Modelling Landscape Perceptions in European Protected Areas – Marie Micol

Die Landschaft von Marie Micol

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Every year, the Alfred Toepfer Natural Heritage Scholarship supports the work of young conservationists in Protected Areas across Europe. Marie Micol was one of the winners of the Scholarship in 2019 and traveled across France and Italy in 2020. The following article is written by Marie.

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The premise

Landscapes are fascinating. They mean so much to all of us, yet from one person to the next the definition and description of a landscape can vary greatly. For some people, a landscape will be everything natural and human interacting to shape the land and with that the culture of people who live there. For others, a landscape will only exist where there is minimal human impact, and landscapes must therefore be ‘beautiful’, ‘pristine’ (which in itself is very subjective). For some, a landscape will be something that is seen from a viewpoint, whilst for others it is something that is felt, individually and / or collectively.

Are any of those perceptions more valid than others? When I started this study, I thought the ‘right’ way to approach landscapes and to manage them was through an integrated lens: landscapes for me were everything there is and was and will be. ‘My’ landscape was a blend of childhood memories in the deep forests, roaring economic activity down in the valley, and everything in between. I thought if everyone saw it like me, we could manage it better. My goal was to find a way to make that happen.

With this study I was therefore hoping to find out what lies behind protected area staff perceptions of landscapes and landscape approaches, in order to come up with a framework – a standard way for protected areas across Europe to apply an integrated, holistic management approach to their precious landscapes.

The study was supposed to bring me on a journey across four countries in Europe to uncover landscape perceptions. The global situation from 2020 onward meant that I only got to visit one country (Italy) besides my home country (France), but

this piece of work has nonetheless been for me a metaphorical journey: a journey of questioning and learning, of feeling inspired by you people who care for those special places we call ‘protected landscapes’.

This study is not a review of existing landscape approaches nor a review of theoretical models. The data I collected is a sample, resolutely practical, of what people in protected areas think about landscapes. It is asking important questions to those people who are in the position to shape the future of our most cherished landscapes in Europe. It is an invitation to pause and reflect on what we manage and care for.

The study

With carefully crafted interviews, with 19 people in 7 different protected areas across France, Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom, as well as a short online survey to over 40 people, I set out to uncover what landscapes were really all about. I found that there are as many landscapes as there are people. Each individual perception is a blend of many factors interplaying differently from one person to the next: what we like and care about, what we have lived, our aspirations for the future, our knowledge of a place (its history, its biology, its geology, etc.), our knowledge and appreciation of other places outside of it, and importantly our philosophical view on where humans fit in all of this!

What would become of my idea of a standardised framework to approach landscapes? I moved away from this initial goal and instead realised that the exercise I had conducted could be the basis for a methodology to enable protected area teams (and their partners) to ‘have the conversation’.

Indeed, what I found is that people working in protected areas rarely get opportunities and time to stop and reflect on the bigger picture. Yet I feel this is hugely important in order for us to be able to tackle the enormous challenges we face (climate change, biodiversity loss, inequality of access to green spaces, and many others, …).

Landscape is indeed a concept which is intimately linked with the way we manage those places we cherish, today and for the future. Making these places resilient, accessible without harming them, is a key consideration when it comes to landscapes.

Pembrokeshire Coast, one of the areas visited

‘Have the conversation’ thus means first with yourself, to reflect and sometimes to even realise what landscape means for you. Importantly however, we need to have that conversation collectively. Indeed, I have found through this research that perceptions of landscapes vary enormously even within teams of protected area staff working closely together. They are not in contradiction, but they are different and call for different approaches to managing those places. To enhance local delivery, I therefore believe it is vital to enable this conversation within protected areas teams and with their close partners.

We can only solve the complex challenges we face if we understand each other’s perceptions of landscapes and behind that, the reasons why we do the work we do.

This study has therefore brought me to develop a methodology to enable protected area teams to uncover variations in landscape perceptions, and what it means for their protected area management. My goal now is to refine this methodology and make it more consistent so that I can use it to empower protected landscapes across Europe to have these important conversations. There are as many landscapes as there are people and their strength comes from the fact that they come together to care for those landscapes and to bring a common vision forward.

Protected areas are only as strong as the people who work to protect them.

This is not an academic paper. It is a think piece asking big questions. It is a eulogy to protected landscapes and the power they hold within them, to show the sustainable way forward and set the bar high. Ultimately, it is also a plea to resource them better, to believe in their potential and to enable them to fulfill what they were designed for: to bring people together, connect them to nature, and sustain livable places.

You can read the full report here.