Cultural Landscapes in the National Park Service: Good Root Stock

Cultural landscapes are found throughout the national park system, where they are preserved for the benefit of present and future generations. Most have only been recognized since the 1980s, when the NPS first defined "cultural landscape" as a type of cultural resource. As the maturation of the concept reaches its fourth decade, we reflect on the history of the Park Cultural Landscapes Program and acknowledge our underpinnings, as we look ahead to new challenges.

Exploring the system of roots below a tree is an appropriate way to understand the foundation of experience and study that has given rise to the National Park Service’s Park Cultural Landscape Program.

Cultural Landscapes are rooted in the scholarship documenting the interaction with and connection of people to places.

Footsteps in snow lead between two rows of wooden fencing towards a farmhouse under leafless trees
Joseph Poffenberger Farmstead cultural landscape at Antietam National Battlefield.

NPS Photo

It is hard for some people to imagine a time when cultural landscapes were not a recognized resource type in the United States. Through the work of scholars such as Robert Melnick and many others in the fields of landscape architecture and cultural geography, place itself has become recognized as a recource, as well as something that provides physical context to the historic resources that are bound to it. They also determined that place can be critically important to the aspects of integrity, and equally as important as the built resource. This concept of place became known as the “cultural landscape.”

National Park Service professionals from various fields meticulously articulated the terminology and practice of this concept, developing the Park Cultural Landscapes Program and setting a standard for the profession. The NPS defines a cultural landscape as:

"a geographic area, including both cultural and natural resources and the wildlife or domestic animals therein, associated with a historic event, activity, or person or exhibiting other cultural or aesthetic values."
These historically significant landscapes include residential gardens and community parks, scenic highways, rural communities, institutional grounds, cemeteries, battlefields and zoological gardens. They are composed of a number of character-defining features which, individually or collectively, contribute to the landscape's physical appearance as it has evolved over time.
A straight path between boxwood hedges and manicured courtyard leads to a two-story house with porches on each story
The cultural landscape of the Tao House at Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site.

NPS Photo

There are four general types of cultural landscapes, not mutually exclusive: historic sites, historic designed landscapes, historic vernacular landscapes, and ethnographic landscapes.

A historic sites is a landscape that is significant for its association with a historic event, activity, or person. Examples include battlefields and president's house properties.
A historic designed landscape is one that was consciously designed or laid out by a landscape architect, master gardener, architect, or horticulturist according to design principles, or an amateur gardener working in a recognized style or tradition. The landscape may be associated with a significant person(s), trend, or event in landscape architecture; or illustrate an important development in the theory and practice of landscape architecture.
A historic vernacular landscape is one that evolved through use by the people whose activities or occupancy shaped that landscape. Through social or cultural attitudes of an individual, family or a community, the landscape reflects the physical, biological, and cultural character of those everyday lives. Function plays a significant role in vernacular landscapes. They can be a single property, such as a farm, or a collection of properties, such as a district of historic farms along a river valley. Examples include rural villages, industrial complexes, and agricultural landscapes.
An ethnographic landscape is one that contains a variety of natural and cultural resources that associated people define as heritage resources. Examples are contemporary settlements, religious sacred sites, and massive geological structures. Small plant communities, animals, subsistence practices, and ceremonial grounds are often components.

Cultural Landscapes are rooted in the National Historic Preservation Act.


When the National Historic Preservation Act was established in 1966, a unique framework was established which recognized that “the preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic, and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans” (NHPA Section 1(a) 4, as amended).
Three people stand in a grassy area facing a totem pole, surrounded by evergreen trees
Park and program staff documenting the Indian River Park cultural landscape at Sitka National Historical Park.

NPS Photo

Section 2 of the Act acknowledges that the role of the Federal Government in cooperation with others is to:
  1. Use measures, including financial and technical assistance, to foster conditions under which our modern society and our prehistoric and historic resources can exist in productive harmony and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations;
  2. Provide leadership in the preservation of the prehistoric and historic resources of the United States and of the international community of nations and in the administration of the national preservation program in partnership with States, Indian tribes, Native Hawaiians, and local governments;
  3. Administer federally owned, administered, or controlled prehistoric and historic resources in a spirit of stewardship for the inspiration and benefit of present and future generations;
  4. Contribute to the preservation of nonfederally owned prehistoric and historic resources and give maximum encouragement to organizations and individuals undertaking preservation by private means;
  5. Encourage the public and private preservation and utilization of all usable elements of the Nation's historic built environment; and
  6. Assist State and local governments, Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States to expand and accelerate their historic preservation programs and activities.

