Landscape and democracy : ways of exercising democracy and scales of governance

Landscape Dimensions - Reflections and proposals for the implementation of the European Landscape Convention

Yves Luginbühl, April 2017

Until recently, landscape was a matter of political decisions taken in a context of representative democracy, but most often underpinned by expert opinions. Democracy thus seemed self-evident. However, upon reflection, many questions quickly emerged concerning the mode of governance of the territories, the place of scholarly knowledge in relation to empirical knowledge, the interest of citizens, the relationship between the political world and civil society, the development of experiences of participation in political decision-making, and others. This report, produced as part of the Council of Europe’s work to implement the European Landscape Convention with the support of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, attempts to open up avenues of reflection and propose the terms of a debate on forms of territorial and landscape governance.

One of the first concerns of theorists of the exercise of democracy was to find the mode of representation that would satisfy the majority of citizens. The question was the source of tension between the French revolutionaries, and in particular Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, who opposed the representative form of government that he helped to establish, to the direct democracy that Jean-Jacques Rousseau defended, more confident in the people. The system of government remained based on a right to vote limited, on the basis of the wealth of individuals (i.e. censal suffrage), to men (women were not allowed to vote) and to a body politic exclusive of people of other races or colonised people. On the other hand, the United States and France had slavery. It was abolished in 1865 in the United States (earlier in some states) and in 1848 in France (it had first been abolished from 1794 to 1802), although discrimination in political matters had in fact lasted much longer. However, it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the supporters of the representative system referred to it as ‘democracy’, and the word lost its original meaning. This initial reflection leads us to summarise the various forms of democracy so that the political context is clear before we embark on the relationship between democracy and the landscape.

The question of the representativeness of the citizens is thus posed from the start. It was a question of resolving the problem that animated the debate mentioned earlier between Rousseau and Sieyès, which opposed direct democracy to representative democracy. The former is the regime that allows the people themselves to adopt laws and important decisions and to choose the agents of execution, whom they themselves can dismiss. Indirect democracy, i.e. representative democracy, is a system in which representatives are chosen by lot or elected by the citizens for a non-imperative term of office of limited duration, during which they cannot necessarily be dismissed by the citizens. But there is also a form of semi-direct democracy, where the people are nevertheless called upon to decide themselves on certain laws, by means of referendums, which may be referendums of popular initiative, either to oppose a bill by veto, or to propose a bill. The latter case is represented, for example, by the Swiss cantons or Italy. Within representative democracy, there are several regimes: parliamentary, presidential, semi-presidential, assembly, liberal, etc. The parliamentary system is characterised by the fact that the government is politically accountable to the parliament, from which it usually originates. The latter can therefore dismiss it by means of a motion of censure, the modalities of which vary according to the country. In return, the government, responsible for the executive, can dissolve the Assembly, responsible for the legislative. There is therefore a separation of powers in a parliamentary system, which is described as « flexible » because of the reciprocal control between the executive and the legislature.

The presidential system is characterised by a stricter separation of powers. The executive branch has no political responsibility to the legislative branch, as the latter cannot remove it from office. Conversely, the head of state (also head of government), elected by direct or indirect universal suffrage, has less power over parliament than in a parliamentary system, as he cannot dissolve it. In the United States, where the system is truly presidential, the President has the right to veto legislation.

The semi-presidential system combines features of both the parliamentary and presidential systems and can therefore be considered a mixed system. In the French Fifth Republic, the Head of State is elected by direct universal suffrage, appoints the members of the government and dismisses them. He can dissolve the Assembly, which, like the Senate, can only challenge the government through a motion of censure. If the President does not have a parliamentary majority, he is a priori forced into a « cohabitation », and thus loses the effectiveness of his power to the government and the head of government. In this case, this regime is close to the parliamentary regime.

The assembly regime is represented by a single assembly, elected by direct universal suffrage; it holds all political powers, the executive and judicial powers being subordinate to the legislative power. It was practised in France between 1792 and 1795, when the Convention was charged with establishing a constitution. This regime is not necessarily associated with a separation of powers.

