Matters of significance.

Assessing the New Zealand
landscape with Gavin Lister.

Landscapes are central to New Zealand’s identity and livelihood. We trade on our images of farmland and wilderness. At the same time, we have, within real time, irreversibly remade our land. We are a young country working out what kind of place we are.

Landscape and assessment.

Much of Isthmus’ Design Planning work over the years has its origin in environmental assessment and the statutory requirements of the Resource Management Act (RMA) (1991), and has raised ‘matters of national significance’. It is worth reflecting on landscape assessment, despite its technical nature, because it unlocks why landscapes actually mean so much to people. It is also worth reflecting on our good fortune in practicing in New Zealand because the methods pioneered by a group of landscape architects, and now accepted as mainstream, are at the forefront internationally. Crucially, such methods have been endorsed by decisions of the Environment Court and Boards of Inquiry. The characteristics of these methods are that they begin from an appreciation of landscape as a human construct and a rejection of formulaic and reductive methods in favour of a richer approach.

Isthmus regards landscape as the relationship between people and place. For the sake of analysis it is conceptualised as having three main dimensions: physical, perceptual (aesthetic) and associative. The physical dimension includes, for instance, an understanding of the earth sciences, ecology and hydrology, and the overlays of road and settlement networks, street and cadastral layouts, land uses and architecture. The perceptual dimension comprises direct appreciation through the senses, including such aesthetic characteristics as clarity, coherence, legibility (in a mental map sense), and cultural norms of appreciation like the ‘picturesque’ or the ‘sublime’. It also includes appreciation through the other senses, such as smell and sound. The associative dimension includes those aspects of a landscape usually reached by way of the humanities, such as cultural meanings, history, and such spiritual aspects as transcendence, identity, belonging, and continuity.

To put it another way, we have immediate sensory responses to places; we can understand them scientifically, and we associate meaning and memory to them. But, importantly, these dimensions don’t exist separately. While we pick them apart for the sake of analysis, in reality they are interwoven.

Isthmus’ method comprises two parts: firstly, unpicking and scrutinising the various components in a reductive manner, and secondly, reassembling and interpreting landscapes as a whole.

The first task is a way of paying closer attention to places: measuring, researching, diagramming – putting observations into words. But, while it is a crucial discipline, the pitfall is that we end up with nothing more than a box full of parts. The equally critical task is to put it all back together again with a richer appreciation of how it works. It is the more challenging task and requires artful synthesis. Perhaps the most precise term is ‘consilience’ (a term borrowed from biologist Edward O. Wilson) meaning a convergence of evidence from different perspectives, particularly the sciences and humanities. The word’s etymology is from ‘jumping together’ which perfectly captures the way the different dimensions leap into focus.

Landscape is also its own thing. While we rely on other sources, such as tangata whenua, the natural sciences, and art, our role is not to be cataloguers of the findings of others, but to interpret landscapes. It is a subtle but crucial distinction.

Sketch by David Irwin

Design and assessment.

Isthmus regards assessment and design as part and parcel of the whole. The split that is often made between ‘landscape planning’ and ‘landscape design’ is limiting – both conceptually and in practice. Keeping them together, on the other hand, is more coherent conceptually and provides for more meaningful input to projects. For a start, concepts of ‘landscape’ are overarching, and the same methods of understanding a place – ‘observing, collecting, researching and diagramming’ – apply regardless of whether the brief is assessment or design. The power of ideas is likewise common to both design and assessment. Aligning the North Island Grid Upgrade Project (NIGUP) transmission line, for instance, gives form to the simple idea of making it as straight as possible. Locating and designing the Tauhara II power station gives form to the idea of anchoring it to the horizontals of the pumice plains. Preserving the Mokihinui gives form to the idea of the wilderness as a human construct.

Most importantly, design is active whereas assessment in isolation is passive. Design is concerned with the actual outcome rather than just the regulatory process, and that opens the door to more meaningful input. It opens the door to a role in the ‘inner circle’ that actually influences the project. To play that role requires a perspective on the whole project beyond our own specialism: by helping resolve complex matters through design and articulating clear design principles that can be implemented by other disciplines.