Preservation Briefs: 36 Protecting Cultural Landscapes: Planning, Treatment And Management Of Historic Landscapes

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National Park Service, Preservation Assistance Division
Landscape Work
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The link immediately below connects to the latest version of the National Park Service Preservation Brief 36:

Charles A. Birnbaum, ASLA

This standard includes the bulk of information contained in the
original Preservation Brief developed by the National Park Service.
To obtain a complete copy of this brief, including figures and
illustrations, please contact:  

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Cultural landscapes can range from thousands of acres of rural
tracts of land to a small homestead with a front yard of less than
one acre. Like historic buildings and districts, these special
places are real aspects of our country's origins and development
through their form and features and the ways they were used.
Cultural landscapes also reveal much about our evolving
relationship with the natural world.

A CULTURAL LANDSCAPE is defined as "a geographic area, including
both cultural and natural resources and the wildlife or domestic
animals therein, associated with a historic event, activity, or
person or exhibiting other cultural or aesthetic values." There are
four general types of cultural landscapes, not mutually exclusive:
historic sites, historic designed landscapes, historic vernacular
landscapes, and ethnographic landscapes. These are defined as


Historic Designed Landscape:
A landscape that was consciously designed or laid out by a
landscape architect, master gardener, architect, or horticulturist
according to design principles, or an amateur gardener working in
a recognized style or tradition. The landscape may be associated
with a significant person(s), trend, or event in landscape
architecture; or illustrate an important development in the theory
and practice of landscape architecture. Aesthetic values play a
significant role in designed landscapes. Examples include parks,
campuses, and estates.

Historic Vernacular Landscape:
A landscape that evolved through use by the people whose activities
or occupancy shaped that landscape. Through social or cultural
attitudes of an individual, family or a community, the landscape
reflects the physical, biological, and cultural character of those
everyday lives. Function plays a significant role in vernacular
landscapes. They can be a single property such as a farm or a
collection of properties such as a district of historic farms along
a river valley. Examples include rural villages, industrial
complexes, and agricultural landscapes.

Historic Site:
A landscape significant for its association with a historic event,
activity, or person. Examples include battlefields and President's
house properties.

Ethnographic Landscape:
A landscape containing a variety of natural and cultural resources
that associated people define as heritage resources. Examples are
contemporary settlements, religious sacred sites and massive
geological structures. Small plant communities, animals,
subsistence and ceremonial grounds are often components.

HISTORIC LANDSCAPES include residential gardens and community
parks, scenic highways, rural communities institutional grounds,
cemeteries, battlefields and zoological gardens. They are composed
of a number of character-defining features which individually or
collectively contribute to the landscape's physical appearance as
they have evolved over time. In addition to vegetation and
topography, cultural landscapes may include water features such as
ponds, streams, and fountains; circulation features such as roads,
paths, steps, and walls; buildings; and furnishings; including
fences, benches, lights and sculptural objects.

Most historic properties have a cultural landscape component that
is integral to the significance of the resource. Imagine a
residential district without sidewalks, lawns and trees or a
plantation with buildings but no adjacent lands. A historic
property consists of all its cultural resources - landscapes,
buildings, archeological sites and collections. In some cultural
landscapes, there may be a total absence of buildings.

This Preservation Brief provides preservation professionals,
cultural resource managers, and historic property owners a step-by-
step process for preserving historic designed and vernacular
landscapes, two types of cultural landscapes. While this process is
ideally applied to an entire landscape, it can address a single
feature such as a perennial garden, family burial plot, or a
sentinel oak in an open meadow. This Brief provides a framework and
guidance for undertaking projects to ensure a successful balance
between historic preservation and change.


Nearly all designed and vernacular landscapes evolve from, or are
often dependent on, natural resources. It is these interconnected
systems of land, air and water, vegetation and wildlife which have
dynamic qualities that differentiate cultural landscapes from other
cultural resources, such as historic structures. Thus, their
documentation, treatment, and ongoing management require a
comprehensive, multi-disciplinary approach.

