Reading the Landscape: Decoding the Meaning of Built and Biological Environments

“It seems ironic that, no matter how fleeting or for how long—inquiry starts with stopping in order to observe what is going on, to notice something that is happening, to watch and see, listen and hear.”

Yoland Wadsworth (2010)[1]

Through my academic interests in international environmental politics and various research trips abroad I have come to be fascinated by reading landscapes in a holistic manner to obtain insights into political and economic systems, in addition to their geographical and ecological features.  I believe this is an important skill for professional practice, engaged social action, and personal lifestyle management.

This article has been written for the benefit of participants in the Environment and Sustainability in China Study Tour, which is a collaborative venture between La Trobe University’s Department of Politics and Philosophy, La Trobe Asia, the LTU Confucius Institute and local partner CERES Global.  In our itinerary we will explore how local actors in Beijing, Tianjin and Chongqing—including international agencies, government departments, agricultural businesses, community groups and academic researchers—grapple with environmental challenges.  As a component of the in-country experience, student participants are encouraged to observe and interact with the landscapes we visit, to experience for themselves the environmental challenges faced by Chinese society, and to decode what they see and feel for clues as to the broader causes and potential solutions to the problems that they observe.  Once mastered, these landscape reading skills can be applied anywhere.

I will be begin with a brief introduction of the conceptual underpinnings of my landscape reading methodology.  Next, the article explores the landscape reading methodology itself, beginning with identifying important elements within the landscape, then identifying patterns between and across landscape elements, and concluding with strategies for decoding the economic, political, social and ideological significance of the patterns we observe in the landscape.

Conceptual Foundation of Reading Landscapes

A toolbox of conceptual tools is required to read landscapes in a holistic way—i.e. reading for geographical, ecological, social, political, economic and environmental features.

The first conceptual influence on my landscape reading practice is the discipline of political geography, which is concerned with the multiple intersections of geography, politics and government policy.[2]  I take my cue here from the work of British geographer Peter Atkins, who argued in his work on North Korea that culture, politics and economy are encoded into landscapes.[3]  Atkins’ work provided a useful methodology for my field research in the DPRK, given the well-known restrictions placed on visitors and the difficulties of conducting traditional field research.  For the in-country observer, landscapes—urban built environments, rural agricultural settings and wilderness areas—can be a rich source of information about the political economy and culture of the country. , reading the encoded landscape therefore became the methodology for my observations on the ground during my trips to Northeast Asia.

Figure 1: Much to read in this landscape photo of Kijŏng-dong village on the North Korean side of the DMZ in Korea. Note the outrageously large flag pole, the denuded mountains and the buildings with no glass in the windows.

Political ecology is the second key conceptual influence on my practice of landscape reading.  Political ecology examines the intersection between political economy and environmental issues, particularly in the developing world.  It explores the influence of human economies and power structures over the ways in which different people interact with and are allowed access to resources from ecological systems.[4]  The observation of people and how they relate to their environments is the critical skill here.

In addition to political geography and political ecology, my methodology for decoding landscapes is also informed by permaculture.  As a discipline, permaculture has a core of four structural elements: 3 permaculture ethics, 12 permaculture design principles, a collection of strategies and interventions that are deployed to actualise permaculture designs, many of which are not exclusive to permaculture, and a network of permaculture practitioners located around the world.[5]  The purpose of permaculture from a design standpoint is to re-create human agricultural, social and economic systems to mimic and harmonise more intimately with ecological systems, such that they become sustainable (according to the ‘hard’ definition of sustainability).  The goals of permaculture practitioners depend on their unique needs and local ecological, social, economic and political conditions.  Observing and interacting with the unique features of the location one is hoping to regenerate is the key initial step in the permaculture design process.

With these conceptual tools we can begin to tease out what we are looking for in a holistic reading of landscapes.

  1. Landscape Elements

The first step in a holistic landscape reading is to identify to important elements of a given landscape.  The geography of the location in question, including its topography, watersheds and geological profile (soils and underlying rock strata) are important in shaping the local bioregion, as is the prevailing climate and weather patterns.  These features dictate the types of flora and fauna (plant and animal species) which can live successfully in the studied location.  The observable human mediations of the landscape (buildings, technology, infrastructure, boundary fences and walls, agriculture etc.) also provide clues as to why those systems have been established in relation to the geography and biology of that location.

