PAP 56 : Reading landscapes in the open air, learning to read our living environments together

Myriam Bouhaddane-Raynaud, March 2022

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 territorial planning policies. In this article, Myriam Bouhaddane-Raynaud, landscape architect at the CAUE du Gard, teaches us to read the landscape in the open air!

To download : article-56-collectif-pap_mb-1.pdf (11 MiB)

In general, the inhabitants of a territory love and know the place where they live. It is the daily space where they have their bearings and habits and which is the source of their feeling of belonging. This environment of everyday life is walked through and inhabited. It is not always perceived as a landscape, i.e. a real and highly personal whole whose components, values and reasons for change are not always clear to everyone. The notion of the common good often escapes us and the desire to take sides is not always shared.

At a time of ecological transition, which calls for a capacity to analyse and understand the realities of our environment and the way our society functions, it is important that the inhabitants succeed in taking a greater interest in this environment, in this common space where their lives take place and whose sustainability now depends on the change we all know how to make to our living habits. Elected representatives and local officials also know their territory without knowing how to measure the landscape issues. This notion, which is more abstract and less regulatory than the various competences they are responsible for, rarely seems to be a priority. In the answers to the questionnaire on the training and awareness of local elected representatives on landscape, carried out in June-July 2021 by the CGEDD among mayors and presidents of inter-municipalities, it appears that « landscape is very little associated with the territory project. …/… But more than four-fifths of the elected representatives who responded nevertheless feel the need to strengthen their skills or knowledge of the landscape. And « It is the commented field visits, at home or close to home, which are preferred as a type of training/awareness raising ».

Landscape is a resource of territory, a tool of knowledge and also of dialogue which allows to approach the territorial reality in a concrete way, to identify its components, its lines of force and its potentialities. Therefore, landscape reading, which has been practised for a long time by professionals, is obviously an efficient and easy way to approach these realities and to open the view of the different actors. As the first step in a process of landscape awareness, this tool contributes to the desired awareness and facilitates collective intelligence. The exercise takes place in the open air. It is generally led by a landscape architect who suggests that the group gathered that day in a given place observe it together to identify its characteristics and components, to listen to it and to be attentive to what emanates from it and what it makes us feel. The challenge is to express oneself, to understand what the other participants feel and then to succeed in sharing a set of elements of understanding. Landscape reading reveals, explains, questions and makes you think. Less abstract than conferences or workshops, it is richer in discoveries and surprises than an academic presentation.

This experience can take several forms depending on the time available, the subjects to be dealt with and the sensitivity of the facilitator. It can take place in a given place or along a route taken on foot, by bicycle, bus or train in an urban or rural setting. The visit can use historical and contemporary documents, maps, photos or plans, and be illustrated by stories, drawings or questionnaires. We present below the method used by the CAUE du Gard to engage inhabitants and elected officials in rural areas in this appropriation and sharing of a landscape culture. It is aimed at groups of 20 to 50 people over a period of about two hours, and concludes with a picnic during which the exchanges continue. The participants are led to a place from which the silhouette of a village can be observed, or to a high point where a vast panorama unfolds. The facilitator guides the discussion by asking questions of the group present to develop the answers and lead the debate. The method is user-friendly and involves the same steps, whatever the site.

Definition of the landscape and presentation of the method

Whether it is a question of reflecting on the evolution of urban planning on the scale of a village or a larger territory, those present are first asked to define the landscape. Their often elementary and laconic answers show them to be dumbfounded: « It’s what we see », « It’s everything that surrounds us », « It’s something we look at », « It’s nature », « It’s the countryside »… Clearly, the term is not in common use or widely shared.

The different components of this term are then presented. The landscape is first of all the geographical base: the relief, the geology, the soils, the hydrography, the climate. This ensemble constitutes a foundation on which adapted vegetation has developed (groves, forests, special agriculture) and from which the ancestral settlement of towns, villages and isolated farmhouses is built, while recent urbanisation has often been emancipated. The landscape is therefore the apparent part of nature and what man has done with it: a society has settled here to live, has cultivated the land, raised livestock, built farms, villages, laid out roads… The surfaces, volumes, shapes, colours, textures, materials, lights and details of all these elements are components of the landscape. From their diversity emanate atmospheres and harmonies that define the soul of a place.