Today, those involved in preservation planning and management for
cultural landscapes represent a broad array of academic
backgrounds, training, and related project experience.
Professionals may have expertise in landscape architecture,
history, landscape archeology, forestry, agriculture, horticulture,
pomology, pollen analysis, planning, architecture, engineering
(civil, structural, mechanical, traffic), cultural geography,
wildlife, ecology, ethnography, interpretation, material and object
conservation, landscape maintenance and management. Historians and
historic preservation professionals can bring expertise in the
history of the landscape, architecture, art, industry, agriculture,
society and other subjects. Landscape preservation teams, including
on-site management teams and independent consultants, are often
directed by a landscape architect with specific expertise in
landscape preservation. It is highly recommended that disciplines
relevant to the landscape's inherent features be represented as

Additional guidance may be obtained from State Historic
Preservation Offices, local preservation commissions, the National
Park Service, local and state park agencies, national and state
chapters of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the
Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation, the National
Association of Olmsted Parks, and the Catalog of Landscape Records
in the United States at Wave Hill among others.

A range of issues may need to be addressed when considering how a
particular cultural landscape should be treated. This may include
the in-kind replacement of declining vegetation, reproduction of
furnishings, rehabilitation of structures, accessibility provisions
for people with disabilities, or the treatment of industrial
properties that are rehabilitated for new uses.


Careful planning prior to undertaking work can help prevent
irrevocable damage to a cultural landscape. Professional techniques
for identifying, documenting, evaluating and preserving cultural
landscapes have advanced during the past 25 years and are
continually being refined. Preservation planning generally involves
the following steps: historical research, inventory and
documentation of existing conditions, site analysis and evaluation
of integrity and significance, development of a cultural landscape
preservation approach and treatment plan, development of a cultural
landscape management plan and management philosophy, the
development of a strategy for ongoing maintenance, and preparation
of a record of treatment and future research recommendations.

The steps in this process are not independent of each other, nor
are they always sequential. In fact, information gathered in one
step may lead to a re-examination or refinement of previous steps.
For example, field inventory and historical research are likely to
occur simultaneously, and may reveal unnoticed cultural resources
that should be protected.

The treatment and management of cultural landscape should also be
considered in concert with the management of an entire historic
property. As a result, many other studies may be relevant. They
include management plans, interpretive plans, exhibit design,
historic structures reports, and other.

These steps can result in several products including a Cultural
Landscape Report (also know as a Historic Landscape Report),
statements for management, interpretive guide, maintenance guide
and maintenance records.


A Cultural Landscape Report (CLR) is the primary report that
documents the history, significance and treatment of a cultural
landscape. A CLR evaluates the history and integrity of the
landscape including any changes to its geographical context,
features, materials, and use.

CLR's are often prepared when a change (e.g., a new visitor's
center or parking area to a landscape) is proposed. In such
instances, a CLR can be a useful tool to protect the landscape's
character-defining features from undue wear, alteration or loss. A
CLR can provide managers, curators and others with information
needed to make management decisions.

A CLR will often yield new information about a landscape's historic
significance and integrity, even for those already listed on the
National Register. Where appropriate, National Register files
should be amended to reflect the new findings.


Research is essential before undertaking any treatment. Findings
will help identify a landscape's historic period(s) of ownership,
occupancy and development, and bring greater understanding of the
associations and characteristics that make the landscape or history
significant. Research findings provide a foundation to make
educated decisions for work, and can also facilitate ongoing
maintenance and management operations, interpretation and eventual
compliance requirements.

A variety of primary and secondary sources may be consulted.
Primary archival sources can include historic plans, surveys,
plats, tax maps, atlases, U.S. Geological Survey maps, soil
profiles, aerial photographs, photographs, stereoscopic views,
glass lantern slides, postcards, engravings, paintings, newspapers,
journals, construction drawings, specifications, plant lists,
nursery catalogs, household records, account books and personal
correspondence. Secondary sources include monographs, published
histories, theses, National Register forms, survey data, local
preservation plans, state contexts and scholarly articles.

Contemporary documentary resources should also be consulted. This
may include recent studies, plans, surveys, aerial and infrared
photographs, Soil Conservation Service soil maps, inventories,
investigations and interviews. Oral histories of residents,
managers, and maintenance personnel with a long tenure of
historical association can be valuable sources of information about
changes to a landscape over many years. For properties listed in
the National Register, nomination forms should be consulted.


In the case of designed landscapes, even though a historic design
plan exists, it does not necessarily mean that it was realized
full, or even in part. Based on a review of the archival resources
outlined above, and the extant landscape today, an as-built period
plan may be delineated. For all successive tenures of ownership,
occupancy and landscape change, period plans should be generated.
Period plans can document to the greatest extent possible the
historic appearance during a particular period of ownership,
occupancy, or development. Period plans should be based on primary
archival sources and should avoid conjecture. Features that are
based on secondary or less accurate sources should be graphically
differentiated. Ideally, all referenced archival sources should be
annotated and footnoted directly on period plans.