In a liberal democracy, the ability of elected officials to exercise decision-making power is subject to the rule of law, and is generally framed by a constitution that emphasises the protection of individual rights and freedoms, thus defining a binding framework for leaders. It is not a particular representative regime, which can be parliamentary, presidential or mixed, as in France. It does not imply a representative regime in the strict sense either, but can also qualify a semi-direct (as in Switzerland) or participatory regime. Among the principles, which are found in most representative regimes, are the rights and freedoms of individuals, but also the freedoms of expression, assembly or association and of the press, the right of ownership, and the right to trade, i.e. free trade. We will not comment further on these various forms of democracy, but we will try to analyse the links between them and the question of landscape. In this respect, several introductory remarks are in order.

1 - The definition of landscape

The definition of landscape has indeed changed over time. Before the 1970s, it was most often assimilated to remarkable landscapes, and subject to the regulations that had been put in place in most European countries, aiming at protecting them because of their picturesque, legendary, scientific or artistic character. From the end of the 1960s onwards, the scientific community began to take an interest in landscape again, which had been rather neglected after the great wave of work by geographers in several countries (England, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Russia, Spain, etc.), who saw landscape either as an object or as an object of study. This was the case of the Russian School, which contributed a great deal to the knowledge of the formation of mountain ranges such as the Caucasus, for example, or as the product of the interaction between nature and social activities, as was the case of the French School with Paul Vidal de La Blache. A historical trend has also produced numerous works on the history of landscapes in certain countries, such as W.G. Hoskins in England, Emilio Sereni in Italy, Roger Dion in France, etc. Most of these works date from the 19th century. Most of these works date from the inter-war period, some being published in the 1950s.

The emergence of environmental concerns has changed the meaning of landscape and stimulated a renewal of research that had tended to fade away - not in all countries, but generally in Europe. The most important innovation, which concerns the relationship between democracy and landscape, is undoubtedly the appearance of work on the social perceptions or representations of landscapes. This has highlighted the diversity of social views on landscape and revealed their importance in political action, insofar as the research has shown that social actors act according to their perceptions or social representations of landscapes and not necessarily according to the problems that arise directly on the ground. This scientific work, carried out in many states in Europe and simultaneously in North America, began to change the meaning attributed to landscape by introducing the category of social perceptions or representations and by increasingly focusing the landscape issue on everyday landscapes and no longer on remarkable landscapes.

Thus, when the European Landscape Convention was being drafted, the debate that began showed an almost immediate interest in these everyday landscapes, even though outstanding landscapes were not forgotten. Everyday landscapes were therefore included in the scope of the Convention (Article 5) and gave rise to a movement of interest throughout Europe, the main argument being that the vast majority of Europe’s populations now live in landscapes that are not remarkable, but mainly urban and peri-urban, and obviously also rural, and that the fundamental issue is indeed that of improving the living environment of these populations. The other side of the semantics of the term « landscape », which is in line with the previous reflections, leads to a rather general attitude of elected representatives who most often consider landscape as being associated with protection and therefore contrary to their wishes for economic development.

Here also the old conception of landscape as being associated with the protection of remarkable sites constantly resurfaces, and it is quite rare that elected representatives admit the new definition, which is more open to society and its aspirations, evaluated through social perceptions and representations. We will discuss later the position of elected representatives in relation to a democratic exercise in landscape planning operations, but already we can say that the engagement of attempts to debate with their electorate is not welcome. It is possible to see that the democratic quality of the debate between the actors concerned and of the political decision depends on the meaning attributed to the landscape. Fortunately, the meaning of the term has evolved towards greater participation of the populations concerned, as the European Landscape Convention makes clear, through the definition of landscape as « a part of the territory as perceived by the people…", thus alluding to the social representations and perceptions that drive political action. One of the proofs of the demand for democracy is the request of some actors in South America that the example of the European Landscape Convention be transposed either into a world landscape convention or into a convention on a continental scale. And it is also about the relevance of the meaning of landscape closer to the everyday landscape.

2 - The question of the scale of governance

This semantic innovation has led to the emergence of experiments in participation, sometimes spontaneous, without any direct connection with the European Landscape Convention, but the latter has in some way included them in its principles, particularly in the articles on the identification and characterisation of landscapes, and the landscape quality objectives in particular8 , and has recommended that the participation of the population in this work be encouraged. If these experiments are carried out at the scale of small territories and not at that of a nation, the commitment to landscape policies depends on both national institutions and local authorities. This is the meaning of landscape as envisaged by the European Landscape Convention, which encourages States Parties to implement landscape policies at this scale. It can be admitted that this is a democratic action that requires the decision of elected representatives of the people. They can thus pass a law in favour of the landscape. The national scale is also the one of the decision in favour of policies for the protection of remarkable landscapes such as those which are candidates for inscription on the World Heritage List.

