As well as the physical travels these last few weeks, I thought it might also be interesting to describe some of my theoretical journey. Initially, I was approaching my research using the ‘standard model’ of landscapes and wellbeing – the ecosystem service framework. This is one we are all familiar with, and one that I adopted almost unquestioningly. However, a few weeks ago I spoke to an old supervisor of mine, Neal Hockley, and he shared with me some of the issues that he took with the theory. One of the essential criticisms is that the framework at times treats ecosystems as if they were inviolate ‘natural’ horns of plenty – as long as you leave them to do their thing, ecosystems will provide you with a bounty of services for free. But how many places in the world are actually ‘natural’ and what does natural actually mean? Almost all of the benefits that are derived from ecosystems are generated through the intersection of human, physical and natural capital – why then is there this focus on ecosystems as the ultimate providers of benefits? This discrepancy is even more tangible when we look at what the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment vaguely calls cultural services – the metaphorical rug to sweep all those things that do not fit into the other categories. Yet, culture is often generated through the complex, historic and contemporary interplay between humans and their landscapes, not simply ‘supported’ by a sacred grove or natural wonder.
It is within this context that I came across the notion of cultural landscapes; similar to the concept of multifunctional landscapes, but stressing the subjective and interdependent relationship between landscapes and their human inhabitants. Cultural landscape theory does not make a de facto delineation between ‘natural’ and human processes and features. Instead, it treats landscapes as a matrix of features, processes and relationships along a human-nature continuum, which individuals experience through their own subjective lens. These elements interact as complex adaptive systems, forming phenomena that often include those things that are often identified as ‘ecosystem services’, but also include agro-ecosystems, etc. However, fundamentally, these elements are identified and interpreted according to how they are culturally valued (including scientific culture). This body of theory, I think, will provide the perfect bridge for discussing subjective wellbeing effects and landscape components. Like the good little geek I am, I am very excited! Also, I’ve just finished field work – 226 surveys complete!