Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes

Organization of the Guidelines


Preservation Planning

Factors to Consider

Special Requirements

Using the Standards + Guidelines

Organization of the Guidelines




Cultural landscapes are composed of a collection of features which are organized in space.They include small-scale features such as individual fountains or statuary, as well as patterns of fields and forest which define the spatial character of the landscape.

Individual features in the landscape should never be viewed in isolation, but in relationship to the landscape as a whole. Each situation may vary, and some features may often be more important than others. For example, circulation may be an important historic element in one landscape, while in another it may have little if any significance.

Overall, it is the arrangement and the interrelationship of these character-defining features as they existed during the period of significance that is most critical to consider prior to treatment. As such, landscape features should always be assessed as they relate to the property as a whole. Thus, spatial organization and land patterns are always listed first in each section of the Guidelines.

Organizational Elements of the Landscape


Spatial Organization and Land Patterns refers to the three-dimensional organization and patterns of spaces in a landscape, like the arrangement of rooms in a house. Spatial organization is created by the landscape’s cultural and natural features. Some form visual links or barriers (such as fences and hedgerows); others create spaces and visual connections in the landscape (such as topography and open water). The organization of such features defines and creates spaces in the landscape and often is closely related to land use. Both the functional and visual relationship between spaces is integral to the historic character of a property. In addition, it is important to recognize that spatial relationships may change over time due to a variety of factors, including: environmental impacts (e.g. drought, flood), plant growth and succession, and changes in land use or technology.

Character-Defining Features of the Landscape

There are many character-defining features that collectively contribute to the historic character of a cultural landscape. These are as follows:


Topography, the shape of the ground plane and its height or depth, is a character-defining feature of the landscape. Topography may occur naturally or as a result of human manipulation. For example, topographic features may contribute to the creation of outdoor spaces, serve a functional purpose, or provide visual interest.


Vegetation features may be individual plants, as in the case of a specimen tree, or groups of plants such as a hedge, allee, agricultural field, planting bed, or a naturally-occurring plant community or habitat. Vegetation includes evergreen or deciduous trees, shrubs, and ground covers, and both woody and herbaceous plants. Vegetation may derive its significance from historical associations, horticultural or genetic value, or aesthetic or functional qualities. It is a primary dynamic component of the landscape’s character; therefore, the treatment of cultural landscapes must recognize the continual process of germination, growth, seasonal change, aging, decay, and death of plants. The character of individual plants is derived from habit, form, color, texture, bloom, fruit, fragrance, scale and context.


Circulation features may include, roads, parkways, drives, trails, walks, paths, parking areas, and canals. Such features may occur individually or be linked to form networks or systems. The character of circulation features is defined by factors such as alignment, width, surface and edge treatment, grade, materials, and infrastructure.


Water features may be aesthetic as well as functional components of the landscape. They may be linked to the natural hydrologic system or may be fed artificially; their associated water supply, drainage, and mechanical systems are important components. Water features include fountains, pools, cascades, irrigation systems, ponds, lakes, streams, and aqueducts. The characteristics of water features and reflective qualities; and associated plant and animal life, as well as water quality. Special consideration may be required due to the seasonal changes in water such as variations in water table, precipitation, and freezing.


Structures, site furnishings, and objects may contribute to a landscape’s significance and historic character. Structures are non-habitable, constructed features, unlike buildings which have walls and roofs and are generally habitable. Structures may be significant individually or they may simply contribute to the historic character of the landscape. They may include walls, terraces, arbors, gazebos, follies, tennis courts, playground equipment, greenhouses, cold frames, steps, bridges, and dams. The placement and arrangement of buildings and structures are important to the character of the landscape; these guidelines emphasize the relationship between buildings, structures, and other features which comprise the historic landscape. For additional and specific guidance related to the treatment of historic buildings, please consult the Guidelines for Preserving, Rehabilitating, Restoring and Reconstructing Historic Properties.

Site furnishings and objects generally are small-scale elements in the landscape that may be functional, decorative, or both. They can include benches, lights, signs, drinking fountains, trash receptacles, fences, tree grates, clocks, flagpoles, sculpture, monuments, memorials, planters, and urns. They may be movable, used seasonally, or permanently installed. Site furnishings and objects occur as singular items, in groups of similar or identical features, or as part of a system (e.g. signage). They may be designed or built for a specific site, available though a catalog, or created as vernacular pieces associated with a particular region or cultural group. They may be significant in their own right, for example, as works of art or as the work of an important designer.



Two aerial photographs [ top left and right] of the changing geographical context at Rancho Los Alamitos taken a half century apart, from expansive farm lands to suburban subdivision— is eminently clear. This dramatic change to the property’s context will have an effect on future planning and treatment recommendations. (Rancho Los Alamitos Foundation)