Here, the democratic game is played between the experts and the elected representatives of the local authorities or the nation. Their electoral representativeness and their recognition in the community of expertise are the rule for defending a file before the community and international institutions. In a way, democracy is fading in the face of diplomatic issues and power games between international experts and political figures. All the more so since in most cases, the applications for inscription on the World Heritage List have not mobilised the populations concerned or consulted them. This is not always the case; some candidatures have succeeded thanks to the solicitation of the populations concerned and Unesco, and the demand to listen to the populations by their political representatives, which most of the surveys highlight. These surveys show that many populations reproach their elected representatives for not listening to them. In the same way, decisions relating to the protection of sites or landscapes on a national scale do not very often give the people a say, but are based on expert opinions and technical advice from the administrations concerned and regional or local elected representatives. There may be public enquiries, but they are not really a mark of effective democracy but more of a consultation, which is very different.

The scale of governance is therefore essential for a relevant exercise of democracy when it comes to the issue of landscape; we have already seen a few examples of this, and they are multiplying everywhere in Europe and even beyond, as in North and South America, where there are many movements in favour of taking account of the aspirations of the populations on limited territories and trying to fight against developments that do not satisfy. The example of Veneto is interesting because it shows that after having contested facilities that are contrary to the aspirations of local populations, the committees (comitati) created by certain protesting actors seek to build planning projects based on landscape analysis (Varotto M. (2000); Varotto M. and Visentin L. F. (2008)).

The local scale is therefore the one where the democratic exercise is the most operational, but it raises innumerable questions that will be examined below. The local scale appears in particular to be the one that allows inhabitants to take back the question of the quality of their living environment and it is for this reason that experiments are multiplying. They constitute a form of opposition to the processes of all kinds driven by the globalisation of commercial and financial exchanges against which European (and world) citizens cannot fight directly. The local scale seems to be a kind of refuge against globalization.

But at this scale, the question obviously arises of the capacity of inhabitants, through the intermediary of the elected representatives who represent them in the political sphere, to influence decisions taken on a global scale. For example, on the price of foodstuffs, which are decided on the basis of world prices and which have an impact on the landscape, favouring certain crops over others. Or on the price of oil, which has an impact on infrastructure and modes of transport. Another issue is the scale of governance: in some cases, spatial planning decisions are taken in local communities where citizens are remote from administrative and political procedures. This is the case, for example, with associations of municipalities or nature parks in which the process of analysing landscapes and drawing up planning programmes is carried out by technicians and elected representatives, without the inhabitants ever being consulted or even informed.

3 - The question of the status of the actors concerned

Territorial governance and consequently landscape governance depend on power games between social or pressure groups such as economic, political or trade union lobbies. The processes of global commercial and financial exchange are in fact led by economic or financial groupings that influence decisions and are the opposite of democracy. The prices of cereals, animal products, etc., which determine the future of entire sections of the European landscape, are set by global agreements (WTO) in which the large multinational food trading companies, which have no concern for territory or landscape whatsoever, act solely with a view to short- or medium-term profit.

These processes take place at the international level, but they are also present at the national level; here it is the power games between political parties, trade unions or economic pressure groups that have an impact on political decisions in favour of certain parties. The general interest often takes second place to category interests. Examples include housing policy and infrastructure policy, which are in the hands of large real estate or civil engineering companies, such as for motorways. The weight of lobbies is often greater than that of environmental or landscape associations. The dramatic example of the Sivens dam in France is eloquent in this respect, and many cases could be cited throughout Europe.

At the local level too, even if citizens have more opportunities to intervene in negotiation procedures, certain groups act according to their own interests and the general interest takes second place. Here, the game is more balanced, but it is certain, as can be seen in some experiences of citizen participation, that some actors have more capacity to intervene than others, if only because they are used to speaking in public and know how to impose their views on other inhabitants, who are less familiar with debate and controversy.

