Monday 3 October 2011

A blot on the landscape? Depends how you look at it

ANOTHER LIFE: THE FLATTERING, enamelling light of autumn works its usual magic on the western landscape, waking the glow of curling bracken on the mountainsides and the sedges reddening in the bogs. A lower, sharper sun searches also into the raw orifices of small-town ghost estates and gleams on the gables of the myriad new second homes in so many wrong places in the countryside.

In the wake of the tiger, a draft national landscape strategy has at last crept into view. The European Landscape Convention, adopted in Florence in 2000 and later signed and ratified by Ireland, sat on a government desk until 2007, when the Green minister for the environment, John Gormley, launched a “broad consultative process”.

This brought in the Heritage Council, so long frustrated by inaction that it published its own landscape proposals last year, and the indefatigable leader of the NGO Landscape Alliance Ireland, Terry O’Regan of Cork, crusader for a national policy since 1995.

In the steering group, they joined five government departments, two universities, Coillte, Teagasc, the Irish Landscape Institute, county and city managers and a “farming representative” (unspecified). Their work is published now by Jimmy Deenihan, Minister of the newly melded Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and, by all accounts, a rare Co Kerry enthusiast for proper landscape planning.

A speaker at one of O’Regan’s several landscape conferences in the 1990s expressed a widely held truth: “Basically, landscape planning means that those of good taste, or hopefully of good taste, tell those of bad taste or none what they may or may not do.” The steering group will have none of this. It cites the European Landscape Convention’s strong preference for subsidiarity – the taking of decisions at the most local level possible.

“Most importantly,” it stresses,“it is not the intent of the Strategy to ‘protect’ landscape from anyone, least of all those who own, manage or use it.” Developers may be pleased to hear this, along with all the farmers who missed their chance last time to sell another bit of roadside scenery. And there’s no suggestion, apparently, of changing the scope of current local-authority planning.

Enlightened control of changes in the landscape will rest on “raising awareness” at local level of what landscape is, or needs to be, and for whose benefit, plus a national co-ordination of all the systems and structures charged with “looking after the land and its resources”. It’s going to be a long haul, as the strategy readily concedes: five years for “gathering the research, evidence and opinions that will facilitate an informed national reflection about the best ways to care for and develop the Irish landscape”, and another five years for refining systems and structures (not least for public participation) and perfecting the essential management tools of “landscape character assessment” and a national landscape atlas and framework “in standardised form”.

We’ve been over part of this course before. In 2000 the Department of the Environment and Local Government issued guidelines to local authorities on the preparation of landscape character assessments (LCAs). These involved a method that “moves away from concepts such as sublime, beautiful, outstanding, etc as criteria or as a means of categorisation. These are the very categories which give rise to a view of the landscape which was unnecessarily restrictive, protectionist and conservationist.” What was wanted, the memo went on, was something more factual, “which will essentially describe the distinctness of one landscape type from another and which will avoid an evaluation which tends to rank one landscape as better than another”. The new approach would assess the landscape’s geology and landcover – vegetation, settlements, water and so on – and then overlay its local “values”: historical, cultural, religious and “other understandings of the landscape”, whatever they proved to be.

After five years, a score of counties had completed LCAs of some sort, most using landscape consultants at a cost of up to €70,000. Few of these thought much of the department’s guidelines, and no one in Ireland could offer them any special LCA training. It was not a success.

Now there’s to be training, not least in assessing what a landscape “can sustainably offer – its economic, ecological, social and cultural potential – to those who own, see or visit it”. A big ask, as they say.

But the proposed national landscape strategy itself sets high objectives, including preparation “for the known and suspected changes to the landscape that will arise from climate change, peak oil and the need to reduce our carbon footprint”. One begins to see, indeed, why mere good taste in landscape is of rather limited use.

You can download the 54-page draft document, now open for public comment, at StrategyforIreland-StrategyIssuesPaper

Irish Times

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