Bringing the Past to the Present for the Future

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

Cultural Landscapes in Ontario

(reprinted courtesy of the Ministry of Culture-to be redirected to their website click on the link above)

Since the Ontario Heritage Act was proclaimed in 1975. LACACs and municipalities have developed considerable experience in identifying and designating individual heritage properties and districts. Now, in the conservation field, we are expanding our interest from individual buildings as landmarks to an appreciation of cultural landscapes.

People have always altered their surroundings to meet their needs. However, the natural landscape should not be considered as merely a setting for buildings but as an influence upon them and human activities. While there are various definitions of cultural landscapes, all emphasize the interrelationship of people and the natural environment.

Cultural landscapes are characterized by the activities and processes which have shaped them. It is our shared sense of the values they represent that make them significant.

We should not confuse cultural with scenic landscapes. A scenic landscape is valued for its pleasing appearance; a cultural landscape for the information it conveys about the processes and activities that have shaped a community. For example, an abandoned and possibly unattractive industrial site may be an important cultural landscape for the information it reveals about industrial processes and the development of a particular community or region.

Types of Cultural Landscapes

There are different typologies for cultural landscapes but generally they fall within three categories. These are taken from the Operational Guidelines adopted by the World Heritage Committee in 1992:

Defined landscapes: those which have been intentionally designed (e.g., a formal garden or, in a more urban setting, the square in the Town of Goderich)

Evolved landscapes: those which have grown organically including those which continue to evolve (continuing landscape); (relict landscape) where an evolutionary process has come to an end (e.g., an abandoned mine site)

Associative landscapes: those with powerful religious, artistic, or cultural associations of the natural element rather than material cultural evidence, which may be insignificant or even absent (e.g., Algonquin Park because of its association with the Group of Seven paintings)

Why Cultural Landscapes?

- Landscapes which have been altered by people or which have a special significance for them, convey cultural messages about past or continuing practices and processes.
- Landscapes illustrate broad patterns of land use over an extended period of time. They tell us how communities have developed; they help define what gives a region its characteristics and hence distinctive identity (e.g., the grid-like concessions of the southwest Ontario farming landscape vs. the mining landscapes of northern Ontario reveal different reasons and periods of development, and different responses to the natural landscape).
- By studying cultural landscapes, we understand the broad social, economic, political and environmental forces that have shaped and may continue to shape our communities. As a result, we have a greater chance of identifying what activities and policies will positively or negatively affect our heritage.

New Opportunities and Responsibilities

By their very nature, cultural landscapes are more complex and difficult to identify and conserve. They can be owned by a number of people or cross municipal boundaries (e.g., the Rideau Canal corridor lies in 23 municipalities, including a regional municipality). Defining the extent of the landscape requires careful evaluation of its components and an understanding of the influences and activities that shaped them. Comprehending the relationship between various parts of a landscape helps guide the types of change that could occur while ensuring adequate preservation. Evaluating landscapes helps develop a shared appreciation for them particularly if the community is involved in the process.

Identifying cultural landscapes builds on the years of experience that LACACs have with heritage buildings and districts. It offers the opportunity to expand on the understanding and appreciation of our heritage and our communities.