Landscape Ecology as a Framework for Sustainable Landscape Planning

(Norway)Wenche E. Dramstad (Britain)Wendy J. Fjellstad   2016-05-08 16:07:53

(Norway)Wenche E. Dramstad (Britain)Wendy J. Fjellstad

  Abstract: Human societies face a wide range of challenges. Many of these are related to our use of land and the effects of our existence on nature and natural resources. To ensure future wellbeing for ourselves and the species with which we share this planet, we need to increase the sustainability of our actions. More cooperation between landscape architects, landscape planners and landscape ecologists may contribute to this. These professions are all concerned with the spatial organisation of land uses. Landscape ecology is a scientific discipline dedicated to uncovering the links between spatial pattern and ecological processes. Landscape architects and planners aim to design optimal spatial solutions for human environments. Sustainability links the two, through the recognition that long-term human welfare is dependent upon ecological functioning. Yet in spite of these obvious links, there is currently little use of the scientific findings of landscape ecology in real-world landscape planning. Using the early example of Olmsted's design of the Emerald Network park system of Boston, USA, we discuss various aspects of landscape design and planning where we feel landscape ecology can contribute.

Key words: landscape architecture; sustainability; spatial planning; blue/green infrastructure; urban wildlife; habitat connectivity

1 Introduction

1.1 What is landscape ecology?

Landscape ecology is a relatively new scientific discipline. While the origin of the term is commonly credited the German geographer Carl Troll in the late 1930s (Troll, 1939), it first gained wide recognition in the 1980s with the establishment of the International Association of Landscape Ecology in 1982 (IALE, and the publication of the book Landscape Ecology by Forman and Godron (1986). Particular characteristics of landscape ecology, compared with other branches of ecology, are an applied perspective and a greater focus on the role of humans and human activity in the structure and functioning of the natural world. This, of course, includes landscape change and effects of these changes, whether they are humaninduced, e.g. through design and planning or natural, e.g. through ecological succession.

Landscape ecology is very much a spatially oriented branch of ecology. Landscapes are seen as mosaics of different land types, comprising patches and linear elements (corridors) against a background or "matrix" (see Forman and Godron 1986 for detail and definitions). What exactly in a landscape represents a patch, a linear element, or matrix will vary dependent on the organism or aim of study, as well as the spatial scale (Wiens and Milne, 1989). This focus on landscape elements, their composition and spatial organization is an interest that is shared with the landscape architecture and planning professions.

1.2 The link to landscape architecture and planning

Landscape ecology aims to identify, and find solutions for, environmental problems in the real world, and has thus been described as an applied science (Turner et al., 2001; Farina, 2008; Bastian and Steinhardt, 2002). From the perspective of landscape ecologists, the scientific findings of landscape ecology should be put into practice through the work of landscape architects and landscape planners. The "common denominator" among these fields is the focus on spatial patterns, and the understanding that the spatial organization of landscape elements is important.

In landscape ecology, the spatial content and composition of a landscape at almost any scale is believed to influence the continued survival of the wide range of species with which we coexist. In landscape planning, the spatial content and composition of a landscape influences how well the landscape functions from a human perspective. Spatial planning aims "to allocate different land-use functions and activities as efficiently and effectively as possible" (Eggenberger and Partidário, 2000). The link between landscape ecology and landscape planning therefore stems from the recognition that ecological functioning is also of vital importance to humans. Thus any attempt at sustainable landscape planning must involve consideration of ecological functioning when allocating land uses.

1.3 What is sustainability?

The concept of sustainable development became widespread following the work of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development and the report entitled "Our Common Future" (WCED, 1987). In brief, sustainable development was defined as satisfying the human needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (WCED, 1987). Over a hundred variations on this definition have since been forwarded, as described by White (2013).

In spite of nuances in interpretation, there is wide agreement about the desirability of sustainability (see e.g. Hansen, 1996; Buckwell et al., 2014). There is also agreement that sustainability has three main components: social, environmental and economic. In the corporate world these are more catchily referred to as "people, planet and profit" (Elkington, 1997). In the long term, these three aspects of sustainability are mutually dependent on one another. For example, if the natural resource base is depleted, social and economic interests will also suffer. In the short-term however, certain individuals or groups may gain economically from ignoring environmental or social concerns.

