can be found in Article L 103-2 introduced in 2015 into the town planning code for all urban planning and « development operations ».

4 The famous «  blanks on the map  » which are in fact fertile spaces for biodiversity, rich agricultural land or forest areas suitable for relaxation and wood production.

5 Having spent twenty years of his administrative career in the field, the author of these lines has observed a slow but real transformation from the figure of the mayor, this « complainer-petitioner » who is often immobilistic in practice, to that of an active bearer of a territorial project.

6 N° 191, April 2014 with a dossier «  From landscape treatment to landscape policy " : interview with Anne Sgard p 8.

7 In Projets de paysage, 11/07/2011, «  Le paysage mis en politique Methodology and perspectives of a research on the medium-sized towns of the Loire Valley " :

8 Interco, No. 149, «  From landscape treatment to landscape policy ", op. cit, p. 9.

9 This training would be of more public interest than the street furniture stands that make up a significant percentage of the exhibition space at the Salon des maires, in conjunction with the Congress.

10 A search of its training catalogue certainly allows us to identify, in addition to the courses on flowering and green spaces that appear spontaneously under the heading « landscape », a promising title: «  The reclaiming of landscapes : project approaches and tools ", a session led in Montpellier by Sébastien Giorgis, a landscape architect and local elected official. It gathers about twenty trainees per year but should be of interest to most elected officials and their technical services.

11 The Réseau des Grands Sites de France brings together 47 groups of local authorities that manage sites of great notoriety and (therefore) high visitor numbers, and that are committed to developing a management of tourist flows and local economic and social life in accordance with the principles of sustainable development. The members of the network are holders, for 21 of them, of the label Grand Site de France delivered by the State (article L 341-15-1 of the Environment Code), or engaged in a «  Opération grand site  » to obtain this label.

12 «  Landscape at the heart of the Grands Sites de France ", brochure downloadable from the RGSF  website:

13 Full text of these «  words of elected representatives  » on the website of the Grand Site manager :

14 Both are vice-presidents of the Rochefort-Ocean Agglomeration Community (CARO), which has been awarded the label.

15 Speech at the workshop «  La parole aux élus : les patrimoines de l’eau ", organised by Icomos-France in Rochefort, on 26 and 27 September 2019.

16 The winning local authorities of the calls for projects are gathered in a Landscape Plans Club which gathers about one hundred members. Its active membership is close to sixty.

17 This testimony can be consulted on the proceedings of the «  Elus autour des démarches paysagères  » days, 17-18 October 2018 :

18 Hors série Paysages-Actualités-Le Moniteur, «  Nantes, métropole nature ", June-July 2019.

19 For example, the landscape training programme, which for a long time was run by Mairie-Conseils, a subsidiary of the Caisse des Dépôts, disappeared with the reorganisation of the Caisse’s services. Now called «  Territoires-conseils ", this organisation could take over the ambition of this programme, as soon as the demand for it is revived as mentioned above.

20 This topic will be the subject of a subsequent Signed PAP.