In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cultural Landscape

  • Introduction
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Methods for Reading and Interpreting the Landscape
  • Urban and Industrial Landscapes
  • Landscapes in Transition

Geography Cultural Landscape
Sara Beth Keough
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0011


The cultural landscape, the imprint of people and groups on the land, has long been of interest to geographers. The practice of “reading” and interpreting the landscape can prove difficult because most people are not used to taking a critical look at what they see. Geographers such as Carl Sauer and Peirce Lewis believe that most of our marks on the land could be considered unconscious or subliminal. More recently, however, landscape scholars such as Don Mitchell have proposed that human action on the land is quite purposeful and controlling in an effort to convey particular messages. The initial 20th-century Sauerian approach to landscape studies focused mostly on description of rural areas and was centered around cultural products (artifacts), rather than the processes that created those products. The social movements of 1960s and 1970s, however, brought about a change in the way geographers studied the landscape because of the highly urbanized nature of society. Scholars realized that urban areas now held as many or more clues to modernizing culture as did rural ones. It was also during this time that representational cultural geography emerged in an era where sign, symbol, and meaning in the landscape and the processes of cultural landscape creation became important considerations. Furthermore, the study of cultural landscapes was deemed an interdisciplinary pursuit. The post-1960s era was also the beginning of the cultural turn away from positivist empiricism. Beginning in the mid- to late 1990s, cultural geography experienced another shift, this time toward nonrepresentational approaches to studying people and place. This shift emphasized the importance of practices and experiences rather than things and called for a consideration of social reproduction and context in the process of landscape analysis. Scholars who criticized the nonrepresentational approach for assuming experiences could be isolated from images proposed the rerepresentational approach, where things, theories, and experiences are all considered equally. These shifts, however, were anything but seamless. Each shift came with arguments contesting new ideas and rethinking old ones. Today, scholars of the cultural landscape consider both the theories of landscape creation, the physical objects in the landscape, and how issues of power, inequality, and social justice play out in the landscape. Furthermore, it is assumed that one cannot study the cultural landscape without considering how humans have shaped the land and the neo-environmentalist approach that considers how the environment impacts people.

General Overviews

One of the advantages of engaging in a scholarly study of the cultural landscape is that literature is available for everyone from the beginner to the advanced academic. For students, Wallach 2005 is a good place to start for a better understanding of the history of landscape study as well as contemporary approaches, with clear examples throughout. For an advanced lesson in critical observation, use Stigloe 2018. Jackson 1984 is a good collection of reflections by the author. For books that emphasize the late-20th- and early-21st-century of landscape research, Malpas 2011 and Howard 2011 are helpful. For both beginning and advanced scholars, Meinig 1979 is an accessible work that gives examples of often-overlooked common occurrences in the landscape and what those say about local culture. For the latest theoretical approach to landscape studies, start with Mitchell 2000, which considers power and inequality in the landscape. Taylor and Lennon 2012 is good for its international content, as well as the authors’ emphasis on social justice and minority groups.

  • Howard, Peter. An Introduction to Landscape. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

    Anthropological in its focus, this is one of the most important monographs since the “cultural turn” of the 1990s. Asks the reader to reflect on his or her own attitudes and actions in space. Examples are Eurocentric and are often taken from landscapes near the author’s home in southwest England. Written in an accessible style with many images.

  • Jackson, John Brinkerhoff. Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.

    Based on lectures Jackson gave between 1974 and 1984. Focuses on common elements in the landscape (and on rural areas more than urban ones) to help one better understand American history and culture. Considers how the mobility of people and goods shapes the landscape. Considered a foundational work in landscape studies.

  • Malpas, Jeff, ed. The Place of Landscape: Concepts, Contexts, Studies. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2011.

    Considers landscape as it relates to place. Emphasizes the importance of both time and space, rather than just the visual elements of an area. Asks how landscapes become areas of inclusion or exclusion and how they have changed over time.

  • Meinig, Donald W., ed. The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

    A “must have” book for any landscape scholar, this contains works by key landscape theorists, including J. B. Jackson, Peirce F. Lewis, Yi-Fu Tuan, David Lowenthal, and the editor himself. Chapters focus on ways of analyzing the landscape by looking for clues about local culture.

  • Mitchell, Donald. Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511606786

    The second section of this book focuses specifically on new trends in cultural landscape studies that consider themes of power, social control, gender, race, and inequality in the landscape. Written in an accessible style, author’s ideas are illustrated through clear examples. Promotes the idea that landscapes are purposefully created.

  • Stigloe, John R. What Is Landscape? Boston: Boston University Press, 2018.

    An exploration of landscape as a noun. Leads the reader in the practice of critically looking at one’s surroundings and asking key questions. Examples help readers connect words to things.

  • Taylor, Ken, and Jane Lennon, eds. Managing Cultural Landscapes. New York: Routledge, 2012.

    A new work that documents the changing approach to landscape studies, from a focus on monuments and historic places of the 1950s and 1960s to new critical considerations. Much emphasis is put on the Asia-Pacific region from this interdisciplinary group of contributors from universities around the world.

  • Wallach, Bret. Understanding the Cultural Landscape. New York: Guilford, 2005.

    Good for undergraduate students, the book traces the human imprint on the land from early human civilization to the early twenty-first century. Includes a section on reading landscapes, and the emphasis is on what humans have done to landscapes and what that says about contemporary societies worldwide.

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