Key questions for field observation:

  • What am I observing here?
  • Why has this captured my attention?
  • How do these elements interact with each other?
Figure 2: Bioregional map of Victoria.
  1. Looking for Relationships Through Patterns

The second step of holistic landscape reading is to consider how the elements of a landscape relate to and interact with each other.

We look for patterns in the landscape, recurring structures, themes, interactions or problems in the observable landscape features.[6]  In the classic architecture book A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander et al describe why patterns in landscapes are important:

“no pattern is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exist in the world, only to the extent that is supported by other patterns: the larger patterns in which it is embedded, the patterns of the same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns which are embedded in it.”[7]

What this quote is describing are complex inter-relationships between landscape elements.  The kind of patterning observable could include networks, holons, flows and edges, which can be teased out with complexity and systems thinking.

Networks: Both in nature and in human systems, individual entities (species, people, organisations etc.) do not exist in isolation from one another but rather are connected.  Everything exists in a network with something else.  In network theory, these individual entities are known as nodes (on Facebook your personal profile is a node), which often cluster into hubs of coordinated node activity (Facebook groups, for example), all of which are connected by flows of goods and information.[8]

Holons: Another core principle of systems is that individual entities at any scale are simultaneously a constituent part of larger systems (such as a node in a network) and a whole system in and of themselves (such as an entire network).[9]  For example, an animal is both a member of an ecosystem and a host for billions of other living organisms within its body.  A franchise business is both one of many outlets for a larger company and an employer of numerous individual people.

Flows: Relationships between different landscape elements are defined by flows of things such as energy, water, wind, goods, information, people, animals, transport etc.  Understanding the direction and size of these flows can help us to understand the nature of the relationships between landscape elements.

Edges: In landscapes, edges can be places of interface where there is a lot of action.  In ecology, the place where two ecosystems meet is generally more productive and richer in biodiversity than either ecosystem on its own.  This idea can be applied to human social systems as well (for example, why does the most creative music tend to come from the underground?).  Edges can also be hard impermeable boundaries, designed to prevent that interface (such was walls and fences).  The type of edges we observe can tell us about how flows are channelled in the landscape as well as the nature of the relationships between landscape elements.

Degradation and Waste: Landscapes often exhibit evidence of pollution (such as particulate air pollution, chemical spillage, and water pollution), erosion (alteration of the landscape by wind, water and human flows) and invasion (such as invasive plant species, animal plagues) on the ground, in water and in the air.

Key questions for field observation…

  • What relationships am I observing between elements of the landscape?
  • What kind of patterns, networks, holons, flows, edges and degradation scars are present?
  • How are these things happening?
  • Why are they happening in this way?
Socio-Economic Permaculture zone, an example of the holon principle
Figure 3: Socio-Economic Permaculture zone, an example of the holon principle [graphic adapted from Looby Macnamara’s People and Permaculture, 2012].
  1. Inferring Meaning at the Built and Biological Interface

At this final stage of the holistic landscape reading methodology we bring all the pieces together.  Because the patterns that emerge between the elements of a landscape occur at the interface between human and biological systems, we can work backwards to decode the economic, political, social and ideological significance of what we observe in the landscape.

Economic significance: An economy is a suite of practices associated with the production, use and management of resources, and given that all resources necessarily derive from the Earth itself, economic activity is intimately inter-related with landscape.  Patterns of networks, holons, flows and edges are therefore present one way or another in the human economic activity taking place in a given landscape.

Political significance: As American sociologist Harold Lasswell famously quipped, “politics is about who gets what, when and how.”  It is the process through which completing groups and individuals in a society arrive at a procedure for the division and distribution of scarce resources and services.  This involves debates and contests over both the procedure (who gets to decide) and outcomes (who gets what) in a process that it is closely entwined with the economy.  Given that the economy mediates the human relationship with biological systems, and given that politics is a contest for control over this mediation process, landscape patterns can also reveal insights about the distribution and exercise of political power in a given location.

Social significance: How humans interact with each other is heavily influenced by economics and politics.  Therefore the types of social organisation observable in a given location are shaped by a reactions to the prevailing political and economic systems.  Social patterning should therefore be observable in the landscape.

