Frames and Fences: Combining Approaches to Understanding and Managing Resilient Cultural Landscapes


Resilience and the Cultural Landscape: Understanding and Managing Change In Human-Shaped Environments. Plieninger, T., and C. Bieling, editors. 2012. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY. 348 pp. $70 (hardcover). ISBN 9781107020788.

Restoring Paradise: Rethinking and Rebuilding Nature in Hawai’i. Cabin, R. J. 2013. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, HI. 236 pp. $24.99. ISBN 978-0-8248-3693-1.

Just as fences can be used to exclude certain species and enable others to thrive in the restoration of Hawaiian landscapes, the conceptual frames we use to structure how we think about and manage landscapes determines what is included and what is left out of our analysis and planning. And while determining how best to proceed is rarely simple or straightforward, having a solid conceptual framework and philosophical grounding is critical to making informed choices. At the same time, rapid change precludes the option of sorting out the finer details of the theoretical basis of our actions, so we must grapple with the challenge, both conceptually and on the ground, as we pursue the mostly shared goal of not destroying the natural capital and cultural diversity upon which human well-being depends. On this point, Resilience and the Cultural Landscape: Understanding and Managing Change in Human-Shaped Environments, edited by Plieninger and Bieling, and Cabin's book, Restoring Paradise: Rethinking and Rebuilding Nature in Hawai’i, inform our understanding of how diverse perspectives frame our understanding and management of cultural landscapes and other types of social-ecological systems. Together these books offer insights from numerous case studies in Hawaii and other places around the world, including Europe, South America, and Australia, as to how we might progress our thinking and practice of landscape management.

The resilience framework combines a related set of concepts that address complex systems and their capacity to cope with disturbance such that the system does not change its fundamental structure, function, and identity (Walker & Salt 2006). Resilience itself is a property of social-ecological systems and as Kinzig notes in chapter 18 of Plieninger and Bieling's book, “it is not as though a system either has resilience or does not. Instead, it may have more or less resilience” (p. 316). How people interact with and manage a landscape can influence how resilient it is to particular disturbances or to system perturbations more generally. The framework can thus be particularly useful in the context of changing landscapes and informing options for directing change along desirable pathways. The cultural landscape framework within human geography similarly recognizes “the concept of landscape as an expression of a complex interaction between human ideas, social structures, and the physical features of the human environment” (p. 14). Although there are many views on cultural landscapes, 3 basic understandings are outlined by Plieninger and Bieling in chapter 1: cultural landscapes are modified or influenced by human activity, they are threatened by the disappearance or change of valued landscape features, and they have meaning to groups of people in particular cultural or socioeconomic contexts (p. 15).

The papers in Resilience and the Cultural Landscape deal with the challenges and opportunities presented by combining these 2 frameworks, which emerged from different disciplines. Researchers and practitioners who use these concepts have a shared interest in analyzing and managing landscape change to sustain cultural and ecological values. The book is an outcome of a workshop involving researchers predominantly from the cultural landscape field. Participants explored similarities between the approaches and considered how the approaches might inform one another. The book offers a diversity of perspectives and case studies that contrast, compare, and merge the concepts as they guide the reader from conceptual foundations, to analytic frameworks, to the practice of managing landscapes for resilience. The volume concludes with a reflection on what is to be gained from connecting resilience and cultural landscape theory.

The convergence of thinking around landscape management from 2 distinct starting points, resilience with roots in ecology and cultural landscapes with roots in the social sciences, could be taken as a cue that we are approaching a deeper understanding of how things work. Despite their different origins, the 2 frameworks appear to have much in common. Several authors begin by making the comparison between the cultural landscape concept and social-ecological systems, a key component of resilience thinking. Although the concept of cultural landscapes has multiple discourses, UNESCO's (2008) broad definition, “the combined works of nature and man,” shares a core feature with social-ecological systems in that people are seen as a key component of the landscape, or in the later case the system.

The use of the word system highlights a significant difference between the 2 concepts, which is that social-ecological systems and the umbrella framework of resilience stem from complex adaptive systems. With a focus on system thresholds and emergent behavior, much of resilience research involves analyzing interactions among various system parts, including natural resources and ecosystem components as well as individuals, social groups, and institutions. Thus, an underlying criticism of the resilience approach, which gives rise to the “considerable differences” described by Kirchoff et al. in chapter 3, revolves around applying an ecologically derived concept to the social domain. For example, Widgren, in chapter 6, describes how an analysis of local farming in Tanzania might be limited if social stratification were not examined, in this case how and why wealthy and poor groups of farmers differ in their ability to manage the land sustainably. Both frameworks have limitations to acknowledge and work within. However, most authors of the edited volume appear to concur that resilience thinking still has some way to go before bringing a depth of understanding of the social sciences, including political ecology (and the attention it brings to power relations in particular) to resilience analysis.