The group of visitors has an open book in front of their eyes, showing a multitude of present and past elements. The landscape is a mirror of society. It is at the same time a real country, a real space and a real territory, and also a look, a felt spectacle, an image appreciated or not by each one according to his sensitivity. The concrete reality of the surrounding environment is perceived by sight, hearing, smell and touch, enriched by the link to memories and emotions. As Régis Ambroise, an expert with the Council of Europe, says in the report « Landscape and responsibility » (11th Council of Europe conference on the European Landscape Convention, 26 and 27 May 2021): « As a place of life for people and a place of discovery for visitors, the landscape is everyone’s business ». A notion that brings people together, for the well-being of all. To read a landscape is to take the time to understand the subtle interactions between nature and culture that have been woven over time, interactions that take on their meaning from the way we look at them. To read a landscape is to learn to capture the messages it sends us. Combining sensitive and subjective immediacy with reasoned elaboration, linking the individual to the collective and the imaginary to the real, reading a landscape therefore involves different levels. The sensory approach is spontaneous, immediate and does not require any particular knowledge. The aesthetic approach is not for everyone. Calling for a specific disposition, it is easily adopted once one has grasped the possibility of resorting to it and a few entry keys. The cognitive approach, finally, is based on knowledge, some of which was acquired at college. Others, more specialized, are the competence of landscape and planning professionals. When we look at a landscape, these different approaches interfere with each other. They are born simultaneously and a more or less conscious back and forth makes us spontaneously pass from one register to the other. During the exercise, we are led to distinguish these modalities of our apprehension to analyse the complex process of our perception of the landscape.

Sensitive reading, the one that calls for emotions

The participants are invited to express what they feel in front of the panorama proposed to them: without forgetting the smells and sounds, what goes through their mind, what they like or don’t like, their emotions, what they want to say. The most common answers remain: « It’s beautiful », « I like… » or « I don’t like…", « It reminds me of…", « It’s my home », « It’s quiet ». This first sensitive reading is descriptive and individual. It emanates from the subjectivity of the observer, due to the impact that the sight of the site induces in his memory as well as through the associations of ideas born from the atmosphere of the place. The landscape finds an echo in individual values of appropriation and memory traces. Charged with an aesthetic and emotional dimension linked to the history and sensitivity of each individual, it belongs to the eye and to the soul of the beholder. Each individual has been shaped by intimate and familiar childhood landscapes. These are often so-called ordinary landscapes, but they are inhabited and magnified by the emotional and cultural dimension. The sensitive reading of space is strongly emotional, affective, sentimental, even imaginary. It is made up of an interaction between reality and the senses, between the visible and the invisible, the figurative and the imagined, a dialogue as old as consciousness. « The invisible harmony is more than the manifest harmony » said Heraclitus at the end of the 6th century BC. This reading is also fleeting, sometimes elusive and difficult to transmit. All means are good to achieve it, words, drawings, photos, prose, poetry, painting, music, cinema… Everyone will find their own way. This sensitive reading and the sharing of emotions that it gives rise to create a special atmosphere in the group. The barriers of convention were broken down. Everyone was able to confide in each other and lose their masks. Communication was born. Mental projections were shared. The group is made up of sensitive beings who have a story. Seizing this dimension of subjectivity that belongs to each person creates a climate of respect and understanding to be built.

