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Three Unhelpful Claims on the Protection of Nature and Landscape

Article by Kris van Koppen.

In this somewhat provocative essay for TOPOS, I will dispute three often-heard claims in debates on nature and landscape planning. 1 – It is useful to make a clear distinction between nature and landscape, with nature representing the science-based functions and services of biodiversity, and landscape representing the emotionally-based qualities of natural beauty and cultural identity. 2 – Since the aesthetic feelings and emotional bonds of citizens with regard to natural landscapes are subjective, they cannot be dealt with in structured and reasoned planning approaches. As the saying goes: ’there is no accounting for taste’ (in Dutch: ‘over smaak valt niet te twisten’). 3 – The best way to do justice to the preferences of citizens is for the government to give way to bottom-up initiatives in which groups of private citizens autonomously plan and manage their natural landscapes. While plausible at first sight, none of these claims is valid. Moreover, none of them is helpful in protecting and improving our natural environment. In this essay, I will explain why I think so, and argue for forms of nature and landscape planning in which government, citizens, and experts all play significant roles. I will take the Netherlands as example, but the arguments have a wider relevance.

Nature and landscape There are many different meanings attached to the concepts of nature and landscape, so it is good to demarcate what we are talking about: nature and landscape in a context of nature protection. Nature, in this context, centers around animals, plants and ecosystems; and landscapes are found in areas where nature, together with geography, climate, and cultural factors, gives shape to beautiful scenes with interesting natural and cultural values. In other words, we are talking about green, natural-and-cultural landscapes, with positive qualities that need protection and restoration for the benefit of humans and non-human beings as well.

In the early decades of nature protection, there was no major divide between nature and landscape. [infopopup:1] Only after WW2, a separation grew between ‘scientific’ ecological values and the ‘subjective’ landscape values, and this distinction has prevailed until today, albeit under new terms. Those who want to stress the science-based nature concept now speak of biodiversity, and argue that its protection is first and foremost motivated by ecosystems’ provisioning and regulating services, such as water provision, pest regulation, or climate buffering. Because these are hard and objective functions of nature, they should be in the hands of experts. Landscape, by contrast, is the domain of perception (in Dutch: beleving), and therefore subject to the emotions and value judgments of citizens. Phrased in scientific jargon, it is the domain of cultural services, like aesthetic values, recreation, artist inspiration, or spiritual experience. [infopopup:2]

This picture, however, does not match the social reality of nature and landscape protection. Nature protection, both in its historical origins and in the motivations of its present advocates, is not about food, water provision, or climate control. It is about remarkable animals and plants in beautiful and culturally cherished landscapes. To cut a long argument short, let me invoke two examples: we do not protect the Veluwe because it is a carbon-sink and a water purification system (even when it is), but because of its recreational, aesthetic and cultural values. And we do not applaud the return of the white-tailed eagle (in Dutch: zeearend) to the Netherlands because this species indicates a more resilient ecosystem (which is far from certain), but because it is an impressive and fascinating animal. As it is cultural values and emotions that first and foremost drive nature protection, it is not possible to draw clear dividing lines between nature and culture, or between nature and landscape.

Consistency of cultural nature and landscape preferences To state that the preferences driving nature protection are based on cultural values, however, is not to say that these preferences are just a matter of ‘subjective’, individual, and changing taste. [infopopup:3] Here, I will leave this so-called biophilia hypothesis aside, but it is important to see that current preferences for nature and landscape were shaped in a consistent and continuing cultural tradition of landscape painting, garden and landscape architecture, nature recreation, amateur nature investigation, nature photography and film, and nature protection.

John Constable, 1820s, Water meadows near Salisbury. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

To cut short, again, a long cultural history argument I invite the reader to recall (or google) the landscape paintings of Salvator Rosa in Italy, Hobbema in the Netherlands, Constable in UK, or Bierstadt in the US, and then realize how strongly these pictures of nature still appeal to us. Clearly, there are differences in appreciations between persons, groups, and societies. Some prefer rough and ragged landscapes over more cultivated and orderly ones. Some prefer geometric lines over more organic lay-outs. Some appreciate artifacts (like benches or signs) in a nature area while others hate them. For some, the co-presence of others in nature is agreeable, for others it spoils the experience. All these differences, however, are variations within a dominant, common representation of natural beauty: [infopopup:4]

This cultural and consistent character of our preferences for nature has two helpful implications. First, it is often possible to combine the preservation of biodiversity and the enjoyment of natural landscapes. Ecologically rich nature can very well be combined with a beautiful landscape. This is good news in an urbanized and densely populated country like the Netherlands, where we can only save adequate space for nature and landscape by clever combinations of functions. There is no need for a checkerboard lay-out where every function or preference has its own little field: some for biodiversity reserves, some for cultural landscapes, some for recreation, and so on. Nature reserves are a perfect place for certain types of recreation; city parks and gardens also offer interesting possibilities for certain forms of biodiversity.

