A landscape is part of Earth’s surface that can be viewed at one time from one place.


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Biology, Ecology, Earth Science, Geology, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography

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A landscape is part of Earth's surface that can be viewed at one time from one place. It consists of the geographic features that mark, or are characteristic of, a particular area.

The term comes from the Dutch word landschap, the name given to paintings of the countryside. Geographers have borrowed the word from artists. Although landscape paintings have existed since ancient Roman times (landscape frescoes are present in the ruins of Pompeii), they were reborn during the Renaissance in Northern Europe. Painters ignored people or scenes in landscape art, and made the land itself the subject of paintings. Famous Dutch landscape painters include Jacob van Ruisdael and Vincent van Gogh.

An artist paints a landscape; a geographer studies it. Some geographers, such as Otto Schluter, actually define geography as landscape science. Schluter was the first scientist to write specifically of natural landscapes and cultural landscapes.

A natural landscape is made up of a collection of landforms, such as mountains, hills, plains, and plateaus. Lakes, streams, soils (such as sand or clay), and natural vegetation are other features of natural landscapes. A desert landscape, for instance, usually indicates sandy soil and few deciduous trees. Even desert landscapes can vary: The hilly sand dunes of the Sahara Desert landscape are very different from the cactus-dotted landscape of the Mojave Desert of the American Southwest, for instance.

Cultural Landscape
A landscape that people have modified is called a cultural landscape. People and the plants they grow, the animals they care for, and the structures they build make up cultural landscapes. Such landscapes can vary greatly. They can be as different as a vast cattle ranch in Argentina or the urban landscape of Tokyo, Japan.

Since 1992, the United Nations has recognized significant interactions between people and the natural landscape as official cultural landscapes. The international organization protects these sites from destruction, and identifies them as tourist destinations.

The World Heritage Committee of UNESCO (the United Nations Economic, Social, and Cultural Organization) defines a cultural landscape in three ways.

The first is a clearly defined landscape designed and created intentionally by man. The Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations in the southeast of Cuba, near Santiago, is an example of this type of cultural landscape.

The second type of cultural landscape is an organically evolved landscape. An organically evolved landscape is one where the spiritual, economic, and cultural significance of an area developed along with its physical characteristics. The Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape, along the banks of the Orkhon River in central Mongolia, is an example of an organically evolved landscape. The Orkhon Valley has been used by Mongolian nomads since the 8th century as pastureland for their horses and other animals. Mongolian herders still use the rich river valley for pastureland today.

The last type of cultural landscape is an associative cultural landscape. An associative landscape is much like an organically evolved landscape, except physical evidence of historical human use of the site may be missing. Its significance is an association with spiritual, economic, or cultural features of a people. Tongariro National Park in New Zealand is an associative cultural landscape for the Maori people. The mountains in the park symbolize the link between the Maori and the physical environment.

People and the Natural Landscape
The growth of technology has increased our ability to change a natural landscape. An example of human impact on landscape can be seen along the coastline of the Netherlands. Water from the North Sea was pumped out of certain areas, uncovering the fertile soil below. Dikes and dams were built to keep water from these areas, now used for farming and other purposes.

Dams can change a natural landscape by flooding it. The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, in Yichang, China, is the world's largest electric power plant. The Three Gorges Dam project has displaced more than 1.2 million people and permanently altered the flow of the Yangtze River, changing both the physical and cultural landscape of the region.

Many human activities increase the rate at which natural processes, such as weathering and erosion, shape the landscape. The cutting of forests exposes more soil to wind and water erosion. Pollution such as acid rain often speeds up the weathering, or breakdown, of Earth's rocky surface.

By studying natural and cultural landscapes, geographers learn how peoples activities affect the land. Their studies may suggest ways that will help us protect the delicate balance of Earth's ecosystems.

Fast Fact

Landscape Architecture
Landscape architecture is the study of planning and altering features of a natural landscape. This often takes the form of public parks and gardens. Central Park, the enormous public park in America's New York City, is often cited as an ideal example of urban landscape architecture. Central Park was designed by American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead.

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Jeff Hunt
Hilary Hall
Hilary Costa
Erin Sprout
Santani Teng
Melissa McDaniel
Diane Boudreau
Tara Ramroop
Kim Rutledge
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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