Aesthetic reading grasps the plasticity of the landscape

A landscape can be understood as a set of shapes, colours, volumes, textures and lights. The aesthetics of the landscape knows how to describe the relationship between form and emotion, between the spatial arrangements as we see them, and their repercussion in the sensibility. The group is asked to analyse the landscape in front of them. Large or small, its scale induces various modes of apprehension, a feeling of calm, of wonder, of freedom or humility, of melancholy, of boredom, or of solitude in front of large open landscapes. Conversely, closed landscapes, where the gaze is quickly arrested, give rise to feelings of intimacy, comfort, protection, or else unease, fear or oppression. The perceived beauty of a landscape is often linked to the articulation of the elements of its composition, which may or may not be harmonious. Depending on its weakness or importance, the number of elements of which it is made will catch the eye or not, and give more or less character and strength to the landscape. The distribution of the elements and their proportion can be balanced, confused, chaotic or even disturbing. Some landmarks attract our attention, lead us and guide us. Conversely, black spots are elements that disturb and create a visual nuisance. Lines are omnipresent, they structure the space strongly, give it depth and also arouse emotions of calm, balance and serenity for the horizontals; of nobility, pride, power but also humility for the verticals; of tension, dynamism and quest for the diagonals; and finally of softness, friendliness or dream for the curves. The planes are situated at different distances and materialise the depth of the landscape. The shapes can be simple, regular, attractive or not. Volumes can close, balance, accompany, support, punctuate, and are readily evaluated according to their relationship with the surfaces. Colours have an emotional impact linked to culture. In Europe, green symbolises calm, nature and hope, blue the infinity of the sky and sea, and also peace. White is refined, reds and yellows tonic, pinks tender. The landscapes have a texture whose grain evokes matter, be it vegetable, mineral or aquatic. Their contrasts result from dynamic oppositions between colours, shapes or materials, while the harmonies result from their convergence. This reading exercise confirms that the landscape is constructed by cultural codes and refers to collective values. Within the group, aesthetic judgements are often concordant. If the appreciation of the beautiful and the ugly emanates from an eminently personal appreciation, it is also the result of a social and cultural consensus which is blatantly revealed during the evaluation of landscapes.

Cognitive reading to approach the understanding of place

A given place is defined by its geography, its history, its culture, its economy, its current situation and its development trends. The participants are asked to state what they know about their territory, from which they can deepen the fundamental aspects that allow us to understand the landscape. The relief structures the space, defines altitudes, flat or sloping surfaces, differently exposed to the sun and the wind. Hydrography describes the water regime that irrigates the landscape, creating flood zones and defining living areas. Geology gives the keys to the structure of the earth’s base. The climate distributes its sunshine and rainfall. Soil science distinguishes between rich, poor, calcareous, acidic, clayey, silty or sandy soils. It determines the types of woodland and agriculture, as well as the areas suitable for the establishment of towns and villages with their traditional architecture resulting from a logic of adaptation (presence of water, preservation of good land, protection against wind and flooding) and economic (defensive, agricultural, industrial, port, commercial logic, etc.). Recent urban development, industrial sites and infrastructure networks have been established by public decisions that have gradually become emancipated from these site logics due to the technical means linked to oil energy. All of these components are organised into landscape units, i.e. portions of the territory whose own characteristics and dynamics constitute as many sub-sets within the territory.

The public is then asked to imagine the landscape in fifty years. Because of global warming, what will be the future of agriculture? How will urban development continue? What will happen to the forest? What energy transition?

This third level of reading is the most important part of the exercise. It enables the participants to appreciate the fact that the current state of a territory is the result of a balance between multiple components, a balance that is essentially evolving and linked to the priority given to certain values or factors over which man has no control. The participants then became aware that the landscape is « manufactured » by a complexity of private and public actions and that each person, in his or her own field, contributes or not to its quality and identity.

The qualitative synthesis

By way of conclusion, a synthesis is proposed to summarise, based on the previous exchanges, the quality of the panorama contemplated. The main affects felt are evoked: escape, appeasement, calm, peace, but also threats, danger. The aesthetic criteria recalled: harmonies, balance, homogeneity, conflicts, black spots, banalization. The coherence of the place is described from the meaning and logic of human actions (agricultural, urban, industrial…). The uniqueness of the place is evoked: its originality, its singularity due to the combination of this geomorphology and the human actions developed locally. From this comes its identity, its essence, made of the intrinsic elements of its culture, ensuring its authenticity. The intelligence of this place is due to the adaptation of man to the territory, total or partial, ancient or recent. The spirit of the place, its soul, its atmosphere result from this. Its challenges then appear: a fragile heritage to be preserved, threats to be combated, an ecological and energy transition, potentially conducive to amenity, to be invented.

