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14.5 Spirit of Place in Modern Landscape Theory

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Most twentieth century landscape theorists supported the principle that nature should ‘never be forgot’, making their approach increasingly scientific and determinist. Delphic encounters were replaced by systematic studies of history, geography, climate, biology, geology, and so forth. This approach was initiated by Patrick Geddes and followed by Ian McHarg. Though admirable in so many ways, the danger of compartmentalization was ever-present. Specialists are famed for being ‘unable to see the wood for the trees’. The problem extends into environmental assessment reports. Too often, they tell you much about fauna and flora but little about a place’s essential nature. If one is faced, for example, with recommending where to create additional runway capacity in Southeast England, it is the generalist assessment which is most difficult to frame and most important to have.

What may be called Pope’s First Law of Landscape Planning and Design (‘Consult the genius of the place’) can be paired with a Second Law, based on the work of Geddes and McHarg: ‘Any land use in the care of a specialist profession tends towards a selfish disregard for other land users’. The operation of this Law during the twentieth century was outlined in Landscape planning and environmental impact design:

  • at some point, c1900, management of the land use came within the province of a specialised skill
  • a learned society took control of the land use
  • educational courses were set up and text books written
  • the land use came as near to being a single-purpose activity as humanly possible
  • side-effects, whether harmful or beneficial, were excluded from consideration
  • there was a public outcry in the 1970s
  • experts spent the 1980s attending conferences and developing new techniques which used the vocabulary of multi-objective planning
  • few changes were made, but higher fees were charged, glossier brochures produced and managers began to boast of their 1990s-style environmental awareness

This is the story of planning for forests, roads, rivers, industry, commerce, agriculture, minerals, urban renewal, parks and ‘nature conservation’. Selfishness results in roads planned only for motor vehicles, forests for timber production, farms for food, rivers for drainage, parks for sport and bus stops for standing in queues. Highways are planned by highwaymen, who slaughter the Genius loci. We should also remember those who, for example, like to see Japanese detailing in Japan and Portuguese detailing in Portugal. Globalisation overwhelms localism. Conservationists call therefore for the Genius of the Place to be respected. ‘I am pleased to support this call. She must be consulted, always. She need not be obeyed, always’.

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