Second, we can consistently plan, design, and manage nature and landscape and do not need to worry that in a decade or so citizens will have completely different nature preferences. This is not to say that there are no conflicts on how to design and manage natural landscapes. Obviously, such conflicts are numerous, but there are only few cases where the conflicts originate from radically opposing nature preferences of groups of citizens. Some conflicts occur when new nature management paradigms are introduced by ecologists, which clash with existing emotions and nature preferences of local citizens. More often, however, conflicts originate from very pragmatic issues: roads and residential buildings vs. nature and landscape; parks vs. parking lots; protecting areas from disturbance vs. having space to walk the dog. Therefore, these conflicts about nature and landscape protection do not provide good reasons for abandoning the idea of a structured and consistent planning. Rather, they reinforce the need of such a planning, in order to provide sufficient countervailing power against the many pragmatic interests threatening nature and landscape.

In sum, it is possible for experts with sufficient knowledge of ecological conditions and cultural preferences for nature, to identify, restore, or develop nature-rich landscapes that appeal to broad groups of citizens over a long term and that by the same token have high potentials for biodiversity conservation.

Government, citizens, experts Citizen participation is a vital process in nature and landscape planning, but not in the sense that each local group should plan and manage its own local nature variety. Both in its scenic and recreational qualities and in the size of habitats, nature is too large in scale (and space is in the Netherlands too scarce) for such a checkerboard approach. Because of their character and scale, nature and landscape can only be effectively protected as collective goods. This implies that government has primary responsibility: it is government agencies at adequate scale levels that have to plan, monitor, and ensure the protection of nature and landscape. They can do so together with other actors (most prominently the larger nature protection organizations) but only when these other actors comply with governmental planning and maintain the collective good character of nature. Twenty years ago, this would have been too obvious to mention, but nowadays it is worth saying because many scholars herald the death of the state and put their hope in the initiatives of self-regulating citizens. As said, such a bottom-up approach to nature and landscape planning would not be effective. For all these reasons, it is both impossible and undesirable to work around government in planning and managing nature and landscapes.

Polder near Oudewater in ‘het Groene Hart’, a Dutch landscape preserved, thanks to strict governmental planning. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Then what is the role of citizens? First of all, they are the legitimate constituents of their national government. The nature protected by the government is, essentially, their commonly owned nature (not that of ecologists or nature organizations). As voters and taxpayers, they participate in nature protection. Moreover, as many do, they can support nature organizations. While these are rather passive roles, they are most vital in protecting nature. With citizen participation, of course, we usually refer to more active roles of citizens in initiating, planning and managing nature protection. Such roles, too, can be valuable. Active voluntary participation adds to the capacity of government and nature organizations to protect and manage nature; it boosts the commitment and education of the citizens involved; and it can help to improve and adjust plans and management procedures. These are good reasons to facilitate citizen participation whenever it is feasible. However, when citizen participation jeopardizes the consistent structure of protection, or when it threatens the status of nature as common good – that is, when it goes hand in hand with privatization of nature – it is no longer helpful in protecting nature and should be regarded with caution.

In addition to a central role of government and an essential but mostly passive role of citizens, there is a crucial role of experts. Ecologists are much needed. This is not because the values underlying nature protection are based on ecology (they are based in culture and, in fact, much older than the science of ecology). It is because the conditions under which nature and landscape can be protected are strongly influenced by ecological dynamics. Ecology, in other words, is not essential in setting the goals of nature protection, but it is instrumental in determining the adequate means: size and location of habitats, dimensions of networks and corridors, mutual dependency of species, appropriate environmental conditions, management plans, and so on. This is particularly so in a country like the Netherlands, where nature and landscape are precariously situated in an urban metropolis and much spatial and ecological tweaking is needed to give natural processes a fair chance. In addition to ecologists, planners and designers have indispensable roles in safeguarding the feasibility and consistency of plans and lay-outs.

Really successful instances of citizen participation in nature protection, therefore, are found where active citizen engagement is facilitated, where there is adequate input of expert knowledge, and where governmental authorities are present to guide and condition the actions within the goals and boundaries set by governmental policy making.


i. Van Koppen, C. S. A. (2002). Echte Natuur. Een sociaaltheoretisch onderzoek naar natuurwaardering en natuurbescherming in de moderne samenleving. PhD thesis Wageningen Universiteit.

ii. See for example Van Oostenbrugge, R., et al. (2012). Natuurverkenning 2010-2040: visies op de ontwikkeling van natuur en landschap. Bilthoven: Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving.

iii. Kellert, S. R., & Wilson, E. O. (Eds.). (1993). The biophilia hypothesis. Washington DC: Island Press.

iv. Van Koppen, C. S. A. (2010). Waardevolle natuur in de stad: beleving en normering. In R. v. d. Ham (Ed.), Groen Goed. Handreiking kwaliteit openbaar groen (pp. 190-205). SDU: Den Haag. v. de Boer, T., et al. (2014). Maatschappelijk draagvlak voor natuur en natuurbeleid in 2013. Wageningen UR: Wageningen.

januari 15, 2015

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