• Park Cultural Landscapes

Cultural Landscapes

Frequently Asked Questions

A historic cemetery on Baker Island within Acadia National Park.
A historic cemetery on Baker Island within Acadia National Park.

What are cultural landscapes?
Cultural landscapes are a part of the fabric of America’s heritage.  They’re defined as any lands public or private, large or small, with historic significance (or importance in American history) and historic integrity (or physical authenticity).  These lands are eligible for listing or are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the NPS has a federal leadership role in preserving them.  Cultural landscapes reflect our multi-generational ties to the land as expressions of our need to grow food, give form to our settlements, enjoy places to recreate and have special places to bury our deceased.  America has a rich legacy of cultural landscapes, from scenic parkways to battlefields, formal gardens to cattle ranches, cemeteries and pilgrimage routes to village squares and industrial areas. 

What are the types of cultural landscapes?

Meridian Hill Park in Washington, DC is a nationally significant example of a historic designed landscape.
Meridian Hill Park in Washington, DC is a nationally
significant example of a historic designed landscape.

Cultural landscapes are complex cultural resources, and the NPS recognizes four general kinds of cultural landscape, though these are not mutually exclusive: historic site, historic designed landscape, historic vernacular landscape, and ethnographic landscape.  These categories are helpful in identifying the values that distinguish cultural landscapes as cultural resources and in determining how they should be treated, managed and interpreted.

Historic designed landscapes are deliberate artistic creations reflecting recognized styles, such as the twelve-acre Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C., with its French and Italian Renaissance garden features.  Designed landscapes also include those associated with important persons, trends, or events in the history of landscape architecture, such as Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts and the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina.

Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve is an example of a nationally significant vernacular cultural landscape.
Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve is an example of a nationally significant vernacular cultural landscape.

Historic vernacular landscapes illustrate peoples' values and attitudes toward the land and reflect patterns of settlement, use, and development over time.  Vernacular landscapes are found in large rural areas as well as small suburban and urban districts. Agricultural areas, fishing villages, mining districts, and homesteads are examples.  The 17,400-acre rural landscape of Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve represents a continuum of land use spanning more than a century.  It has been continually reshaped by its inhabitants, yet the historic mix of farm, forest, village, and shoreline have remained intact since the period of significance (the period for which the landscape is historically significant).

The Agiak Lake Caribou Hunting Landscape within Gates of the Artic National Park and Preserve is an example of a locally significant ethnographic cultural landscape.
The Agiak Lake Caribou Hunting Landscape within Gates of the Artic National Park and Preserve is an example of a locally significant ethnographic cultural landscape.

Ethnographic landscapes are associated with contemporary groups and typically are used or valued in traditional ways.  In the expansive Alaska parks, Native Alaskans hunt, fish, trap, and gather and imbue features with spiritual meanings.  Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Louisiana illustrates the strong interrelationship between the dynamic natural system of the Delta region and several cultural groups through many generations.  Numerous cultural centers maintain ties to distinctive, long-established communities with ethnic identities.

The residential property of presidents John and John Quincy Adams within Adams National Historical Park is an example of a nationally significant historic site.
The residential property of presidents John and John Quincy Adams within Adams National Historical Park is an example of a nationally significant historic site.

Historic sites are significant for their associations with important events, activities, and persons. Presidential homes and battlefields, such as the Big Hole National Battlefield in Montana, are prominent examples.  In these areas, existing features and conditions are defined and interpreted primarily in terms of what happened there at particular times in the past.

Frijoles Canyon, a cultural landscape within Bandelier National Monument, was shaped by Ancestral Pueblo people from 1150-1600.
Frijoles Canyon, a cultural landscape within Bandelier National Monument, was shaped by Ancestral Pueblo people from 1150-1600.

What is the special role of the National Park Service in the preservation of cultural landscapes?
Numerous laws, NPS policies, standards and guidelines charge the NPS with the responsibility of preserving cultural landscapes and other historic properties in the national parks while assisting other federal agencies, states, municipalities and partners in their preservation efforts. The role of the NPS as the lead federal historic preservation agency stems from the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966, requiring the secretary of the interior acting through the director of the NPS, to expand and maintain a National Register of Historic Places; establish professional qualifications and standards for the implementation of historic preservation; and require a process be followed to take into account the effect of undertakings with federal funds on historic properties (Section 106).

What is the role of the NPS Park Cultural Landscapes Program?
The NPS Park Cultural Landscapes Program serves to develop, implement, and oversee a NPS-wide program involving staff in the national parks, regional offices, centers, and the service's Washington office with a spectrum of roles dedicated to the preservation mission. 

The role of the Washington office is to provide leadership, oversight, and coordination of all activities related to the preservation and protection of cultural landscapes, and

Oakland Plantation within Cane River National Historical Park was a French Creole cotton plantation from 1789 to 1997.
Oakland Plantation within Cane River National Historical Park was a French Creole cotton plantation from 1789 to 1997.
  • To develop and monitor the application of regulations, standards, policies, and guidelines for research, planning, and stewardship of cultural landscapes;
  • To implement strategic planning to for the Program’s mission, vision, goals, and objectives;
  • To seek partnerships with internal and external constituencies to preserve cultural landscapes;
  • To improve the frequency and quality of treatments of cultural landscapes and lower administrative costs;
  • To develop and implement the Cultural Landscapes Inventory (CLI), a comprehensive resource inventory of all cultural landscapes in the national parks;
  • To provide technical assistance to regions, parks, and partners on complex cultural landscape preservation issues; and
  • To organize, deliver, and participate in professional training opportunities about all aspects of cultural landscape preservation.

  • The role of the Regional Offices and Centers is to monitor the application of laws, regulations, management policies, director’s orders, handbooks and standards, and:

    • Undertake more intensive treatment projects;
    • Provide professional services and technical assistance to the parks including preparation of a General Management Plan (GMP) or a planning portfolio including the Foundation Document (FD), Cultural Landscape Reports (CLR) and construction drawings and specifications;
    • Maintain the CLI for parks in their region;
    • Review and comment on documents prepared by other offices; and
    • Organize, deliver and participate in employee development opportunities.

    The role of the Parks is to implement the application of laws, regulations, management policies, director’s orders, handbooks and standards, and:

    • Protect the resources;
    • Perform preservation maintenance and in some cases more intensive treatments;
    • Undertake park planning including preparation of resource management plans;
    • Seek sufficient funds and staff for research, planning and stewardship activities;
    • Review and recommend documents prepared by other offices;
    • Conduct NEPA and NHPA Section 106 compliance; and
    • Seek partnerships with external constituencies to preserve their resources.