Art, nature, and culture intersect in gardens, and they have been sources of inspiration and study for centuries. But people are also inspired by natural environments (landscapes that evolve as human activity shapes them), parks, sacred places, and sites associated with historic events or individuals.

The term cultural landscape is defined in various ways by organizations such as the United States Department of the Interior’s National Park Service and UNESCO, but generally it encompasses gardens and many other kinds of environments that illuminate aspects of our history and relationship with nature.

National Park Service: “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 value.

UNESCO: “Cultural Landscapes – There exist a great variety of landscapes that are representative of the different regions of the world. Combined works of nature and humankind, they express a long and intimate relationship between peoples and their natural environment.”

The Cultural Landscape Foundation: In 1992 both the World Heritage Organization and the United States secretary of the interior took steps to recognize and protect cultural landscapes because there are important expressions of the “interaction between humankind and its natural environment.”


There are four basic types of cultural landscapes:

  • Historic designed landscapes
  • Historic sites
  • Historic vernacular landscapes
  • Ethnographic landscapes

These landscape types are not mutually exclusive. For detailed, illustrated definitions of the above terms, visit The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s web site:


People often speak of “restoring” a building or garden when they actually mean spruce it up or remodel it to capture a feeling of the past. In the United States, the Secretary of the Interior establishes professional standards for restoration of cultural resources including gardens and cultural landscapes eligible for or listed in the National Register of Historic Places.


The Secretary of the Interior’s professional standards for dealing with historic landscapes recognize four legitimate approaches or treatments.

  1. Preservation – to sustain the existing form, integrity, and materials
  2. Rehabilitation – 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
  3. Restoration – accurately depicting the form, features and character of a property as it appeared at a particular period of time
  4. Reconstruction – depicting, bu means of new construction , the forms, features, and detailing of a non-surviving site, landscape, building, structure, or object for the purpose of relocating it appearance at a specific period of time and in its historic location.

It is important to determine which treatment (or combination) is appropriate for a significant garden or cultural landscape, even if it will not be listed in a local landmarks list or in the National Register of Historic Places.


This process includes multiple steps:

  1. Property identification
  2. Historical research and documentation
  3. Inventory and documentation of present conditions
  4. Evaluation of significance and integrity (and site analysis if there will be a treatment planning process). Documentation of the cultural landscape can result in official recognition of the property by, for example, listing it in the National Register of Historic Places, or in a list of local landmarks or cultural monuments. Documentation can also bring inclusion in the Historic American landscapes Survey (HALS). Often, understanding and recognition of a cultural landscape’s importance leads us to want to retain or regain a property’s historic integrity by preparing a preservation treatment plan to guide its long-term physical management.

Thus the next steps we’d take would be to:

  1. Develop a Cultural Landscape Preservation Approach and Treatment, selection one of the following: preservation, rehabilitation , restoration, reconstruction.
  2. Prepare a Cultural Landscape management plan and Management Philosophy and overtime
  3. Produce and implement a Record of Treatment and Future Research Recommendations

An excellent overview of this entire cultural landscape preservation process is found in: NPS Brief #36 – Birnbaum, Charles A., Protecting of Cultural Landscapes: Planning, Treatment and Management: National Park Service, 1994.


Specific National Register Bulletins were created to assist you in the identification, documentation, evaluation and National Register listing of two special types of cultural landscapes: rural and designed historic landscapes.

See: National Register Bulletin 30: Guidelines for Evaluation and Documenting Rural Historic Landscapes, Linda Flint McClelland (NPS) and J. Timothy Keller, Genevieve P. Keller, and Robert Z. Melnick (Land and Community Associates). Washington, DC: Interagency Resources Division, National Park Service, (res. 1999).

National Register Bulletin 18: How to Evaluate and Nominate Designed Historic Landscapes, J. Timothy Keller and Genevieve Keller (Land and Community Associates) Washibngton, DC: Intergency Resources Division, National Park Service, n).

The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes, edited by Charles A. Birnbaum with Christing Capella Peters, was published in 1996. Revised in 2009, the Guidelines are now available on-line. They suggest “treatment” approaches for cultural landscapes because, due to the dynamics inherent in living systems, preserving landscapes is quite different from preserving buildings! In the context of “treatment”, “preservation” becomes one of the four approaches for protecting and managing historically-significant landscapes and their essential “character-defining” features such as spatial character, topography, views, and vistas, circulation patterns, vegetation and structures.

The “Guidelines” on-line at:

Image: Donnell Garden, Sonoma, California. Photo courtesy of the Cultural Landscape Foundation.