The democratic exercise can also be distorted by local issues that are hidden because talking about them would revive underground conflicts that certain local groups do not want to see exposed in front of the population as a whole; this is notably the case for the maintenance of hedgerows in the bocage in many regions, issues that also raise the problem of water quality. The environmental protection community does not all agree with each other, and tensions can arise in certain circumstances. The actors who promote these participation operations may also belong to various spheres of society: researchers, landscape practitioners, artists, environmental or landscape defence associations are mobilised in various ways, sometimes collaborating, but with problems of agreement on the methods and tools used. Sometimes, competition also appears between these communities and even within the same corporation, tensions can arise, as between ecologists and those who claim to be from the human sciences, who do not conceive the landscape in the same way. The intervention of artists can sometimes cause problems because, although they attract the attention of the public thanks to the works and installations they create in the public space, they do not always go through with a concrete project. These actors from different backgrounds can provide solutions or create conflicts within participatory operations. However, it is indeed through public negotiation and the confrontation of points of view that these problems can be solved; but many obstacles stand in the way of these debates, which, moreover, do not necessarily suit elected representatives, who see them as a waste of time when they themselves are subject to electoral time and often wish to take a decision that may be decisive in their re-election.

4 - The definition given to participation procedures

The definitions given to participation procedures are diverse and range from information to real participation. In a technical report drawn up as part of the French Ministry of Ecology’s ‘Landscape and Sustainable Development’ research programme, entitled ‘Landscape and Participation’, the author, Yves Michelin (2013), referring to Jean-Eudes Beuret (2006), and in agreement with the members of the programme’s scientific committee, distinguishes the following procedures:

As a preliminary to the conclusion of this second part, it seems obvious that these four parameters - the meaning attributed to the landscape, the scale of governance, the status of the actors and the forms of participation - are linked and inseparable. It will be difficult to separate them in the analysis and the wishes for improvement of the democratic exercise in its relation to the landscape. It also seems essential to specify the meaning of the forms of exercising democracy, as they have appeared in the evolution they have undergone in the last decades.

In the years 2000-2010, the emphasis was on consultation, a form of participation that was not yet fully developed. A report produced in 2007 by the French Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Town and Country Planning attempted to take stock of the definitions of the terms and expressions used in the context of information, public participation, consultation and association in risk prevention plans. First of all, it emphasises the issues, objectives and meaning of participation and consultation.

It states that « Consultation is not an end in itself. The reasons for engaging in a participatory approach such as consultation on a project, a policy or the setting up of consultation bodies can be diverse: motivated by a strong political will, by a regulatory obligation, by a particular context, etc. Thus, even if the injunctions to participate and consult are increasingly numerous and pressing, and it seems to have become impossible to « do without » consultation, we do not consult for the sake of consulting. Consultation only makes sense in relation to the objectives that have been set and which have motivated it. The procedures and tools used and the evaluation of the process implemented will be defined in the light of these objectives. These objectives may be of several kinds. The same consultation process may have several goals, of very different natures ».

Furthermore, it defines the citizen dimension by setting out the expectations of participation and consultation: « A participatory approach can be expected to create renewed interest in public affairs and the community, and to re-establish trust between representatives (elected representatives) and the represented (citizens), in a context often referred to as the « crisis of representative democracy » or the « crisis of politics », one of the main symptoms of which is the high rate of abstention in elections. Thus, these expectations are of several kinds, participation and consultation also make it possible to share the issues and transform public action, and participation and consultation can play a useful role in the development of projects. Extracts from the report of the programme « Information, public participation, consultation and association in risk prevention plans » perfectly summarise the conditions under which so-called « participatory » democracy can be exercised; although they refer only to the issue of risk prevention, they are nonetheless applicable to the field of landscape.

If the most classical definition of democracy is that of the political regime in which the people are sovereign, it seems preferable to propose Paul Ricoeur’s definition, according to which a society is democratic when it recognizes itself as divided, i.e. when it is crossed by contradictions of interests and when it sets as a modality to associate, in equal parts, each citizen in the expression of these contradictions, in the analysis of these contradictions and in the deliberation of these contradictions, with a view to arriving at an arbitration (Ricoeur, 1997a and 1997b). It will be examined in the following developments how this definition corresponds more to an expression of democracy applied to landscape planning.