One of the central tasks of landscape planners is to balance the interests of a wide range of stakeholders in order to safeguard the long-term interests of society as a whole. This requires a good understanding of the social, environmental and economic consequences of alternative landscape plans. Yet when it comes to ecology, several studies have revealed shortcomings regarding the application of scientific findings to real world management or problem-solving (Pullin et al., 2004). This includes both lack of integration of findings from landscape ecology into landscape plans, as well as lack of effective implementation of the plans (Kühn, 2003; Sandström et al., 2006; Termorshuizen et al., 2007). As a consequence, landscape ecological theories have been poorly tested in real world landscape planning situations, and there has thus been little opportunity for learning and improvement.

Various solutions have been proposed to strengthen the link between landscape ecology and landscape planning. Botequilha and Ahern (2002) promote the use of landscape metrics in sustainable landscape planning. Termorshuizen and Opdam (2009) suggest using landscape services as a bridge between landscape ecology and sustainable development. Nassauer and Opdam (2008) suggest an inclusion of design into the landscape paradigm. McAlpine et al. (2010) suggest that a more problem-solving approach may strengthen landscape ecology's contribution to sustainable landscape planning. In addition, we believe there is a need for better dialogue between landscape ecologists and landscape architects and planners. This involves both improving the understanding of landscape ecologists for how planning works in practice, and communicating the findings of landscape ecology more widely into the world of landscape architects and planners. This knowledge transfer can be achieved by working together to find practical planning solutions and, ideally, by monitoring, evaluating and publishing the results.

2 What Does Landscape Ecology Have to Offer Landscape Planning?

In discussing the link between ecology and design, it is interesting to point to a familiar example from a time well before the modern terms and concepts had been defined. Frederick Law Olmsted, known as the father of landscape architecture, created his "Emerald Necklace" of parks in Boston at the end of the nineteenth century. He designed a system of green spaces (patches), linked together by a green corridor along the river (Fig. 1). This stroke of genius was based not just on an understanding of aesthetics and human needs, but on the realization that the structure at a landscape level was of vital importance for the functioning of the blue/green infrastructure. Olmsted further managed to consider multiple landscape functions in the design of a single park system. One part of the necklace, The Back Bay Fens, was in Olmsted's time a tidal swamp and creek that was polluted with sewage and prone to flooding. As well as being very unappealing, this created health problems ( Olmsted recognised that restoring the ecological functioning of the Fens would improve public health and transform the area from a problem to a source of recreation. Throughout his almost twenty years of work on the Emerald Necklace (18781896), Olmsted designed places for both active and passive recreation in the form of a range of green and open spaces. In retrospect, Olmsted’s design represents an example of landscape ecology in practice.

2.1 Patches: the gems of the necklace

The Emerald Necklace illustrates many concepts that later were explicitly developed within the framework of landscape ecology. The most central is clearly the emerald gems themselves: the patches. For any given species, a habitat patch is an area that provides the right conditions for the species to fulfil basic needs, like finding food, shelter or mates. In some cases, a single patch might provide for all needs, whilst in other cases species might move between different patches, for example at different times of the day (e.g. for feeding vs resting), or during different seasons of the year (e.g. breeding vs overwintering sites).

In general, some patches may be very obvious in the landscape, e.g. a pond. Other patches may be more difficult for people to delineate. For example, a meadow may look homogeneous to the human observer, but a particular plant species with very specific demands of soil type and moisture conditions may be restricted to particular patches within the meadow. Similarly, butterfly larvae may be restricted to one host plant for feeding.

In an urban setting, the patch concept is often simplified to relate to the obvious patches of "green" within the urban fabric. These may include many different types of green areas, such as parks, gardens, lawns and greenery around residential, commercial, or industrial areas, around institutions such as schools and nursing homes, in graveyards and cemeteries. More recent additions to the collection of gems may include green walls or roofs. All these patches may combine to a significant area, and together may harbour a large number of species (Zerbe et al., 2003). It is important to note, however, that patches will have different characteristics and thus support different species and have different ecological value. A manicured lawn, for example, is a relative ecological desert compared with a meadow of native flowers—a cheap piece of glass in the necklace of gems. Small differences in management can therefore greatly affect the ecological functions and value of the necklace (Smith et al., 2015).

