Landscape and democracy: contemporary forms of participatory democracy applied 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 - Diverse and sometimes spontaneous experiences

Participatory experiences involving landscape emerged in the 1990s and developed after this decade. They accompanied social movements that appeared in Europe around problems of quality of life threatened by facilities or developments deemed contrary to the well-being of the populations concerned. In France, work carried out in the Côtes d’Armor region has made it possible to identify one of these spontaneous experiences which took place in a small catchment area: the Mission d’initiative rurale, a local association, organised a demonstration on the problem of water quality degraded by the spreading of liquid manure from livestock farms; it invited the inhabitants of the communes bordering the river in question to a festival on its banks. After the festival, the participants went for a walk along the river and were asked to observe the existing hedges, the locations of old hedges that had been cut down and those where it would be important to replant them ; the farmers present discussed and more or less agreed with the observations made.

After the festival, the association began to make proposals for the replanting of hedges by convincing the farmers to participate. Its action took the form of a festive event where the debate took place in a convivial manner and the result was the replanting of hedges discussed in common ; since then, the association has provided farmers with aerial photographs of their farms with the layout of the hedges, which they can thus follow the evolution. These movements are close to the experiments that the social sciences attempted in the same years, inspired by spontaneous actions born in contexts of opposition to political decisions. During work carried out in the Dordogne valley in 1993, landscape workshops were organised from the same perspective as Mairie-conseils. They followed a vast study of the landscapes of the Dordogne valley, which had a scientific experimental dimension by carrying out a survey of the 284 communes of the valley to identify the landscapes of local interest, the transformations perceived locally and the individual and collective, public and private projects known in each commune; these elements were mapped on a scale of 1:25,000, and it was on this basis that the « landscape workshops » took place with the elected representatives, the technicians of the administrations concerned and the inhabitants. This experience was reported in the conclusions of the first workshops of the European Landscape Convention, held in Strasbourg. We will only draw the essential lessons from them.

These workshops began with a collective visit to the chosen territory (five municipalities representing approximately the space of a landscape unit), during which the participants could exchange their knowledge of landscape transformations in situ by commenting on them. They were followed by workshops in the room, allowing the formalization of the state of affairs on the maps previously established by the survey : each participant was invited to add his or her own additions to the maps. The maps were modified and validated at the next meeting ; this is an important step that seals the recognition of a document taking on the status of a body of shared knowledge. The negotiation process around a collective development project was based on the exchange and sharing of information, starting from a common concern : the quality of the river water worried the elected representatives, due to the decision of the Public Health Administration to close down a 2,000-place campsite following the presence of bacteria dangerous to the health of bathers. Without going into the details of the meetings, it is important to stress the importance of starting the negotiation process on a concrete fact that makes sense for the community and on which it is then possible to explain the various urban, ecological and agricultural consequences of this issue of water quality, such as the high cost of the drinking water supply network if the houses are scattered, for example. This debate thus amounts to a gradual reconstitution of the landscape of the portion of the valley concerned and the assembly recognises the need to control the territory by planning documents or by specific measures, but respecting the globality of the territory. Each person contributed ideas to remedy the problems they had identified together and gradually a collective project was developed that could be considered a landscape project. The lessons learned from this experience are the following :

In any case, this type of participative approach brings valuable lessons for the contribution of the populations to the collective experience of elaboration of a landscape project in the framework of democracy.

2 - From contestation to project

In Italy, Mauro Varotto and Ludovico Visentin (2008) have analysed such movements, which are appearing in the Veneto region: they have drawn up a map of the committees (comitati) that have been formed to fight against new installations of contested facilities ; these committees, which numbered 108 in 2000, were divided into two categories :

The two Italian geographers note that this second category has developed at the expense of the first. In a decade, the committees have gone from protest to proposal, and their number now reaches 253. In addition, they have become more spatially based, moving to a supralocal scale or organising themselves on a regional scale by contacting each other through social networks, thus forming more powerful groupings in the face of local and regional administrations. By organising at a lower scale, they have also changed their meaning, moving towards organisations with a civic purpose or the defence of grassroots democracy :

«  (…) their desire for environmental quality, civic awareness, social justice and sustainability of economic development processes constitutes the cultural challenge of the new respect for the civic environment.  » (Varotto and Visentin, 2008).

« In many cases, the protest of the committees is transformed into a political proposal, structuring it into a broader project of alternative territorial development, which intervenes in the commissions to orient the administration of territorial planning » (Varotto and Visentin, 2008:6).

This evolution is also noted by Pierre Rosanvallon, who points out that ‘ in the 1960s and 1970s, the reference to participatory democracy was made by social movements that demanded a new distribution of power (…) The issue is no longer the same at the beginning of the 20th century’ (Rosanvallon, 2008). According to him, governments need these alternative movements, which fulfil a role in transmitting information or in unblocking controversial situations. However, by stating that they are ‘ almost always set up by governments themselves ', Rosanvallon omits spontaneous movements that do not originate from the political or scientific world, and in particular from the social sciences, but appear on the occasion of a conflict situation or a problem posed to society on a given scale, such as the Venetian committees, thus innovating in the relationship between landscape and democracy. They are part of the group of alternative associations that are springing up everywhere. Their particularity lies in the use of landscape as a support for civic claims for the improvement of the living environment, combining the desire for greater social justice with the demand for sustainable development and the recognition of the emotional and aesthetic values of the territory in which they emerge. Numerous examples could be mentioned. What can be retained from these lessons is undoubtedly the diversity of democratic forms of participation linked to landscape. But also the obvious progression of the passage from contestation to project which, more and more, takes the appearance of a continuous process, although the political and financial conditions of its implementation do not always allow it. The factors of success or failure of these experiments whose approaches have evolved since their appearance on the social scene will now be examined.


The democracy/landscape relationship is a complex area that depends on multiple factors belonging to many fields of meaning. Experiences exist everywhere, both in Europe and in other states of the world, but 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