Where historical data is missing, period plans should reflect any
gaps in the CLR narrative text and these limitations considered in
future treatment decisions.


Prior to undertaking work on a landscape, a treatment plan or
similar document should be developed. The four primary treatments
identified in the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the
Treatment of Historic Properties are:

Preservation is defined as the act or process of applying measures
necessary to sustain the existing form, integrity, and materials of
an historic property. Work, including preliminary measures to
protect and stabilize the property, generally focuses upon the
ongoing maintenance and repair of historic materials and features
rather than extensive replacement and new construction. New
additions are not within the scope of this treatment; however, the
limited and sensitive upgrading of mechanical, electrical and
plumbing systems and other code-required work to make properties
functional is appropriate within a preservation project.

Rehabilitation is defined as the act or process of making possible
a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations, and
additions while preserving those portions or features which convey
its historical or cultural values.

Restoration is defined as the act or process of accurately
depicting the form, features, and character of a property as it
appeared at a particular period of time by means of the removal of
features from other periods in its history and reconstruction of
missing features from the restoration period. The limited and
sensitive upgrading of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems
and other code-required work to make properties functional is
appropriate within a restoration project.

Reconstruction is defined as the act or process of depicting, by
means of new construction, the form, features, and detailing of a
non-surviving site, landscape, building, structure, or object for
the purpose of replicating its appearance at a specific period of
time and in its historic location.


Both physical evidence in the landscape and historic documentation
guide the historic preservation plan and treatments. To document
existing conditions, intensive field investigation and
reconnaissance should be conducted at the same time that
documentary research is being gathered. Information should be
exchanged among preservation professionals, historians,
technicians, local residents, managers and visitors.

To assist in the survey process, National Register Bulletins have
been published by the National Park Service to aid in identifying,
nominating and evaluating designed and rural historic landscapes.
Additionally, Bulletins are available for specific landscape types
such as battlefields, mining sites, and cemeteries.

Although there are several ways to inventory and document a
landscape, the goal is to create a baseline from a detailed record
of the landscape and its features as they exist at the present
(Considering seasonal variations). Each landscape inventory should
address issues of boundary delineation, documentation methodologies
and techniques, the limitations of the inventory, and the scope of
inventory efforts. These are most often influenced by the
timetable, budget, project scope, and the purpose of the inventory
and, depending on the physical qualities of the property, its
scale, detail, and the interrelationship between natural and
cultural resources. For example, inventory objectives to develop a
treatment plan may differ considerably compared to those needed to
develop an ongoing maintenance plan. Once the criteria for a
landscape inventory are developed and tested, the methodology
should be explained.


Inventory and documentation may be recorded in plans, sections,
photographs, aerial photographs, axonometric perspectives,
narratives, video - or any combination of techniques. Existing
conditions should generally be documented to scale, drawn by hand
or generated by computer. The scale of the drawings is often
determined by the size and complexity of the landscape. Some
landscapes may require documentation at more than one scale. For
example, a large estate may be documented at a small scale to
depict its spatial and visual relationships, while the discrete
area around an estate mansion may require a larger scale to
illustrate individual plant materials, pavement patterns and other
details. The same may apply to an entire rural historic district
and a fenced vegetable garden contained within.

When landscapes are documented in photographs, registration points
can be set to indicate the precise location and orientation of
features. Registration points should correspond to significant
forms, features and spatial relationships within the landscape and
its surrounds. The points may also correspond to historic views to
illustrate the change in the landscape to date. These locations may
also be used as a management tool to document the landscape's
evolution, and to ensure that its character-defining features are
preserved over time through informed maintenance operations and
later treatment and management decisions.

All features that contribute to the landscape's historic character
should be recorded. These include the physical features described
earlier and the visual and spatial relationships that are
character-defining. The identification of existing plants, should
be specific, including genus, species, common name, age (if known)
and size. The woody, and if appropriate, herbaceous plant material
should be accurately located on the existing conditions map. To
ensure full representation of successional herbaceous plants, care
should be taken to document the landscape in different seasons, if

Treating living plant materials as a curatorial collection has also
been undertaken at some cultural landscapes. This process, either
done manually or by computer, can track the condition and
maintenance operations on individual plants. Some sites, such as
the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, in Brookline,
Massachusetts have developed a field investigation numbering system
to track all woody plants. Due to concern for the preservation of
genetic diversity and the need to replace significant plant
materials, a number of properties are beginning to propagate
historically important rare plants that are no longer commercially
available, unique, or process significant historic associations.
Such herbarium collections become a part of a site's natural
history collection.

