Cultural Landscapes 101

Cultural Landscape 101 posters - combined - thumbnail
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Get to know some of the basics of NPS cultural landscapes with this "Cultural Landscapes 101."

These posters introduce the fundamental concepts of defining and caring for cultural landscapes in the National Park System.

What are Cultural Landscapes?

Cultural landscapes are historically significant places that show evidence of human interaction with the physical environment. Their authenticity is measured by historical integrity, or the presence and condition of physical characteristics that remain from the historic period.

As identified by the National Park Service, cultural landscapes are places within U.S. national parks that have significance in American history and authenticity to a historic time period. The components of park cultural landscapes include human-modified ecosystems such as forests, prairies, rivers and shores; as well as constructed works, such as mounds, terraces, structures and gardens.
Sketch graphic of scene suggesting cultural resources context
Cultural landscapes are part of a system of cultural resources in the National Park System, which preserves the evident remains of history and culture. Research, planning, and stewardship activities are organized around these resource areas.

The five cultural resource areas of the National Park Service are:

  • cultural landscapes
  • historic structures
  • archeology
  • museum collections
  • ethnographic resources
Sketch of farm landscape with fields, fence, and barn

Where are they?

The majority of national park units contain cultural landscapes, and there are more than 800 throughout the system.

An entire park may be a single cultural landscape, such as Big Hole National Battlefield. Some parks, like the Blue Ridge Parkway, contain many cultural landscapes.

What do they look like?

The NPS identifies four cultural landscape types: historic designed, historic vernacular, historic agricultural, and ethnographic. Their appearance varies widely, representing a range of uses, events, time periods, and environments.
Urban-Rural comparison graphic for CL101
They can be found anywhere, from cities to wilderness.

They vary in size, from many thousands of acres to less than an acre.

They range in age, from thousands of years to just decades old.

They vary from naturally-occurring places like Devils Tower in Wyoming, to human-designed places like the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in Missouri.
Setting mash-up graphic for CL101 - Devils Tower and Jefferson National Expansion Memorial
Integrity graphic for CL101 - Then and Now sketch of street

Integrity and Significance

Cultural landscapes have authenticity, or historic integrity. This means that they are recognizable as the places of the historically significant period.

Cultural landscapes have significance in American history. Their significance, from the National Register of Historic Places Criteria for Evaluation, can be associated with:
  • a historic event
  • a historic person
  • a historic style of design or method of construction
  • a potential to reveal further information through archeology.
Four areas of historical significance - sketch graphic

Landscape Characteristics

If the characteristics and features of a cultural landscape are historically significant and have integrity, they can contribute to the historic character of the property.

Landscape characteristics are evidence of historic processes or patterns. They are physical expressions of both tangible and intangible aspects of a place that have either influenced the history of a landscape's development, or are products of its development.

The National Park Service recognizes thirteen types of landscape characteristics that can potentially be found in any cultural landscape:
Cliffs of the Canyon de Chelly National Monument are natural features of the cultural landscape
Processes and materials in nature that have influenced historical modification or use of the land. This can include human response to geomorphology, geology, hydrology, ecology, climate, and native vegetation.

In this image: People have lived, raised livestock, and farmed in the canyons of Canyon de Chelly National Monument for nearly 5,000 years.
Spatial organization graphic at San Juan National Historic Site
The overall layout of spaces and the arrangement of physical forms and visual associations. This might include how other landscape characteristics - like circulation systems, views and vistas, areas of land use, and clusters of structures - define spaces within the landscape.

In this image: An aerial view of San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico shows the organization and relationships between La Fortaleza (the first fortification built in Old San Juan), city walls, the city of Old San Juan, and the surrounding water of San Juan Bay.
Land Use graphic for CL101 - Grand Teton
Activities in the landscape that have formed, modified, shaped, or organized the landscape as a result of human interaction. Examples of land use features include fields, pastures, orchards, open range, terraces, commons, cemeteries, playing fields, parks, mining areas, quarries, and logging areas.

In this image: For early homesteaders in what is now Grand Teton National Park, primary land use was focused on subsistence and making improvements to prove ownership of a claim. Activity in the remote Wyoming region revolved around cultivation. Over time, this focus shifted from agriculture to tourism (including dude ranching), and current uses include recreation and cattle grazing.
Circulation graphic for CL101 - Marsh Billings
Historical systems for movement, including the spaces, features, and material finishes. Circulation features are paths, roads, streams, canals, highways, railways, and waterways.

In this image: At Marsh - Billings - Rockefeller National Historical Park in Vermont, many of the paths and drives were built in a naturalistic, irregular plan, keeping with the popular English or Natural style of landscape gardening used in both urban parks and country estates at the time.
Cultural Traditions graphic for CL101 - Manzanar
These features indicate practices that have influenced the development of a landscape in terms of land use, patterns of land division, building forms, stylistic preferences, and the use of materials.