The participants’ reactions

This exercise, often proposed by the CAUE, is generally appreciated, which encourages the continuation of this type of training/awareness-raising. Taken on the spot, the words of the inhabitants evoke a diversity of positive reactions. « The work on feelings is very interesting, it’s nice to start from there ». « I liked talking about the colours, the lines, in relation to the views observed and the atmosphere that emerges. « Strangely enough, I think the place lent itself well to this because in the end it allowed us to talk about many things. « A landscape analysis like that is a great idea. I really liked its detailed development ». « Seeing what shocks in a landscape and being aware of it for the future is of interest to me as an elected official in particular. « We start from nothing and in two hours we have a lot of information about our community. « I had never heard of territorial intelligence. « There is not much to change, except that I would like to develop the specific data of the village by explaining its evolution and its current state a little more. « We sometimes had different readings and approaches and this is very interesting in the interactivity ». « It is a good experience that I am ready to do again and to advise ». « It makes you wonder about what makes up our environment ». « It transforms the way we look at things, it allows us to understand and it makes us want to pass it on ». « Understanding allows you to appreciate it ». « I will never again look at the landscape as I did before ». « It was a really good time ».

Generalities of the method, interest of the exercise

Landscape readings involving a diversity of participants on a given site are practised in different contexts and by many professionals. These group visits allow people to observe, feel and try to understand a place, an exercise that most people are not used to. By putting words to their landscape, they become more attentive to it and appropriate it in a different way. Sharing the same reality, they feel better what values link them to each other. The realisation that the landscape is a common good shared by all strengthens the feeling of belonging and raises awareness of the rights and duties of everyone. Hearing that landscape transformations are not an incomprehensible inevitability, but the result of identifiable intentions and choices, enlightens minds and encourages civic responsibility to commit to a more beautiful, more attractive and more respectful future for our planet. This journey allows us to evoke the dimension of history, of the earth’s environment and of the general interest, a moment of distance offering a global vision of our society and allowing us to develop a critical mind. By looking at and understanding their territory in a different way, the inhabitants are better equipped to mobilise, participate in projects and argue their opinions. This exercise thus fully meets the objectives set out in the « Landscape and responsibility » report mentioned above, such as « developing a precise awareness of the natural and human singularities of the territories », « involving the populations » or « daring to speak about beauty ».

This awareness-raising tool is interesting and effective for both elected officials and the population, local associations and professionals. In addition to its contribution in terms of general citizen culture in a society in transition, the landscape reading is an interesting tool to start a planning reflection. It is often used upstream of the PLU, PLUI and SCOT processes, of operations to restore the green and blue grid at the communal or inter-communal level, in the context of the integration and acceptance of renewable energy projects, or even the requalification of industrial or commercial wastelands, the densification of a suburban fabric, etc. Widely used by organisations whose mission includes raising awareness among inhabitants (CAUE, PNR, urban planning agencies, etc.) and, more generally, training citizens for a resilient world, this tool will develop in line with the challenges of ecological, environmental and democratic transition that our societies are in the process of taking up.


To go further


  • Sensibilisation et formation des élus locaux dans le domaine du paysage. Mission n°013812-01. Note d’étape. Enseignements à tirer des réponses au questionnaire. Octobre 2021. CGEDD.

  • Rapport “Paysage et responsabilité” et projet de recommandation. Document du Secrétariat Général du Conseil de l’Europe, Direction de la participation démocratique. Conseil de l’Europe, Convention Européenne du Paysage. 11e conférence du conseil de l’Europe sur la Convention Européenne du Paysage. 26 et 27 mai 2021.

  • Plaquette “Les paysages d’Occitanie, une ressource pour la transition écologique”. Collection Paysages d’Occitanie / Février 2021. DREAL Occitanie. Les CAUE d’Occitanie.