Ideological significance: Broadly defined, ideology is a belief system that informs some kind of practical plan for economic, political and social organisation.  From a top-down view it is a “symbolic tool of political power,” which ruling elites use to maintain and strengthen their authority.[10]  From a grassroots perspective, ideology presents an alternative form of societal organisation to that which is dominant.  Either way, patterns in landscapes yield physical clues about ideological practice.

Key questions for field observation…

  • What is the meaning of the relationships I have observed through the patterns between and across the landscape elements in this location?
  • How do I feel in this landscape (what is my emotional reaction)? Am I feeling OK in this landscape or would I want to change something?
  • What baggage am I bringing with me that might influence my observation of this landscape?
  • What is the history of this landscape?
  • What is the significance of this place to humans—economic, political, social and ideological—and how is it expressed in this landscape?
  • What is the significance of this place to non-human biology?
  • How are these layers of significance inter-related?
Old freeway pillars on the Cheonggyecheon
Figure 4: Old freeway pillars on the Cheonggyecheon in Seoul, South Korea. Example of two different development paradigms exhibited in the physical history of a landscape.

Conclusion: Constructing a Mosaic for Further Investigation

Landscapes can tell us a rich story if we know how to read them.  Every landscape has important elements that shape its geography and biology, and thus the local human footprint.  These landscape elements relate to and interact with each other through recurring patterns.  Through recognising these patterns we can decode the economic, political, social and ideological significance of what we observe in the landscape.

Holistic landscape reading skills should be integral to informing action and practice.  In a more formal research setting we would then triangulate this direct observation with other data sources to substantiate, invalidate or refine the inferences made from what we have seen.  Such knowledge is invaluable in professional practice, whether we are managing landscapes, designing systems or formulating policy, in our political lives as democratic citizens and social change agents, or in our personal lives as we consider our lifestyles and relationship to place.

We are privileged to be alive at a pivotal moment in human history where all the settled assumptions of the last two centuries are up for renegotiation. New economic, political and social paradigms are evolving right now in response to the converging crises of climate change, energy insecurity, and global economic instability. While undoubtedly alarming, the realities of our historic moment also present a window of opportunity to lay the foundation for a new set of social and ecological relations rooted not just in sustainability, but in regeneration.  Being able to read and interpret the landscapes we inhabit is a key to this project.

Great Wall of China at Mutianyu. This landscape is a very clear edge which says much about the historic relationship of Han China with the Mongol peoples during dynastic times.
Great Wall of China at Mutianyu. This landscape is a very clear edge which says much about the historic relationship of Han China with the Mongol peoples during dynastic times.


[1] Wadsworth, Y. (2010). Building in Research and Evaluation: Human Inquiry for Living Systems. Crows Nest, Allen and Unwin.

[2] Jones, M., R. Jones, M. Woods, M. Whitehead, D. Dixon and M. Hannah (2014). An Introduction to Political Geography: Space, Place and Politics. Florence, Taylor and Francis.

[3] Atkins, P. (1993). The Dialectics of Environment and Culture: Kimilsungism and the North Korean Landscape. Environment and Development: Views from the East and the West. A. Mukherjee and V. Agnihotri. New Delhi, Concept: 309-332; Atkins, P. (1996). A Séance With the Living: The Intelligibility of the North Korean Landscape. North Korea in the New World Order. H. Smith, C. Rhodes and D. Pritchard. New York, St. Martin’s Press: 196-211.

[4] Veteto, J. R. and J. Lockyer “Environmental Anthropology Engaging Permaculture: Moving Theory and Practice Toward Sustainability.” Culture & Agriculture 30(1&2): 47-58.

[5] Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Hepburn, Holmgren Design Services.

[6] Alexander, C., S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King and S. Angel (1977). A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York, Oxford University Press.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Grayson, R. (2013). Remaking Our Organisations: Alternative Structures for Permaculture, Pacific Edge.

[9] Kavalski, E. (2007). “The fifth debate and the emergence of complex international relations theory: notes on the application of complexity theory to the study of international life.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 20(3): 435-454.

[10] Yang, S.-c. (1994). The North and South Korean Political Systems: A Comparative Analysis. Boulder, Westview Press.