Once the research and documentation of existing conditions have
been completed, a foundation is in place to analyze the landscape's
continuity and change, determine its significance, assess its
integrity, and place it within the historic context of similar


By analyzing the landscape, its change over time can be understood.
This may be accomplished by overlaying the various period plans
with the existing conditions plan. Based on these findings,
individual features may be attributed to the particular period when
they were introduced, and the various periods when they were

It is during this step that the historic significance of the
landscape component of a historic property and its integrity are
determined. Historic significance is the recognized importance a
property displays when it has been evaluated, including when it has
been found to meet National Register Criteria. A landscape may have
several areas of historical significance. An understanding of the
landscape as a continuum through history is critical in assessing
its cultural and historic value. In order for the landscape to have
integrity, these character-defining features or qualities that
contribute to its significance must be present.

While National Register nominations document the significance and
integrity of historic properties, in general, they may not
acknowledge the significance of the landscape's design or historic
land uses, and may not contain an inventory of landscape features
or characteristics. Additional research is often necessary to
provide the detailed information about a landscape's evolution and
significance useful in making decisions for the treatment and
maintenance of a historic landscape. Existing National Register
forms may be amended to recognize additional areas of significance
and to include more complete descriptions of historic properties
that have significant land areas and landscape features.

Integrity is a property's historic identity evidenced by the
survival of physical characteristics from the property's historic
or prehistoric period. The seven qualities of integrity are
location, setting, feeling, association, design, workmanship and
materials. When evaluating these qualities, care should be taken to
consider change itself. For example, when a second-generation
woodland overtakes an open pasture in a battlefield landscape, or
a woodland edge encloses a scenic vista. For  situations such as
these, the reversibility and/or compatibility of those features
should be considered, both individually, and in the context of the
overall landscape. Together, evaluations of significance and
integrity, when combined with historic research, documentation of
existing conditions, and analysis findings, influence later
treatment and interpretation decisions.


A noted geographer stated, "The attempt to derive meaning from
landscapes possesses overwhelming virtue. It keeps us constantly
alert to the world around us, demanding that we pay attention not
just to some of the things around us but to all of them -- the
whole visible world in all of its rich, glorious, messy, confusing,
ugly, and beautiful complexity."

Landscapes can be read on many levels -- landscape as nature,
habitat, artifact, system, problem, wealth, ideology, history,
place and aesthetic. When developing a strategy to document a
cultural  landscape, it is important to attempt to read the
landscape in its context of place and time.

Reading the landscape, like engaging in archival research, requires
a knowledge of the resource and subject area as well as a
willingness to be skeptical. As with archival research, it may
involve serendipitous discoveries. Evidence gained from reading the
landscape may confirm or contradict other findings and may
encourage the observer and the historian to revisit both primary
and secondary sources with a fresh outlook. Landscape investigation
may also stimulate other forms of research and survey, such as oral
histories or archeological investigations, to supplement what
appeared on-site.

There are many ways to read a landscape -- whatever approach is
taken should provide a broad overview. This may be achieved by
combining on-the-ground observations with a bird's-eye perspective.
To begin this process, aerial photographs should be reviewed to
gain an orientation to the landscape and its setting. Aerial
photographs come in different sizes and scales, and can thus
portray different levels of detail in the landscape. Aerial
photographs taken at a high altitude, for example, may help to
reveal remnant field patterns or traces of an abandoned circulation
system; or, portions of axial relationships that were part of the
original design, since obscured by encroaching woodland areas. Low
altitude aerial photographs can point out individual features such
as the arrangement of shrub and herbaceous borders, and the exact
locations of furnishings, lighting, and fence alignments. This
knowledge can prove beneficial before an on-site visit.

Aerial photographs provide clues that can help orient the viewer to
the landscape. The next step may be to view the landscape from a
high point such as a knoll or an upper floor window. Such a vantage
point may provide an excellent transition before physically
entering the cultural landscape.

On ground, evidence should then be studied, including character-
defining features, visual and spatial relationships. By reviewing
supporting materials from historic research, individual features
can be understood in a systematic fashion that show the continuum
that exists on the ground today. By classifying these features and
relationships, the landscape can be understood as an artifact,
possessing evidence of evolving natural systems and human
interventions over time.

