Landscape and democracy: lessons from the political history of territorial governance

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

Yves Luginbühl, avril 2017

Until recently, landscape was a matter of political decisions taken in a context of representative democracy, but most often underpinned by expert opinions. Democracy thus seemed self-evident. However, upon reflection, many questions quickly emerged concerning the mode of governance of the territories, the place of scholarly knowledge in relation to empirical knowledge, the interest of citizens, the relationship between the political world and civil society, the development of experiences of participation in political decision-making, and others. This report, produced as part of the Council of Europe’s work to implement the European Landscape Convention with the support of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, attempts to open up avenues of reflection and propose the terms of a debate on forms of territorial and landscape governance.

We must go back to Sumerian, Indian and especially Greek antiquity and the polis, a city where the forum was the place for debate between citizens; but these first forms of democracy were highly unequal, accepting the participation of neither women, nor slaves, nor meta-culturists, at least in the case of Athenian « democracy ». We will not go as far as this period, but we will start with the Italian Quattrocento, which presents a very representative example of the questions that arise in territorial and landscape governance. It is an illustrative example, almost trivial because it is so well known and because it has often illustrated the European Landscape Convention. It is of course the Effects of Good and Bad Government, the famous fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted on the walls of a room in the ducal palace of Siena in 1338 and which represents a lesson in territorial governance. The fresco, which consists of four sets of pictorial representations, was created in a singular political context that saw the evolution of territorial and landscape governance from a government originally composed of the Twenty-Four to a more restricted government, that of the Nine, which ensured the power of the great families of the communal aristocracy.

As Chiara Frugoni points out:

« the Nine, rather than being directly represented, [preferred] to show instead the government of the Twenty-four, which lasted from 1236 to 1270 and was created to oppose the absolute power of the podestate and the influence of the great families, with the constitution of the so-called ‘Elected Consistory’ council, which marked the entry of the populus into the government of the city : ‘in a propaganda discourse such as this fresco, the reminder of the past can provide the reassuring support of tradition and history and suggest, through a past reality, much more open to the lower social classes than was the government of the Nine, the undoubtedly demagogic model from which the government claimed to draw inspiration’ (Frugoni, 1995:8).

The fresco represents :

« a conception of territorial governance that can be transposed into landscape governance and starts from the hypothesis that each actor, at his own scale, both temporal and spatial, governs a part of the landscape in which he lives; a conception that refers to the dual rights and duties of each citizen. If we examine Lorenzetti’s fresco, each individual, at his own scale, in the functions he fulfils in the society described by the painter, governs a part of it, i.e. some elements of the composition of the landscape, whether rural or urban. The fact that the artist depicts good government alongside the landscape that he manages with the subjects of power does not mean that this landscape depends, in its political management, only on the prince and the people around him. Lorenzetti makes this clear to the viewer of the fresco: everyone is at his post, fulfilling his function, even the « dancing swarm of damsels », a beautiful expression suggested by Georges Duby. The political meaning of the painting is that of order, peace, abundance, a serenity that emerges from the landscape, even though we know full well that this political regime is not a democracy, that it is an authoritarian regime where human rights still have little meaning » (Luginbühl, 2012).

Conversely, the landscape of bad government is the landscape of plunder, war, crime and lack of productive activity. Lorenzetti wrote on the fresco of bad government its vices: greed, lust, pride, injustice… Denis Cosgrove discusses the issue of the representation of political power and believes that its holders, such as the Duke of Siena, considered that the use of representatives of the districts that made up the city in decision-making had gone too far; the political elite radically restricted the role of these representatives, thus giving more power to the wealthy aristocrats and bourgeois, privileging individualism over collective life (Cosgrove, 1998:27). It must be said that in this period, social elites and in particular the regal power sought to combat collective practices and the common lands they implied, as in the case of England where the Lords ruling the counties initiated the establishment of enclosures (as early as the thirteenth century) to institute private estates in place of commons, the collective lands that constituted the land of poor peasants.

The commons can be seen as a form of shared governance of a territory - we will not go so far as to say that it was democratic - which allowed these peasants to access an economy of survival negotiated between themselves and the lordly power and which evolved over time, in particular between 1750 and 1850 with the parliamentary enclosures implemented by Parliament; these completed the establishment of individual ownership of land throughout the United Kingdom. This evolution of territorial and landscape governance, which transformed the English landscape from open fields to hedged farmland with hedgerows (hawthorns and oaks), was carried out on a kingdom-wide scale and allowed the English monarchs to impose a regalian law in the face of the customary law which was one of the principles of feudalism.