2.2 Ensuring connectivity: linking the gems

The design feature that made the Emerald Necklace particularly relevant from a landscape ecology perspective was the fact that the gems – the green patches – were linked together by the blue/green corridor of the waterway and associated riparian zone. Today, blue-green infrastructure is a concept receiving considerable attention both among researchers and landscape architects and planners, based on the many services they provide (Landscape Institute, 2009). From a landscape ecological perspective, linear landscape structures can function as corridors when they provide a route for animals and plants (e.g. as pollen or seeds) to move between patches. Movement is important to most species at some stage in their life cycle. Connectivity of habitat patches has received a lot of research attention, both from the perspective of particular species or species groups and conservation, but also related to larger scale changes e.g. enabling migration to new areas in response to climate change (e.g. Lindborg and Eriksson, 2004; Heller and Zavaleta, 2009; Olds et al., 2015; but see also Hodgson et al., 2009)

The degree to which linear elements increase the connectivity of habitat patches depends on the species in question. Some species will move along a narrow corridor, and may even be able to cross gaps of non-habitat. Other species require a very wide corridor, where outside disturbance is minimal. If the aim of a corridor is to ensure movement of a particular species, this movement is the criterion of successful design. Different species may have different tolerance when it comes to existence of gaps, width, curvature of the corridor and habitat variation within the corridor. Generating an optimal corridor for a particular species will thus require considerable knowledge about that species. Frequently the goal will be to provide a corridor for numerous species, in which case designing the corridor for the more sensitive species will ensure use by others. For example, wildlife overpasses designed to enable moose (Alces alces) to cross major roads are also used by many other species, including foxes, badgers and roe deer (Iuell et al., 2003; Taylor and Goldingay, 2010).

In any consideration of habitat connectedness it is important to keep in mind the wider landscape. What will a corridor connect? Where are the individuals of a species to come from and go to? Forman (2002) has provided several recommendations on spatial planning and organization of landscape elements. He focuses on what he describes as "indispensable patterns", consisting of a few large patches, major vegetated stream or river corridors, connectivity and heterogeneous "bits of nature" across the matrix. This way of thinking has long been familiar to the design and planning professions, as exemplified by several designs by Omsted. According to Ndubisi (1997), Olmsted viewed landscape as a living entity, a reflection of an on-going interaction between people and their physical region. We believe landscape ecology has a contribution to make in such an interaction.

2.3 Fragmentation

Some linear elements may act as barriers rather than corridors, such as rivers, roads and railways (Forman et al., 2003). While these elements in themselves are highly connected, they effectively fragment the landscape around them. For example, a new road may divide previously connected habitat into many smaller pieces (Fig. 2), thus losing many functions (EEA, 2011). Habitat fragmentation is acknowledged as one of the major threats to biodiversity worldwide (Henle et al., 2004).

While some fragmentation is difficult to avoid, landscape ecological research has shown that design measures can be effective in reducing negative impacts, for example wildlife over- or underpasses to aid crossing major roads (see e.g. Iuell et al., 2003). Importantly, connectivity depends both on structural continuity of habitat, but also on the ability or willingness of the individual to cross non-habitat. And while certain land cover types may be virtually impossible to survive in, or even to cross, for some species, other species may thrive there. Thus, any land type may be considered of different resistance, or as having different permeability, to different species or species groups. A well-designed blue-green infrastructure can provide possibilities for many species to move around and survive in an urban setting or some other landscape where the matrix represents non-habitat to the species.

Connectivity is generally considered a good thing, because movement increases spatial resilience. If a species should disappear from a patch, connectivity will allow the species to re-colonise. However, in some cases a high degree of connection may be a disadvantage, for example if it allows the rapid spread of an aggressive invasive species, such as Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) or Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) along waterways. Therefore, planning a blue-green infrastructure requires consideration of the species present in the landscape of interest.

2.4 Edges

Edges have been given a lot of attention in landscape ecological research, partly because of their close relation to fragmentation. In general, fragmentation generates edges. Edges may be represented as a narrow line on a map, but in ecological reality an edge is usually a zone of influence, with more or less gradual changes in light conditions, temperature, humidity, wind speed etc. These abiotic edge effects lead in turn to effects on species occurrences and assemblages. How far these effects are noticeable from the edge and into a habitat will differ with habitat types, characteristics of the edges and with species. The effects can be considerable, as shown by studies documenting changes in beetle species composition nearly one kilometre into a forest from an edge (Ewers and Didham, 2008).

Edge effects are therefore of major importance to landscape planning. The most important aspect is how edge effects influence what remains of suitable habitat when a patch is fragmented. For species that avoid edges, the effective remaining habitat will be much smaller than it may appear from a casual glance at a map. Some species thrive along edges, and will thus benefit from such a change. However, due to the large-scale on-going fragmentation of natural habitat, edge species are not normally species of particular conservation concern.