For example, the on-site investigation of an abandoned turn-of-the-
century farm complex reveals the remnant of a native oak and pine
forest which was cut and burned in the mid-nineteenth century. This
previous use is confirmed by a small stand of mature oaks and the
presence of these plants in the emerging secondary woodland growth
that is overtaking this farm complex in decline. A ring count of
the trees can establish a more accurate age. By reading other
character-defining features -- such as the traces of old roads,
remnant hedgerows, ornamental trees along boundary roads,
foundation plantings, the terracing of grades and remnant fences --
- the visual, spatial and contextual relationships of the property
as it existed a century ago may be understood and its present
condition and integrity evaluated.

The findings of on-site reconnaissance, such as materials uncovered
during archival research, may be considered primary data. These
findings make it possible to inventory and evaluate the landscape's
features in the context of the property's current condition.
Character-defining features are located in situ, in relationship to
each other and the greater cultural and geographic contexts.


Landscape interpretation is the process of providing the visitor
with tools to experience the landscape as it existed during its
period of significance, or as it evolved to its present state.
These tools may vary widely, from a focus on existing features to
the addition of interpretive elements. These could include
exhibits, self-guided brochures, or a new representation of a lost
feature. The nature of the cultural landscape, especially its level
of significance, integrity, and the type of visitation anticipated
may frame the interpretive approach. Landscape interpretation may
be closely linked to the integrity and condition of the landscape,
and there, its ability to convey the historic character and
character-defining features of the past. If a landscape has high
integrity, the interpretive approach may be to direct visitors to
surviving historic features without introducing obtrusive
interpretive devices such as free-standing signs. For landscapes
with a diminished integrity, where limited or no fabric remains,
the interpretive emphasis may be on using extant features and
visual aids (e.g., markers, photographs, etc.) to help visitors
visualize the resource as it existed in the past. The primary goal
in these situations is to educate the visitor about the landscape's
historic themes, associations and lost character-defining features
or broader historical, social and physical landscape contexts.


Treatment may be defined as work carried out to achieve a historic
preservation goal - it cannot be considered in a vacuum. There are
many practical and philosophical factors that may influence the
selection of a treatment for a landscape. These include the
relative historic value of the property, the level of historic
documentation, existing physical conditions, its historic
significance and integrity, historic and proposed use (e.g.,
educational, interpretive, passive, active public, institutional or
private), long-and-short-term objectives, operational and code
requirements (e.g., accessibility, fire, security) and costs for
anticipated capital improvement, staffing and maintenance. The
value of any significant archeological and natural resources should
also be considered in the decision-making process. Therefore, a
cultural landscape's preservation plan and the treatment selected
will consider a broad array of dynamic and interrelated
considerations. It will often take the form of a plan with detailed
guidelines or specifications.


In the past, there was rarely adequate record-keeping to fully
understand the ways a landscape was maintained. This creates gaps
in our research findings. Today, we recognize that planning for
ongoing maintenance and on-site applications should be documented
-- both routinely and comprehensively. An annual work program or
calendar records the frequency of maintenance work on built or
natural landscape features. It can also monitor the age, health and
vigor of vegetation. For example, on-site assessments may document
the presence of weeds, pests, dead leaves, pale color, wilting,
soil compaction -- all of which signal particular maintenance
needs. For built elements, the deterioration of paving or drainage
systems may be noted and the need for repair or replacement
indicated before hazards develop. An overall maintenance program
can assist in routine and cyclic maintenance of the landscape and
can also guide long term treatment projects.

To help structure a comprehensive maintenance operation that is
responsive to staff, budget, and maintenance priorities, the
National Park Service has developed two computer-driven programs
for its own landscape resources. A Maintenance Management Program
(MM) is designed to assist maintenance managers in their efforts to
plan, organize, and direct the park maintenance system. An
Inventory and Condition Assessment Program (ICAP) is designed to
complement MM by providing a system for inventorying, assessing
conditions, and for providing corrective work recommendations for
all site features.

Another approach to documenting maintenance and recording changes
over time is to develop a manual or computerized graphic
information system. Such a system should have the capability to
include plans and photographs that would record a site's living
collection of plant materials (Also see discussion of the use of
photography under Preparing Existing Condition Plans). This may be
archived using a computer-aided drafting program along with an
integrated database management system.

To guide immediate and ongoing maintenance, a systematic and
flexible approach has been developed by the Olmsted Center for
Landscape Preservation. Working with National Park Service
landscape managers and maintenance specialists, staff assemble
landscape features.

of the landscape.


Last Reviewed 2012-09-05