At the same time, it was an economic revolution, the advent of liberalism, with the forage revolution and the beginning of industrial development, processes on which Adam Smith (1776) and Ricardo (1817) developed their market-based economic theories, which later became the basis of Karl Marx’s Capital (1867). Another example is worth mentioning, as it occurred in a European region where the first word equivalent to the term ‘landscape’ appeared in the 15th century. In the Dutch, German and Danish Friesland, the peasants who occupied the marshlands on the edge of the North Sea built terpen, a kind of mound which they constructed by piling up soil from nearby, so as to be sheltered from the highest tides (Lebecq, 1980). On these mounds, they set up their farms and lived more or less isolated from the seigneurial power. In this way, they managed their territory almost autonomously, far from the restrictive rules of feudalism. This practice was very widespread in the 10th and 11th centuries, to the extent that researchers were able to map these terpen, of which there were at least 1,000. To say that this territorial and landscape management was democratic would be an exaggeration. But it represented a shared governance between a small number of individuals and on a micro-local scale.

The reason this example is mentioned is that it was in this coastal region of northern Europe that the term lantscap appeared in 1462, the first known occurrence of the equivalent of the word « landscape »; this term combines land, i.e. country, and scap, equivalent to the German Schaft meaning community, but complements it with customary law which constituted a form of territorial governance.

However, the destiny of landscape is precisely to break with customary law and to become part of regalian law, as the evolution of the meaning of the English word landscape, derived from the Danish landskab, reveals. Kenneth Olwig gave an excellent account of the evolution of the word, which was modelled on the Danish term following the marriage of King James I Stuart of England to the Danish Princess Anne, who took the landskab with her. The royal couple saw it as a means of imposing regal law against the customary law defended by the Lords and of establishing, following the attachment of Scotland to England, the United Kingdom (Olwig, 2002). Again, customary law was not the hallmark of democratic territorial and landscape governance; but neither was regalian law, which was more a form of absolutism.

Other forms of government did, however, exist in the meantime, such as in England, where the English Parliament appeared while restricting royal power according to the principles of Magna Carta. The first elected parliament was the Parliament of Montfort in England in 1265. Only a small minority has a vote: Parliament is elected by a very small percentage of the population. The convening of Parliament depends on the goodwill of the king or queen (usually when the royalty needs money). Parliament’s power, however, grew over time, and in particular during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, with the adaptation of the Bill of Rights, established in 1689, which gave it more influence; the electorate slowly increased and Parliament became more and more powerful until the monarchy was no longer more than an emblematic role. These periods from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century saw despotic powers prevail throughout Europe and it is for this reason that revolutions occurred during the Enlightenment. The first two modern democracies were born at this key moment in the world’s political history: American democracy (1788) preceded French democracy and their models were emulated throughout the world. The former was not considered by its founding fathers to be a democracy, but it is considered by historians to be the first liberal democracy, insofar as the Constitutional Commitment (1788) establishes the natural principles of liberty and equality before the law, and opposes aristocratic regimes. However, the relationship between these democracies and the question of landscape is not immediate. On the other hand, democracies have evolved and have not had the same principles throughout history: in France, universal suffrage was introduced in 1848 and women’s suffrage was introduced in 1944.

The above examples show that this form of political governance can be applied at various levels, and countless diverse cases exist throughout the world at all levels, more or less open to the participation of certain groups in society; the African example of the palaver tree is indeed one of them; but can we talk about it in terms of democracy? Nelson Mandela believes that the palaver tree, which he calls the ‘Great Abode’, constitutes a democratic system for exercising power, allowing everyone to express themselves beyond the social hierarchies that necessarily exist (Mandela, 1995). Although the place of women is minor and the strengthening of their participation is desired, the palaver tree is a means of discussing the problems of local society, the conflicts that animate it, and the possible punishments to be inflicted on an individual who has broken the common rule. But like the example of the North Sea terpen or the Lorenzetti fresco, these examples take place on a local scale and do not concern the national scale, which is, however, that of the implementation of political democracies on the planet.