In a landscape design process, where edges are located and how they are designed is thus of major importance. Edges may be curvilinear or straight, and this will influence the habitat on both sides. Also, even a narrow open corridor, e.g. accompanying a road, through a forest will generate edges and edge effects (Fig. 3).

2.5 The forgotten/neglected gems

In addition to the planned and carefully designed green patches in urban areas, such as parks or cemeteries, a less recognized but potentially significant component are patches of remnant vegetation or areas temporarily available to wildlife during long drawn-out development or transformation projects. A recent British study of brownfields found a large number of rare insect species in some of these areas (Macadam and Bairner, 2012), and concluded that some of these areas, neglected from a management perspective, were very important to local biodoversity. Other small patches, that may seem insignificant individually, but which add to the overall blue/green infrastructure include green walls and roofs, street installations, and rain-gardens. Private gardens and patches of urban agriculture are other elements that may not be under public management, but that should still be taken into account as potential gems in the necklace (Fig. 4). We argue therefore that gaining an overview of the total number and variety of patches, and their connectedness, is a key part of the planning and design process. The outcome should then be used in decision making later in the process.

Landscape ecological research suggests that necklaces of connected gems will increase the biodiversity of our surroundings, with more species in larger and in more connected patches. Further research is still needed, however, on the functioning of the blue/green infrastructure in different contexts. The application of the ideas and scientific findings from landscape ecology in plans and designs would provide useful feedback. Testing theoretical principles in real world situations would allow more nuanced guidelines to be developed, for use in new applications, with further testing. We agree with the optimism forwarded by Ndubisi (2002, p. 166) who stated that "Landscape ecology, with its concern for understanding spatial change involving interacting ecosystems, provides a template for exchanging ideas about ways to create sustainable landscapes". We argue that sustainability is the ideal against which all plans should be evaluated.

2.6 Landscape metrics – to measure and compare

As scientific knowledge about landscape functioning has increased, there has also been focus on the development of tools. In particular, there has been considerable effort and interest in developing measures of spatial pattern, or landscape metrics (McGarigal and Marks, 1995; Botequilha Leitao et al., 2006; see also Dramstad, 2009). An ambition behind these metrics has been to enable standardised quantification of landscape spatial organization so that reliable, transparent comparisons can be made between landscapes, or for a given landscape at different time periods. These metrics can also provide the foundation for establishing well-founded links between spatial patterns and species occurrences.

Today, numerous measures exist that can help quantify aspects of a landscape. Some of these measures are readily available e.g. through Fragstats TM (McGarigal and Marks, 1995). And many of these are suitable to assess similarities and differences between different landscapes or the same landscape before and after some planned change. Nevertheless, these measures should be used with some caution. It is important to understand what is actually measured, and establish a sound link between the aim of the study and the index used.

3 Linking Science and Application

3.1 Include landscape ecologists on the team

Franklin (1997) suggested that sustainability is a goal that no one yet knows how to achieve, and went on to describe sustainable planning and design as a heuristic process; one in which we learn by doing, observing and recording the changing conditions and consequences of our actions. This relates very well to the ideas of adaptive management (Holling, 1978) also described as "learning by doing". In our perspective, the integration of landscape ecology and landscape architecture and planning represents an opportunity to contribute jointly to a more sustainable land use. This will require collaboration across traditional scientific boundaries and will undoubtedly be demanding. We believe, however, that it will also be exciting and rewarding.

Whilst the science of landscape ecology offers great potential for increasing the sustainability of planning decisions, the complexity of real world situations often means that this potential is not realised in practice. We believe that better communication between landscape ecologists and landscape planners is key to improving the ecological sustainability of planning solutions. Each planning situation is unique and context dependent, and requires interpretation of a large amount of data. In our experience, the environmental aspects of projects tend to focus on water issues, energy, waste recycling and ecotoxicology, whilst landscape spatial effects on biodiversity receive little attention. Sometimes ecologists contribute as consultants at the start of projects, but are not included in further dialogue about the development of the project. Species surveys may be delivered with no recommendations on how to prioritise and ecologists may even prefer to take the moral high ground and not be responsible for any decision leading to habitat loss. At the other end of the spectrum, larger firms often have multidisciplinary teams, engaged throughout the entire planning process. Outcomes may, however, still emphasise people and profit, rather than planet. Planners can help to change this situation by requiring that project owners include consideration of landscape scale ecological effects, or at least by clearly documenting when projects fail to carry out such analyses. As the focus on sustainability continues to increase, now incorporating climate effects and life cycle analyses, we hope that there will also be increasing awareness of landscape ecology.

