Landscape and democracy: evolution of the democratic exercise in the context of globalisation, relationship to landscape

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

Yves Luginbühl, April 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.

1 - The emergence of participation and its evolution

The strong demand for politicians to listen to citizens could be an asset for democracy ; however, it must be really implemented. This helps us to understand the development of alternative movements that are emerging all over Europe and sometimes result in local experiences of protest or participation. These are still little known, and are most often based on the contestation of political decisions that jeopardise the lived landscape, by populations confronted with projects to which they do not adhere. Sometimes, transformations that threaten what the population considers to be a balance encourage local elected officials to venture into the local debate. These experiences are born around the development of the living environment, focusing on the collective construction of new landscapes. But they do not yet constitute a dominant movement. Although they remain marginal in relation to the usual institutional procedures, they nevertheless bear witness to a desire to broaden democracy, as part of its historical development. Pierre Rosanvallon has carried out an in-depth analysis of this historical evolution and in particular of the question of the representativeness of the entire population in a system that proceeds by election favouring the majority party (Rosanvallon, 2008). According to him, the democratic regimes of the United States of America and France have followed an evolution that has broadened their social base either through universal suffrage, the extension of the vote to women, or the creation of power control bodies intended to avoid the abuses that would inevitably result from the election of representatives of a majority party.

Societies themselves, rather than states, have explored the mobilisation of certain groups who, by organising gatherings of ‘citizens’, have attempted to intervene in public decisions. It was in the United States, in the 1960s, that this mode of mobilisation took shape with the initiatives undertaken by the philosopher John Dewey. This form of contribution to political decision-making has found expression in most European countries. It was reflected in the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus, 1998), to which the European Landscape Convention refers, and advocates the participation of the population in the process of engaging in landscape action, from the stage of identifying and characterising landscapes. In the 1990s, the social sciences debated the issue of consultation and participation and the methods they use; numerous publications were published and research programmes on this theme were launched. These publications have often focused on the collective arrangements that are formed around environmental issues and allow for debate between opposing groups in a local society. These mechanisms have sometimes been constructed by scientists themselves or by institutions as part of a project to develop or manage an environmental problem. During these years of participation, a debate arose on the role of experts vis-à-vis politics and civil society. During a conference on modelling at the Natures and Societies interface, Yves Le Bars spoke of the three ages of public decision-making: the first is that of the expert decision-maker to satisfy basic needs, the second is that in which the decision-maker mobilises several experts to respond to a challenge, and the third is that of the three-way dialogue - the decision-maker, the experts and the ‘others’. We could also say that the term « expert » is relatively vague, because in the field of landscape it can be landscape practitioners or scientists, which is very different. In this period of the beginning of the participation of the civil society in the public decision in landscape planning or environmental problems, a symposium took place with the title «  The experts are formal ", thus being part of a criticism of the role of the expert. This was the first period mentioned by Yves Le Bars, and it is true that a critical discourse on experts developed, sometimes a little caricatured. Since that period, the context has changed and participatory democracy and its variants have developed, without the role of the expert being completely clarified. Should the expert be a facilitator of the participation process ? Or a mediator? Or should he simply contribute his skills and knowledge to the elaboration of a common landscape project ? The question of mediation is subject to debate in the field of landscape : some researchers think that the landscape designer is above all a new mediator, others think that if mediation is a tool at the service of participation, the main thing is to achieve a landscape project improving the living conditions of the populations and thus the landscape designer should not abandon his status of designer. These are questions that could be part of the lines of thought that we propose to develop within the Council of Europe.

2 - Landscape and democracy of interaction

Such participatory projects require the mobilisation of participants over time; however, research and study credits are only provided for limited periods of time, which is contrary to the continuation of the conduct and animation of participation over time. Continuity raises the question of time and the gaps that exist between electoral times - often leading to a break in the experience of citizen participation - and the time of the experience : elected representatives are not immutable and their replacement at the time of an election can lead to a change in the priorities given to the actions undertaken or in their course, while the processes of debate justifying them and the exchange of information have not been completed.

« These two interactive processes of justification and exchange of information therefore form a much stronger and richer relationship than that established by a mandate. (…) It is certainly first of all through the constraint of justification and the circulation of information that the power comes closer to society. But citizens also feel stronger when they have a better understanding of the world, when they are better equipped to perceive the issues of the moment, to give language and meaning to what they experience. The feeling of distance, of confiscation is in fact also derived from ignorance. (…) When they feel more involved in this circulation of information and knowledge, citizens establish a new relationship with those in power. It is therefore a new social economy of proximity and, inseparably, of social control - of empowerment - that is at work in interaction democracy ’ (Rosanvallon, 2008).