Neither the resilience nor cultural landscape concepts are value-free and, as Head notes in chapter 4 (“Conceptualising the Human in Cultural Landscapes and Resilience Thinking”), both frameworks need to examine their assumptions, particularly in terms of the desirability of a system or landscape state. In their study of declining seasonal herd migration traditions in northern Spain (chapter 14, “Ecosystem Services and Social-Ecological Resilience in Transhumance Cultural Landscapes: Learning from the Past, Looking for a Future”), Oteros-Rozas and colleagues reinforce the importance of questioning assumptions underlying the desirability of a particular cultural landscape state. And in their analysis of shrimp farming off the coast of Tanzania, Beymer-Farris et al. (“Promises and Pitfalls of Adaptive Management in Resilience Thinking: the Lens of Political Ecology”) underscore the need to ask for whom is the landscape in its current configuration and use desirable. These thoughts are echoed increasingly in the ecosystem services literature in the form of the questions who benefits and who does not (e.g., Daw et al. 2011)?

Although important differences between resilience and cultural landscape frameworks can be readily examined from various angles, it is their similarities and potential benefits of integration that make this collection such a timely and constructive contribution. Both approaches, it is noted, have emerged from a deeper understanding of processes of change. Combining and applying tools that stem from each framework to the compatible goals of sustainable development and preserving cultural and biological diversity should enable understanding and provide a greater range of options. Many of the case studies illustrate what is to be gained from a multidisciplinary approach. In a study of sugarcane landscapes, the authors, Found and Berbes-Blazquez (chapter 10, “The Sugar-Cane Landscape of the Caribbean Islands: Resilience, Adaptation, and Transformation of the Plantation Social-Ecological System”), combined an examination of multiscale, adaptive cycles of change with a historical analysis of labor, capital, markets, and political action, which allowed for a comprehensive analysis and led to suggested modifications to the resilience framework. In chapter 13 (“Response Strategy Assessment: A Tool for Evaluating Resilience for the Management of Social-Ecological Systems”), Tuvendal and Elmqvist introduce a novel appraisal system for estimating resilience using coping strategies. Three final perspectives on resilient landscapes offer a compelling discussion of what is to be gained by cross-fertilization of the 2 frameworks, in particular including the more complex attributes of human societies in an approach that can be used to analyze human–environment interactions and search for general patterns.

Extending the dialogue from conceptual frameworks to practice, Cabin's firsthand experiences related in Restoring Paradise, provides a unique dimension to the discussion of managing cultural landscapes because it focuses on some of the challenges of implementation he has confronted both ecologically and in sociocultural and political realms. Cabin offers an expanded case study on landscape management and restoration in Hawaii that reveals multiple perspectives on land management and exposes the reality of triage-style restoration and aggressive management of ecosystems in one of the most rapidly changing places on the planet.

Cabin arrived in Hawaii in 1997 to work as a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, and his experiences provide a glimpse into the practical, political, and cultural dimensions of rebuilding nature in a place with the highest rate of biodiversity loss in the world. From his description of several ongoing restoration projects in Hawaii, a multilayered picture emerges of the relationships between people and their environment, where the complexity of species’ invasions and interactions is rivaled only by that of the power and politics involved with managing the landscape. Hawaii's unique evolutionary and cultural history have shaped a landscape that is difficult to imagine as anything other than a cultural landscape, as elaborated on in Plieninger and Bieling's book.

From the locally hired employees, field volunteers, restoration tourists, conservation actors, and politicians, people are a key component of every project described by Cabin. With an increasing awareness of the roles they play from facilitating alien species’ invasions, supporting or opposing restoration activities, and through various ways of participating in the process, Restoring Paradise is as much about people as it is about nature and landscapes. The significance of this relationship is perhaps distilled in the casual comments of committed restoration practitioners admiring the results of their efforts and remarking, “Wow! What if it works?” “What if it works and no one cares?” (p. 104). The amount of effort required to restore and maintain Hawaiian landscapes necessitates stewardship and volunteerism on a large scale and these volunteer programs and locally hired workers emerge as key contributing factors to a project's success. And as one interview subject of Cabin's states, if restoration is to succeed, it will “ultimately depend on the public” (p. 79).

Part of what makes Cabin's book so engaging are the first-hand accounts and multiple perspectives of frontline restoration practitioners, managers, and volunteers. The full spectrum of viewpoints reveals the challenge and illusiveness of achieving consensus or shared understanding of how to best manage the land. This resonates strongly with the more academic discussions in Plieninger and Bieling's book and echoes many of their authors’ attempts to more fully integrate human dimensions of land management with the landscape resilience concept. The suitability of such an approach also becomes clear upon being reminded that all the restoration efforts taking place in Hawaii today can be relatively easily undone. Hawaii remains vulnerable to a suite of potentially devastating disturbances (e.g., new and possibly worse alien species invasions, severe climate change effects, catastrophic volcanic eruptions, etc.). Within this broader context, strategic efforts to build resilience to large-scale disturbance would be prudent, and, drawing on Cabin's book, it is likely only achievable with public engagement efforts on a comparable scale.

Central to both books, an unanswered question remains, for whom is the landscape (or social-ecological system to put it in resilience terms) being managed? Should—as Leopold suggests in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park's 1972 management plan, “a visitor who climbs a volcano in Hawaii ought to see Mome (Sophora chrysophylla) trees and Silverswords, not goats” (p. 85)? Who ultimately should decide on the character and use of a landscape? Perhaps, as both books would suggest, the combined perspectives of cultural landscapes and resilience can offer a firm foundation from which to address what changes are acceptable, to whom, and how best to ensure that the multiple values of landscapes are sustained.