3.2 Sustainability requires landscape-scale analysis

The science of landscape ecology emphasizes the role of spatial structure over large areas, where even narrow corridors may maintain functional connectivity for some species. Landscape architects, on the other hand, often work on projects of more limited spatial extent. Although expected to consider the direct neighbourhood, there may not be funding or acceptance for ecological analyses of the wider landscape. This is a serious challenge. Any planned change to a landscape must be analysed in a wider context. A landscape should accommodate (or hinder) flows of wind, water, energy and species. Assessing potential flows of water may require consideration of an entire watershed. Similarly, assessing the potential for colonization, or re-colonization by particular species involves considering current habitat patterns and connectivity beyond the boundaries of a particular planning project. Clearly, not all species can be accommodated everywhere, nor should all patches necessarily be linked together. Unfortunately, there is no one solution that fits all situations. The landscape, the species and the context will be different for (almost) all new projects.

How then to make the best decisions? Ideally, ecologists and planners should work together, to discuss options and find solutions. Together they can document shortcomings, either on the ecological or planning side. Together they can also document and argue with project owners and authorities what is needed to improve a situation. Together they can hopefully also document successes and failures, thus improving the knowledge base for the next project.

4 Conclusion

Olmsted designed the Emerald Necklace before the development of landscape ecology and GIS. Since the days of Olmsted in the nineteenth century, an entire field of scientific investigation has developed under the name of landscape ecology. A range of analysis methods and techniques have been developed to identify and quantify landscape suitability and functions, especially following the work of McHarg (1969). Yet well over a century later, the Emerald Necklace is still among the best examples of landscape ecology in practice. Olmsted saw parks as the "self-preserving instinct of civilization". Since then, the scientific evidence has accumulated to support this instinct, proving that blue/green infrastructure is important for all aspects of sustainability: ecological, social and economic. Some of the topics addressed are issues of global change that people were unaware of at that time, such as carbon sequestration. Nevertheless, the relatively holistic and qualitative approach used by Olmsted has proved to be successful.

The success of Olmsted suggests that certain generic principles can apply. We know that both the types of landscape element present, and their particular characteristics (size, shape, content, connectedness, distance to neighbouring patches etc.), influence their functioning in the landscape. A curvilinear patch will be inhabited by species that thrive along edges, while species preferring to avoid edges will benefit from a circular patch. Connectedness in physical structures, i.e. the necklace, will influence species’ ability to move in the landscape. Occurrence of barriers may hinder such movement. Corridors may mitigate fragmentation effects. This type of information, based on scientific findings in e.g. landscape ecology, can be used to increase the ecological sustainability of new designs and new approaches to planning. Not least, ecological knowledge may spur the creativity of the design and planning professions that are so influential in developing our future landscapes, thus identifying new solutions to the many environmental problems with which we are faced.

As knowledge and understanding have been developed about landscape functioning in general, and the link between spatial patterns and landscape functioning in particular, several examples of principles for design have been developed (see e.g. Dramstad et al., 1996; Forman and Collinge, 1996; Hersperger, 2006). Our conviction is that if designers and planners work with landscape ecologists to apply and test these, and bring in new findings from real world situations and problems, their joint efforts could make a significant contribution to both the science of sustainability and the sustainability of landscape plans.


This paper was co-funded by the Norwegian Research Council through the project "Planning and sustainable urban land use" (220561).


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(Norway)Wenche E. Dramstad, 1964, Norwegian, has an MSc in "Nature, Environment and Natural Resources" and a PhD in Landscape Ecology from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. She is a Professor in landscape ecology at the Department of Landscape Architecture and Spatial Planning, Norwegian University of Life Sciences (20% position), and is a Senior Research Scientist and Head of the Landscape Monitoring Department at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO) (1430 Aas, Norway). She is involved in the development and management of the Norwegian Monitoring Programme for Agricultural Landscapes (the 3Q Programme), in particular on indicator development and reporting. Research interests include analysing rural landscape change and perceptions of change, and examining how landscape ecology can influence land use planning

(Britain)Wendy J. Fjellstad, 1971, British, has a BSc in Biology from Southampton University, and a PhD in Landscape Ecology from University of Durham. She is a Research Scientist in the Landscape Monitoring Department at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO) (1430 Aas, Norway). Her work includes analysis and reporting on landscape status and landscape change, and research related to biodiversity, cultural heritage and landscape indicators

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