The expression interaction democracy is different from the one most often used, participative democracy, and also from deliberative democracy, in the sense that it allows a permanent reflection of all the mobilized actors. This is why the landscape project considered as an open process and not limited in time is more relevant than the elaboration of a finished project like an architectural project. It allows actors not only to engage in a «  process of permanent exchanges, both between power and society and within society itself [the democracy of interaction thus exceeding] the classical distinction between participative democracy and deliberative democracy  » (Rosanvallon, 2008), but also to feed on the knowledge resulting from the analysis of the effects of the application of measures experimented in real scale: «  It is a ceaseless work of inclusion, reaction, interpretation. In this way, there is a certain desubstantialisation of politics, which in no way implies a de-sociologisation » (Rosanvallon, 2008). The democracy of interaction responds to the principle defended to justify the meaning of landscape as a product of an interaction between biophysical processes and social processes. Interaction can be completed by the notion of adjustment : it means that in the very course of the project process, the actors adjust their positions little by little, even if it means modifying them with the help of new knowledge resulting from experimental developments. History provides relevant lessons for understanding the notion of adjustment in the work of geographers, historians and archaeologists, who analyse the reactions of societies to crisis situations linked to the environment. The exploitation of a resource can indeed lead to a crisis situation because its withdrawal has been too intense and its stock is depleted.

When the resource is extracted, companies realise that the resource is running out for the continuation of an economic activity. The crisis is declared and societies then enter a phase of diminishing resource exploitation, followed by another phase of adjustment of their technical, social and political capacities: adjustment constitutes a moment and an opportunity for the recomposition of social forces, political institutions, economic activities and technical systems, which allows the start of a new phase of growth based on a new mode of resource exploitation. It becomes a mode of governance that implies transformations of the techniques used but also of the social and political configurations. Technology, a frequent refuge of the political world, is insufficient, even though it is systematically used to resolve an environmental crisis ; the problem of climate change has led to the emergence of a technological imagination that is likely to respond to the depletion of energy resources : recourse to renewable resources is often designated as the way of the future, even though it is the entire global social and political system that is at stake and that must be recomposed. Technology is often just a way out of the need to change the entire political and social system. Thus, the democracy of interaction opens up to an incessant cognitive, informational and social back-and-forth. As Edgar Morin puts it:

«  As soon as an individual undertakes an action, whatever it may be, it begins to escape his intentions. This action enters a universe of interactions and it is finally the environment that takes hold of it in a way that can become contrary to the initial intention. Often the action will come back like a boomerang on our head. This forces us to follow the action, to try to correct it (…)’ (Morin, 2005:106).

To follow the action, to try to correct it, this is the objective of landscape projects considered as continuous processes, where the action tries to influence the transformations in progress in the direction that the debate can bring out. But do all citizens want to debate? If governments need alternative forms of exercising democracy in order to respond to controversial situations, it is not certain that everyone will adhere to the solution of interaction democracy. And in the first place the political world, as we have already mentioned. Participatory democracy is often criticised by the elected representatives themselves, who consider it to be a drift away from representative democracy, or as a confusing way of disturbing the political game and the place of the elected representatives of the people in political decision-making.

It seems obvious that in the debates that take place during these experiments, speaking out is based on voluntary participation and raises the question of the representativeness of the participants and the pressure that categorical organisations can exert on the collective debate. What is the value of an action where the participants are not selected on a representative basis in relation to the local society concerned? This question raises many problems in the organisation of such actions and in their social and political relevance. Massimo Morisi distinguishes various categories of policies among which landscape plans can be included as public policies stemming from deliberative or argumentative democracy, alongside public policies stemming from the political sphere, those stemming from technocracy or those stemming from referendums. It also introduces other questions regarding the organisation of this form of participation (Morisi, 2008). First of all, that of the initiative: the difference between an action of proximity democracy undertaken by a political institution and that undertaken by an association of inhabitants born of the observation of a conflict situation is not insignificant. It introduces a doubt on the social validity of participation : not all the inhabitants of a place where a conflict situation has arisen participate ; but one can think that the representativeness of the participants does not constitute an obstacle in itself to the circulation of information. The main thing is that the participation action is undertaken, provided that it is sufficiently open ; in a given locality, information circulates by word of mouth and, quickly, the whole population is more or less informed of the debates that have taken place and whose holding bears witness to a controversy.

The debates can be enriched by informal conversations that take place outside the scheduled meetings. Today, the disaffection of citizens with politics is confirmed by a European survey which provides the following results :

These results show a very low level of confidence in elected representatives and political parties, which is confirmed both by the elections almost everywhere in Europe, in particular the European elections where abstention is high, and by the rise of extreme right-wing and extreme left-wing parties. They make it possible to understand the success, albeit relative, of participation operations around the landscape. But they are not self-evident and they require specific conditions to ensure a certain effectiveness.


The democracy/landscape relationship is a complex field which depends on multiple factors belonging to many fields of meaning. While experiences exist everywhere, both in Europe and in other states of the world, they do not apply 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 States of Europe, 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 mobilised. 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 is a « complex » of material and immaterial meanings that science has separated and thus reduced, to the point of making landscape action difficult, whereas 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).


To go further


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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