Setting the Scene: A Guide to Cultural Landscapes

What typically comes to mind when you think of National Historic Landmarks (NHLs)? Perhaps the first thing you envision is a building of some sort, such as the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan, or the F. Scott Fitzgerald House in St. Paul, Minnesota. You might envision an entire historic district such as the Village of Mariemont in Ohio or New Harmony, Indiana. You may be aware of other property types such as bridges, boats, tunnels, stadiums, canals, memorials, monuments, and tunnels. But there are places such as historic sites, cemeteries, urban parks and green spaces, farmsteads, ranches, estates, mines, battlefields, even caves that have been designated NHLs. The latter examples are considered types of cultural landscapes—resources that augment the extensive range and diversity of nationally significant places, illustrating the mosaic of our multifaceted history and culture.

The identification, evaluation, and registration of landscapes to the National Register of Historic Places or designated as NHLs has increased markedly since the need for landscape preservation was initially acknowledged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The concept of cultural landscapes has evolved over time and eventually was identified by the NPS as a distinct cultural resource category. Cultural landscapes reflect the myriad ways humans have adapted to, used, manipulated and transformed the natural environment. They have been defined in a variety of ways over the last 20 to 30 years, but it is important to distinguish between an all-encompassing cultural landscape, as viewed from a human geographical perspective, and historically significant cultural landscapes, those that have been evaluated using the criteria and process established by the National Register of Historic Places.

Although the term “cultural landscape” is often used interchangeably with “historic landscape,” NPS views the former as an overarching term subdivided into four types (not mutually exclusive): historic sites, historic designed landscapes, historic vernacular landscapes, and ethnographic landscapes.

• Historic sites are defined as landscapes significant for their association with a historic event, activity, or person; the location of a prehistoric or historic occupation or activity. In many cases above-ground constructed features are gone, but this is not always the case.

• Historic designed landscapes are those that were consciously designed or laid out by a landscape architect, architect, engineer, or horticulturalist according to design principles or styles. They also include those associated with important persons, trends, or events in the history of landscape architecture.

• Historic vernacular landscapes illustrate people’s values toward and connections with the land and reflect patterns of settlement, use, and development over time. Aesthetic values play less of a role in vernacular landscapes, while function and use over time contributes considerably to the layout of these landscapes.

• Ethnographic landscapes (also traditional cultural landscapes) are traditionally associated with groups or communities and contain a variety of natural and cultural resources that associated communities use, value and ascribe meaning and significance.
B&W photo of people rowing in boats on a lake.
Jens Jensen began designing Columbus Park in 1915.

Photo courtesy of Chicago Park District Special Collections.

Cultural landscapes can be instantly recognizable, such as Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park in New York or Jens Jensen’s Columbus Park in Chicago. These are examples of landscapes that were designated specifically for their significance as historic designed landscapes. More commonly, others are quite subtle and can easily be misunderstood or unidentified. A historic district, viewed as a cultural landscape, reinforces the importance of tree-lined streets, open green spaces, distinctive streetscape materials, spatial patterns, small-scale amenities, etc.—an assemblage of characteristics that collectively define the historic character of the place. Regardless of type, all landscapes are dynamic and experience continual change. Due to their inherent fragility, they can be subjected to damage, impairment or destruction, whether incrementally or through a sudden and irreversible impact. In addition, while tangible aspects such as vegetation, water, topography, and built components form the visual organization and historic character of a landscape, there are also intangible aspects, such as patterns of land use, responses to natural systems, and cultural traditions, beliefs, customs and practices that must be considered.

Throughout the 1990s, the NPS provided guidance and recommendations for the identification and preservation of cultural landscapes, to be used as a basis for planning and management decisions. Chief among these were National Register Bulletins for evaluating and nominating a variety of landscape types. NPS Preservation Brief (#36) entitled “Protecting Cultural Landscapes: Planning, Treatment, and Management of Historic Landscapes” was the first NPS publication to provide comprehensive information on research, survey, evaluation, treatment, and maintenance. More extensive direction and recommendations were offered through The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes (1996). Since their release, these publications have provided incalculable assistance and guidance for understanding what is meant by the concept of cultural landscapes and ensuring that critical components and characteristics are considered in preservation planning. (The Guidelines for cultural landscapes are available online via: Additional Standards and Guidelines available via:

Awareness has increased recently as to the importance of recognizing cultural landscapes, their associated characteristics, and features in both National Register and National Historic Landmark documentation, but this was not always so. Earlier NHL nominations usually provided an architectural, building-centric focus at the expense of landscape description and significance. Landscape description, if attempted at all, typically lacked any meaningful analysis. The importance of capturing a more holistic sense of a particular property—the realization that a building or structure does not exist in a vacuum—has gained broader acceptance. It is understood that landscapes, as a total reflection and assemblage of resources, contribute to the greater understanding of historically significant properties.
For those NHLs where the landscape was not identified or discussed in the original nomination, it is recommended that NHL owners and stewards remain open to the possibility that there may be a landscape component to the overall property that provides a more complete “telling of the story.” This could be as subtle as the immediate setting of a house in a residential neighborhood, or more extensive grounds, gardens, or wooded areas covering hundreds or thousands of acres. Over time, without sufficient knowledge and/or recognition of the character-defining features that existed during the period of significance, the landscape likely has changed demonstrably in terms of use, appearance, and meaning.

In appropriate situations, the preparation of a Cultural Landscape Report (CLR) or similar planning document by a qualified historic preservation professional can provide very useful information and long-term management goals for a cultural landscape or even significant individual features. A CLR documents the history of the landscape, its existing conditions, analysis and evaluation of significance and integrity using National Register criteria and treatment recommendations. In situations where inappropriate alterations or changes have occurred, a CLR can guide rehabilitation or restoration treatments. If it is not feasible to pursue the preparation of a CLR, it is recommended that a basic minimum of research and documentation is accomplished prior to decisions that could prove detrimental.

Knowing the history and use of the landscape, the time frame significant to the history of the property, existing conditions and integrity, and appropriate treatment measures will ensure that future decision-making leads to a more authentic “sense of place.” Features in the landscape, either as subtle as a few trees and a meandering pathway or a more complex assemblage of character-defining features, are frequently components of an NHL and should always be assessed as they relate to the overall property. Proper identification, consideration, and planning will not only assist in a landscape’s preservation but will provide a more accurate and enriching understanding and interpretive experience, as well as establishing an appropriate management strategy.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 7, 2012, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Geoffrey Burt.

Last updated: July 20, 2018