The relationship between democracy and landscape is a complex area which depends on multiple factors belonging to many fields of meaning. Although experiences exist everywhere, both in Europe and in other states of the world, they are not applied in the same way at the international, European, national, regional and local levels. It seems clear that the local level is the one that best meets the desire to be dependent on processes that are difficult for people to control. Moreover, the draft Constitutional Treaty of the European Union, proposed in 2004, distinguishing participatory democracy from representative democracy, saw it as a means of « open, transparent and regular dialogue with associations representing civil society ». Even though this treaty was not adopted because several states voted against it. The desire for participation is nonetheless relatively strong in European societies. Among these factors, the very meaning of the term « landscape », which is not always identical in the European states, but which has been defined with the consent of the vast majority of European states through the ratification of the European Landscape Convention, interacts with the scales of action and the status of the actors involved. In Europe, as in other continents, the desire of the populations to be listened to by the political world, which often seems outdated when it comes to dealing with the major global processes of commercial and financial exchange, is becoming apparent. Participation is becoming a democratic exercise demanded by many social movements, such as the « Indignant » or the World Social Forum, which are nevertheless struggling to make their voices heard. Several avenues of reflection are already proving to be relevant in order to continue the commitment to the implementation of a democracy that allows the question of the living environment, the landscape of people’s daily lives, to be addressed. But, more generally, it is essential to develop reflection on interaction or deliberative democracy by promoting research in the social and ecological sciences, which are already involved in this theme, but which are insufficiently supported by research funding, which has been significantly reduced in recent years due to the crisis and the need to reduce public deficits.

The exercise of democracy cannot escape the complexity of the processes of production and transformation of landscapes, for which a social mobilisation on a European scale was born with the European Landscape Convention. Landscape itself constitutes a « complex » of material and immaterial meanings that science has separated and reduced to the point of making landscape action difficult, even though it offers potentialities commensurate with the hopes that its supporters have for it:

« (…) science has become blind in its inability to control, foresee, even conceive its social role, in its inability to integrate, articulate, reflect its own knowledge. If indeed the human mind cannot apprehend the enormous body of disciplinary knowledge, then either the human mind or the disciplined knowledge must be changed » (Morin, 2005:106). (Morin, 2005:106)


To go further


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1) «  Urban landscape apprehension, an opportunity to renew urban environmental designs and participatory approaches ", Emeline Bailly, CSTB, France, Rosemary Wakeman, Fordham University, New York. Comparison of participatory approaches between the Plaine St-Denis in the north of Paris and the Melrose site in the Bronx.

2) «  Participatory landscape management : building a cultural resource for the appropriation of biodiversity issues ? ", Aurélien Allouche, Alain Dervieux, François Mesléard, Alain Sandoz. The research develops a participatory approach in the Camargue Regional Nature Park by attempting to evaluate the capacities of such an approach to manage the risk of flooding and biodiversity or the recreation of nature.

3) «  Participation and mediation in landscaping and the renewal of landscape practices ", David Montembault, Agrocampus Ouest, Serge Briffaud, Rémi Bercovitz, École nationale supérieure d’architecture et de paysage de Bordeaux, Monique Toublanc, École nationale supérieure de paysage de Versailles, Antoine Luginbühl, Association Passeurs, et al. Research-action on two different territories, one on the elaboration of a landscape project in a Loire commune, the other on a historical approach in the Deux-Sèvres.

4) «  Landscape and sustainable development : in search of a creative participation ", Yvette Lazzeri, Hélène Balu, Anne Cadoret, Florent Chiappero, Michel Chiappero, Caroline Giran-Samat, Arina Latz, Béatrice Mésini, Hélène Tudela, Martine Perron, Centre d’études et de recherches internationales et communautaires (CERIC), Aix-Marseille University, CNRS, University of Pau, University of Toulon Research that takes stock of participatory approaches in Europe, especially in the architectural field.

5) «  Dynamics of landscape models in new cities, cultivating sustainable landscapes ", Marie-Jo Menozzi, independent ethnosociologist, Etienne Bertrand, Bureau d’études de Gally, Julien Laborde, Mnémosis. Research on a participative approach concerning the new town of Val Maubuée.

6) «  Landscape dynamics and perceptions of tree interfaces, what are the issues for the implementation of the Green and Blue Belt ?", Sylvie Guillerme et al, GEODE, CNRS and University of Toulouse-le-Mirail. Research on the participation of stakeholders concerned by trees outside forests in south-west France