In this image: The gardens at Manzanar National Historic Site typified the adaptability of Japanese garden design and their designers. Created in the harsh circumstances of the internment camp in the California desert, the gardens were expressions of Japanese American cultural traditions, including an affinity with nature and its representation through garden forms.
Topography graphic for CL101 - Fort Pulaski
The three-dimensional configuration of the landscape surface characterized by features, orientation, and elevation. Historic features that illustrate how humans have shaped the ground plane might include earthworks, drainage ditches, knolls, and terraces. This also includes cultural or traditional adaptations of land use in response to natural topography.

In this image: The construction plans for Fort Pulaski National Monument had to be revised due to the deep mud under the alluvial island upon which it stands. In 1830, a dike and ditch system was built to control the flow of water around the island and to the moat that surrounds the fort.
Vegetation graphic for CL101 - Fruita Rural Historic District
Vegetation features might be functional or ornamental trees and shrubs, including orchards, groves, woodlots, pastures, gardens, allees, forests, and grasslands.

In this image: The Fruita Rural Historic District in Utah was once a small and remote farming community of Mormon settlers. The valley's reputation expanded into the 1950s, when it became regionally renowned for its cultivation of privately-maintained fruit orchards. Capitol Reef National Park continues to maintain the orchards.
Cluster Arrangement graphic for CL101 - Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS
The location of buildings, structures, and associated spaces in the landscape. This might include village centers, farmsteads, crossroads, harbors, ranching complexes, and mining complexes.

In this image: At Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Montana, distinct clusters of ranch buildings are associated with different periods of landscape development and use.
Buildings and Structures graphic for CL101 - Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark
Buildings are the elements of a landscape primarily built for sheltering any form of human activities, and structures are the functional elements constructed for other purposes. Engineering systems are also structures. These features include houses, barns, stables, schools, churches, factories, bridges, windmills, gazebos, silos, dams, power lines, culverts, retaining walls, dikes, and foundations.

In this image: The concentration mill at the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark, within Wrangell - St. Elias National Park and Preserve of Alaska, is an example of how the form, function, materials, and construction of buildings or structures can be related to land use and built in response to the natural environment.
Views and Vistas graphic for CL101 - Going to the Sun Road
Views are the expansive or panoramic prospects of a broad range of vision which may be naturally occurring or deliberate. Vistas are the controlled prospect of a discrete, linear range of vision. Views and vistas can be defined by the composition of other landscape characteristics, such as a lookout structure or a view framed by vegetation.

In this image: At Going-to-the-Sun Historic District in Glacier National Park, Montana, views from the road are integral to its function of making park scenery available to visitors.
Constructed Water Features graphic for CL101 - Meridian Hill Park
Built features and elements that utilize water for aesthetic or utilitarian functions in the landscape, such as fountains, pools, ponds, cascades, canals, and reservoirs.

In this image: Initially laid out as part of the 1914 plan for Meridian Hill Park, part of Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, the focal point of the lower gardens is a series of eight cascading basins.
Archeological Sites graphic for CL101 - Ocmulgee National Monument
The location of ruins, traces, or deposited artifacts in the landscape, evidenced by the presence of either surface or subsurface features. Features can include road traces, reforested fields, and ruins of farmsteads, mills, mines, irrigation systems, piers and wharves, or quarries.

In this image: The cultural landscape at Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia contains a collection of earthen mounds and archeological sites associated with the Mississippian culture along the Ocmulgee River.
Small-Scale Features graphic for CL101 - Handrail at National Mall and Memorial Parks
Elements that provide detail and diversity for both functional needs and aesthetic concerns in the landscape. Small-scale features may include benches, fences, monuments, road markers, flagpoles, signs, foot bridges, curbstones, trail ruts, culverts, and foundations.

In this image: An ornate railing decorates a stairway of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, near one of the many designed cultural landscapes of the National Mall and Memorial Parks.
Landscape Characteristics 101 - updated thumbnail
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Landscape Characteristics 101

For a visual summary of the 13 characteristics used to evaluate historic significance and integrity, download your own copy of Landscape Characteristics 101.

Learn More on Cultural Landscapes

Source: Data Store Collection 3785. To search for additional information, visit the Data Store.

Cultural Landscapes Inventory Professional Procedures Guide
National Park Service Cultural Landscapes Inventory Professional Procedures Guide
Guide to Cultural Landscapes cover
A Guide to Cultural Landscape Reports: Contents, Process, and Techniques

Last updated: July 12, 2023