While growing up in the border area between Switzerland, Germany and France I was fascinated by the limits of the landscape as I passed through these countries. The immediate change in the landscape while stepping over the border between two states is a really astonishing experience. Something different appears there; a new, specific impression, although there are only a few metres separating both sides of the border. This character of the landscape can be experienced as a whole, however it is very difficult to keep hold of this wholeness in a conscious way or to describe it afterwards in words. How can the special character of the Sundgau in the southern Alsace (FR) be recognised, when comparing it to the neighbouring landscape at the edge of the Jura in Switzerland?
I have been fascinated by landscapes since my youth; their variety, variability, contrasts and their relationship with each other. I wanted to learn, to discover and to understand landscapes. I therefore chose to study geography. I wanted understand how a landscape develops, taking into account the interplay of the climate with movements in the earth, the rocks, the water cycle and the plant cover, which all show permanent change over time. While the basic character of a landscape can be described reasonably well, using acknowledged, immovable, visible landscape elements, it is much more fascinating to discover the role of animals and their meaning in a given landscape. What kind of environment did they create? What facets of the landscape do they reveal to us?
With respect to the phenomenon described at the introduction of this article, when passing a border drawn on this landscape by people ‘artificially'. We are able to recognize - almost at once - the spirit of the culture that exists in a certain place. This experience is similar to the first impression we have when we meet somebody for the first time. The awareness of this first image becomes easily blurred again the more we penetrate the landscape and the more we become a part of it. Actually, only during a second phase can details be described as parts of this image - starting out from the things the people living there have created, and how they are cultivating, building and acting in their environment.
Over the last twenty years of my professional life, it has been my task to describe and assess the effects of infrastructure projects such as streets, railway lines, power stations and power lines, among other elements, on nature and the environment. With regard to the predictions on environmental impact, suggestions had to be made on how to keep landscape damage to a minimum.
This objective can be achieved successfully if we consider each component of nature separately in a scientific manner. We can describe the effects of road construction on the land, on the water table and vegetation and also make increasingly better analyses with respect to how animal habitats are affected. However for me, dealing with the landscape as a whole remains unsatisfactory. Protecting the peculiarity, variety and beauty of the landscape is a task that is even established as a legal duty in Germany, yet effective instruments for this task are still not available. Meanwhile, the decline of nature and landscapes is still on the increase. So how can we adequately protect the living development of the landscape?
In recent decades the number of technical instruments used to visualize and make these conceivable landscape changes caused by human impact has notably increased. Unfortunately this progress has not led to convincing methods that measure or qualify impact on the landscape. Landscape quality still comes down to a matter of taste, i.e. judgements as to whether one likes or does not like a landscape, or if one learns to like it the more one gets used to it. It seems to me that we must go further in order to be capable of judging whether our interaction with the landscape is coherent, healthy and in complete connection with the living landscape or not.
In my opinion, it is our task to further develop both our relationship with the landscape and our planning methods. This will enable us to establish the criteria for our actions in the landscape in a creative way - by using the experience of the special character of a place, including its past, its geographical location and the people who live there. This kind of landscape policy design could lead us to a new landscape culture.
The ideal process would be to gather everyone linked to a place in a participatory planning process. This process could be carried out in several steps. Firstly - and this procedure seems to be undervalued in normal planning processes – everybody should attempt to establish direct contact with the landscape in order to observe and experience its special qualities before sharing the results together. This would lead to a common and diverse image of the individual character of a place. Only after this step would an outline of the planning process be worked out – and jointly - out of an awareness of our concrete relationship with the landscape in question. Experts such as engineers would provide their technical expertise and combine it creatively with artistic imagination to the specific characteristics of the location in hand.
This process has already taken place on some occasions, however it still remains a dream, but it is one that we must try to convert into reality.