Landscape and democracy: factors of success or failure 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.

The success or failure of participatory operations on landscape depends on many factors. These factors belong to very different worlds and some of them have already been examined, such as the political game of the elected representatives who do not always see these experiences in a good light because they call into question, through the necessary time of debate, their capacity to take decisions that ensure them a new election; because they sow confusion in their vision of representative democracy and because they rely on a definition of landscape that does not correspond to their conception, which is closer to protection. Considering landscape as a project has not yet entered the political world, although some experiences have been successful, such as the landscape plan of Saint-Flour in France implemented by the landscape architect Alain Marguerit in 1993 and which he continues to follow regularly, thus confirming the continuous character of the landscape project in time. In the Netherlands, Lifescape is an operation based on the commitment to new practices favourable to landscape maintenance and sustainable development. This type of operation supported by the European Union is taking place in several European countries. Lifescape is based on a landscape approach that attempts to influence economic and social transformation processes that are favourable to the living environment and conditions of local populations:

« Change implies a reaction. Our landscapes, the people and nature that are part of them, the economic exchanges they support, all change rapidly. Lifescape - Your Landscape is a response to this change. To meet this challenge, this programme seeks to bring people together across national boundaries to drive innovation, establish best practice and demonstrate an effective approach. So on the one hand Lifescape involves human nature and focuses on the connections that people have, or could have, with each other and with the landscapes around them. On the other hand it is about using these links and applying them to concrete cases of sustainable management of rural landscapes.

Negotiated landscape action is thus no longer applied directly to landscape elements, but to processes of landscape transformation and to the way of thinking about the landscape. Lifescape - Your landscape does not only try to stop landscape changes that are considered to be harmful to the quality of life and living conditions of the inhabitants or nearby populations, but it has also initiated numerous educational operations or cultural events that can also influence landscape conceptions. It innovates by introducing new practices for maintaining economic activities that are favourable to quality landscapes:

« Lifescape - Your Landscape guides you in exploring new ways to enjoy the rural landscape, while preserving its beauty and cultural and historical value. Fourteen partners in five European countries are working together and sharing their experiences to achieve new approaches for the long-term preservation of their landscapes.

1 - The context

The context in which participation operations are carried out is also a key issue: the forms of participation may differ depending on whether the process takes place in a rural landscape, an urban landscape or a peri-urban landscape. Experiences exist in all three cases in many European states; they differ in form, if only because the sharing of knowledge by inhabitants is not identical. The relative anonymity of urban residents is not necessarily conducive to the emergence of spontaneous participation processes, yet experiences show that mobilisations can appear on the initiative of neighbourhood associations: in Paris, an association has thus provoked a debate with the Paris City Council leading to the creation of the Jardins d’Éole, an urban park on a space abandoned by railway activity. In the city, neighbourhood committees to which residents are invited have also been created. However, since the initiative came from the elected representatives, there was some reluctance on the part of the inhabitants, who were suspicious of actions originating from the political world.

In rural areas, the inter-knowledge of the inhabitants is often more developed and can contribute to a situation of better participation; but sometimes it is also a source of opposition inherited from history, of neighbourhood conflicts that lead to blockages that are not conducive to public debate. The populations are often older and less inclined to take part in a debate, more distrustful than in the city where there are more young people. The case of the suburbs, where there is a mix of old and new populations, is perhaps even different. But generally speaking, in the absence of an evaluation of current experiences, it is still difficult to draw generalizable conclusions. In all situations, initiating a participation process is less easy than one might think and needs to be carefully considered, or it may be the initiative of an association movement, an artists’ community, a local collective or other. The development of participation has not yet reached a stage of maturity: it is perhaps necessary to wait until the current experiences have produced their positive or negative effects so that the new ones can be nourished by the lessons of the first. In order to give concrete expression to the multiplicity of experiences of participation in the field of landscape, information on the work of the French Ministry of Ecology’s « Paysage et développement durable » programme is presented in the appendix. This programme has enabled at least six teams to engage in research projects with a participatory dimension. Two of them have carried out an analytical inventory of these experiences on a European scale.

2 - The contribution of knowledge

The contribution of knowledge to the participatory process is also an unresolved question: what form should this contribution take? At what point in the process should the knowledge of practitioners or scientists be brought in: at the beginning of the process or when specific questions emerge on a given theme? The process itself generates new knowledge that contributes to the debate and can influence decisions. Scientific knowledge is often difficult to understand by inhabitants and this is an argument that landscape practitioners use to dismiss researchers working on participation processes. Between scholarly knowledge and empirical knowledge, there are indeed discrepancies that can disturb the knowledge sharing game between the participation actors. However, empirical knowledge is often used by scientists to ensure an evaluation of plant or animal species in a territory, as ecologists do when they count birds or mammals in a given territory, just as social sciences collect testimonies from inhabitants to understand their social representations of the landscape or to find out about risk areas memorised by the oldest people, or about flood areas or avalanche corridors. In the urban landscape, sociologists, anthropologists and geographers interview the inhabitants and manage to understand the conflicts of use or ethnic conflicts in a district.