Section 110 (2) of the Act directs:
Each Federal agency shall establish (unless exempted pursuant to Section 214), in consultation with the Secretary, a preservation program for the identification, evaluation, and nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, and protection of historic properties.

Cultural Landscapes are rooted in sound methodology.

A person seated on the ground amid trees in jacket, hat, and bug net documents a metal mining feature
Cultural landscape documentation at Chititu Historic Mining Landscape in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska.

NPS Photo

The NPS recognized a need to document cultural landscapes as a resource type under Section 110(2)a in the early 1990s. There were no previously existing methods or systems for documenting cultural landscapes at the time. It fell upon leaders in all NPS regions to participate in the development and testing of both a methodology (1994-1997) and a database (1997-1998) for documenting cultural landscapes as a resource type. The NPS methodology was the first of its type and was based on many National Register Bulletins, including Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Rural Historic Landscapes and How to Evaluate and Nominate Designed Historic Landscapes.

The database, originally a standalone system called CLAIMS (Cultural Landscapes Automated Inventory Management Systems), was designed to work with the methodology. Sites in park units were processed through levels and placed into a hierarchal system that demonstrated relationships. The next version of the database called the CLI (Cultural landscape Inventory) was introduced in 2002. The database was converted to a web application with refinements that captured new scholarship, took advantage of new technology, and allowed for nationwide sharing of cultural landscape data.

Cultural Landscapes are rooted in sound stewardship.

Four employees in raingear kneel beside a row of bare root trees on the ground behind a box truck.
NPS staff replant bare root trees at Wick Farm, Morristown National Historical Park. The trees were propagated and grown in the Olmsted Center's historic plant nursery.

NPS Photo / Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation

Like any human-constructed element, cultural landscapes require a commitment to sound maintenance practices to preserve character defining features. These are the features that evoke the setting, feeling, and association of a place to an identified period of historic significance.

In 2014, the Park Cultural Landscape Program entered into a four year agreement with the NPS Facilities program to identify resources for the Facilities Management Software System (FMSS). Identifying and entering landscape features into FMSS aids in the preparation of work orders and allows project funds to be allocated to stabilize and/or preserve them.

Cultural Landscapes are growing new roots for the next generation of landscape stewards.

Two young men kneel in grass beside a flower bed in early spring
Students from Stephen T. Mather Building Arts and Craftsmanship High School, seen here at Thomas Edison's Glenmont Estate, learn about preservation trades and landscape stewardship through a partnership with the NPS.

NPS Photo

Since the inception of the Park Cultural Landscapes Program, seasonal employees and interns have been--and continue to be--a critical part of the inventory and management of NPS cultural landscapes. Students from various professional backgrounds have joined the program through internship agreements, hands-on stewardship activities, and cooperative education study units.

Outreach through social media began in 2012, when the program launched a
website and a Facebook page. Since that time, the program has connected with thousands of followers.

Cultural Landscapes are growing new roots for enhanced collaboration on resource management.


The Park Cultural Landscapes Program has been actively involved in the National Park Service Common Learning Portal a place where NPS employees and partners can learn about specific topics, find training opportunities, and connect with online discussion groups and mentors.While some groups are designated as NPS-only, others invite partners and friends to join.

The next phase of collaboration includes the introduction of a new database platform where data about cultural landscapes, historic structures, archeology, and ethnographic resources will co-exist. This new system is expected to streamline access to resource data for park managers so they can use it quickly and efficiently. A secure permission structure will prevent sensitive data from being shared. Data managers from the four cultural resource disciplines will ensure that data standards continue to be met and those in need of data support receive it.

The NPS Park Cultural Landscapes Program is prepared to continue its preservation leadership role by strengthening its branches and stewarding resources for the “enjoyment of future generations.”

Red rocks and blue sky are a backdrop to a leafy fruit orchard with shallow irrigation ditches
Historic orchard at Lonely Dell Ranch cultural landscape in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

NPS Photo

Last updated: November 28, 2018