The relationship between democracy and the landscape is a complex field that depends on multiple factors belonging to numerous fields of meaning. Although experiences exist everywhere, both in Europe and in other states of the world, they are not applied in the same way at the international, European, national, regional and local levels. It seems clear that the local level is the one that best meets the desire to be dependent on processes that are difficult for people to control. Moreover, the draft Constitutional Treaty of the European Union, proposed in 2004, distinguishing participatory democracy from representative democracy, saw it as a means of « open, transparent and regular dialogue with associations representing civil society ». Even though this treaty was not adopted because several states voted against it. The desire for participation is nonetheless relatively strong in European societies. Among these factors, the very meaning of the term « landscape », which is not always identical in the European states, but which has been defined with the consent of the vast majority of European states through the ratification of the European Landscape Convention, interacts with the scales of action and the status of the actors involved. In Europe, as in other continents, the desire of the populations to be listened to by the political world, which often seems outdated when it comes to dealing with the major global processes of commercial and financial exchange, is becoming apparent. Participation is becoming a democratic exercise demanded by many social movements, such as the « Indignant » or the World Social Forum, which are nevertheless struggling to make their voices heard. Several avenues of reflection are already proving to be relevant in order to continue the commitment to the implementation of a democracy that allows the question of the living environment, the landscape of people’s daily lives, to be addressed. But, more generally, it is essential to develop reflection on interaction or deliberative democracy by promoting research in the social and ecological sciences, which are already involved in this theme, but which are insufficiently supported by research funding, which has been significantly reduced in recent years due to the crisis and the need to reduce public deficits.

The exercise of democracy cannot escape the complexity of the processes of production and transformation of landscapes, for which a social mobilisation on a European scale was born with the European Landscape Convention. Landscape itself constitutes a « complex » of material and immaterial meanings that science has separated and thus reduced, to the point of making landscape action difficult, even though it offers potentialities commensurate with the hopes that its supporters have for it:

« (…) science has become blind in its inability to control, foresee, even conceive its social role, in its inability to integrate, articulate, reflect its own knowledge. If indeed the human mind cannot apprehend the enormous body of disciplinary knowledge, then either the human mind or the disciplined knowledge must be changed » (Morin, 2005:106). (Morin, 2005:106)


En savoir plus


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1) «  Urban landscape apprehension, an opportunity to renew urban environmental designs and participatory approaches ", Emeline Bailly, CSTB, France, Rosemary Wakeman, Fordham University, New York. Comparison of participatory approaches between the Plaine St-Denis in the north of Paris and the Melrose site in the Bronx.

2) «  Participatory landscape management : building a cultural resource for the appropriation of biodiversity issues ? ", Aurélien Allouche, Alain Dervieux, François Mesléard, Alain Sandoz. The research develops a participatory approach in the Camargue Regional Nature Park by attempting to evaluate the capacities of such an approach to manage the risk of flooding and biodiversity or the recreation of nature.

3) «  Participation and mediation in landscaping and the renewal of landscape practices ", David Montembault, Agrocampus Ouest, Serge Briffaud, Rémi Bercovitz, École nationale supérieure d’architecture et de paysage de Bordeaux, Monique Toublanc, École nationale supérieure de paysage de Versailles, Antoine Luginbühl, Association Passeurs, et al. Research-action on two different territories, one on the elaboration of a landscape project in a Loire commune, the other on a historical approach in the Deux-Sèvres.

4) «  Landscape and sustainable development : in search of a creative participation ", Yvette Lazzeri, Hélène Balu, Anne Cadoret, Florent Chiappero, Michel Chiappero, Caroline Giran-Samat, Arina Latz, Béatrice Mésini, Hélène Tudela, Martine Perron, Centre d’études et de recherches internationales et communautaires (CERIC), Aix-Marseille University, CNRS, University of Pau, University of Toulon Research that takes stock of participatory approaches in Europe, especially in the architectural field.

5) «  Dynamics of landscape models in new cities, cultivating sustainable landscapes ", Marie-Jo Menozzi, independent ethnosociologist, Etienne Bertrand, Bureau d’études de Gally, Julien Laborde, Mnémosis. Research on a participative approach concerning the new town of Val Maubuée.

6) «  Landscape dynamics and perceptions of tree interfaces, what are the issues for the implementation of the Green and Blue Belt ?", Sylvie Guillerme et al, GEODE, CNRS and University of Toulouse-le-Mirail. Research on the participation of stakeholders concerned by trees outside forests in south-west France