Research programmes conducted by the French Ministry of Ecology have examined several experiences of participation in various environments; they reveal many factors of success or failure. A first lesson from the analysis of these experiments, which were conducted in various French regions and which were also studied in other countries, is that some of them, often in the hands of artists’ or architects’ collectives, aim to bring together the inhabitants of an urban district in festive events but do not lead to a concrete project; they merely organise conviviality and inter-activity between inhabitants without involving them in the adventure of developing a collective project. In a way, these collectives are successful with elected officials precisely because the operations they propose do not have a real development project and because they leave them free to develop this project as they wish under the guise of participation.

3 - The animation and the outcome of the landscape project

In an operation carried out in a town on the banks of the Loire, the people in charge also emphasise the participation process, while assuming that this is the main thing and that the outcome of a development project is secondary. However, in the end, they recognise that this project is important because it has mobilised a section of the population, who have created an association for the embellishment of their commune. This is indeed a pitfall that we consider to be a risk: if the participation process is crucial, it must nevertheless reach a compromise on a project that can satisfy all the actors. The objective of these participation operations is to bring the process to a successful conclusion with a view to improving the living environment of the population and not to bring them together solely to create social links, even if these are very important. The facilitation of the participation process is a condition for success and the people in charge of these operations, most of them landscape practitioners, while being mediators, must not abandon their mission as designers. This question of facilitation is fundamental and the status of the facilitator must be precisely defined: should he or she be a full participant in the operation, for example a practitioner or a scientist? Should he or she be independent and not have any responsibility for the measures envisaged, contenting himself or herself with the simple role of facilitator, as some conference leaders seem to think by calling on journalists?

The Vall de Camprodon operation that took place in Spanish Catalonia resulted in a landscape charter negotiated by many local, private and public partners, and led to a programme of landscape actions signed by all the actors who participated collectively in its development (Mallarach, 2010). Inspired by the European Landscape Convention, this charter sets the landscape quality objectives shared by these various stakeholders. It innovates in relation to the usual process for this type of document, which, starting with a diagnosis, leads to the development of a landscape project based on a range of operations designed to « give meaning » to the landscape and define a « new identity ». Although the action programme starts with the definition of landscape quality objectives, it has not yet fully entered into an organised and permanent process of participation by the inhabitants, although many local associations have participated in the meetings organised by the municipality of Camprodon. Here we find the question of the meaning given to the landscape, although the question of identity is subject to discussion. The meaning that the project process gives to the landscape is fundamental: it allows us to distance ourselves from the problems posed by the aesthetic dimension that is difficult to negotiate. This is one of the problems facing properties on the World Heritage List: in the category of natural properties, criterion VII, which refers to the outstanding natural beauty of an area of nature, is probably the most debated issue in the world organisations linked to UNESCO, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). In order to avoid relying on a very complex definition of natural aesthetics and often with reference to academic canons, the IUCN, in a joint study with ICOMOS, indeed insists on the meaning given to the natural landscape (IUCN, 2013). Other questions arise, such as the validation of decisions, the dissemination of the content and conclusions of debates, the forms of restitution of decisions, the interaction between local forms of local democracy and debates on a regional, national or international scale, etc. These are avenues to be explored, which could feed into the discussions within the meetings of the Council of Europe concerning the implementation of the European Landscape Convention.

4 - Evaluation of participatory projects

There remains the question of the evaluation of projects; the validation of the different stages of the participation process is part of it and it is essential, because it allows the participants to recognise the fruit of their commitment. But it is surprising that many projects claiming to be landscape projects have never been subjected to an evaluation of their real effects on the landscape. The French ministry responsible for landscape issues has however initiated a research programme on the evaluation of public policies on landscape. If we consider that the landscape project is comparable to a process that feeds on the knowledge it produces itself, it also offers an evaluation phase in its course: the lessons learned from the project process constitute a means of evaluating the effects of the project; they continuously inform the project actors of the effects of the measures taken and implemented and make it possible to modify or correct them as the project progresses. The project process ensures a feedback loop: as Jean-François Seguin (2008) shows, the landscape project constitutes a territorial process which starts with knowledge, goes through the definition of landscape quality objectives and then through the elaboration of protection, management or development measures, followed by the assessment, monitoring and evaluation phase which, in return, feeds the knowledge, giving a new impulse to the action influenced by what the process has provided as new knowledge.


The democracy/landscape relationship is a complex area that 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 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 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)


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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