Ordinary and outstanding - the importance of all "outstanding landscapes"

Outstanding Natural Landscape is an important concept in the Resource Management Act, 1991, and is recognised as a matter of national importance. The current form of the act however still leaves unresolved the question of how to recognise and manage landscapes that may be outstanding without meeting the criterion of being natural. 

The deliberations over a 2009 proposal for a wind farm at Lammermoor in Central Otago drew attention to the importance of another type of outstanding landscape. While not all experts considered the wind farm site in the Lammermoor ranges to be an ‘outstanding natural landscape’, the ranges were nonetheless ‘outstanding’ to the local and regional community. This highlighted that while many New Zealanders appreciate picturesque, scenic and ‘natural’ landscapes, it is often the meanings of our everyday ‘lived in’ or sometimes regarded as ‘ordinary’ landscapes which define much of our connection to place and identity as people.  

Point Elizabeth Beach, and Rapahoe Reserve. An outstanding landscape with scenic, amenity, and associative values.

Point Elizabeth Beach, and Rapahoe Reserve. An outstanding landscape with scenic, amenity, and associative values.

The Lammermoor decision revealed contrasting positions between local artists and landscape experts as they each considered the effects of a proposed wind farm on the outstanding landscape of the Lammermoor ranges. At the end of the process the initial wind farm proposal was declined by the Environment Court, and the values revealed by artists were crucial in this decision.  They are expressed in a book that Graeme Sydney (artist), Brian Turner (poet) and Owen Marshall (writer) co-wrote to raise funds for legal fees to fight against the wind farm proposal. Timeless Land tells the stories of Central Otago from a Pākehā cultural perspective and was arguably adopted by the local community as their expression of ownership and identity. It is also important to note the artists, who would not normally be deemed experts in this field, helped to influence the outcome of the decision.

These insights by artists concisely captured associative values of the landscape that do not derive primarily from natural aspects but from the way people have lived in the landscape. The Lammermoor case highlighted tensions in the interface between expert landscape assessment and the connections that people have with place in New Zealand. It prompts questions such as what might landscape assessment in New Zealand reveal if associative values of human activity were given equal weight to natural aspects in identifying outstanding landscapes? It also raised the possibility that artists can be major contributors to the identification of outstanding landscapes. 

These questions have been investigated by Hannah Wilson through a Master’s thesis at Lincoln University, based on a case study analysis within the Grey District, on the West Coast of New Zealand. The relationship between people and landscape here has historically been different to the rest of New Zealand, being a place which was economically sustained by the landscape-shaping industries of gold mining, coal mining, and saw mill industries. The associative values from the history of human endeavour are integral to some of the picturesque and sublime landscapes found on the West Coast of the South Island which are nationally and internationally recognised. 

The thesis research was grounded on two precedent studies: The Grey District Plan 1999 which included a list of outstanding natural landscapes, and the West Coast Region Landscape Study, 2013. The research explored the values expressed in current landscape assessment methodologies and included field work to get a sense of what was considered outstanding to the local community, natural or otherwise. Drawing on the example of the Lammermoor case it was decided to use artists as a source of these values.  

Four artists were recommended by local contacts and were interviewed to identify what they considered outstanding landscapes within a defined area. They included Colleen Eason, an artist who had moved to Greymouth from Christchurch approximately six years ago; Stewart Nimmo, a local photographer who had lived in Greymouth for most of his life; Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, a poet and writer who spent most of his childhood growing up in Blackball during the height of coal mining; and Kate Buckley, an artist from Ireland who currently lives in Hokitika.

Each artist was given a map of the study area and was asked to take the researcher to the landscapes they considered outstanding to their community. This involved a series of ‘mobile’ interviews (driving and walking) where they visited each landscape individually and each artist explained why they considered the landscape was outstanding.

The Blackball Bath House. An outstanding landscape for the Blackball Miners and local community. Wilson, 2018.

The Blackball Bath House. An outstanding landscape for the Blackball Miners and local community. Wilson, 2018.

The interviews concurred with both precedent studies in areas but there were also landscapes which were considered outstanding for reasons other than scenic beauty or naturalness, and associative values that elevated the importance of already identified outstanding natural landscapes. Eason and Nimmo identified the Rapahoe Scenic Reserve and North Beach to the north of the Greymouth CBD as being outstanding, agreeing with the WCRLS. Their reasons however were not solely associated with the landscape’s biophysical health and wilderness values. The reserve and nearby beach had provided the community with rich amenity values, and the history of mining associated with the site was also considered important to the landscape’s identity. The name Rapahoe in itself also has cultural associations for Māori, translating to the phrase “flash of the paddle”.

Holman identified the Blackball Bath House, a location not previously recognised in expert studies as an outstanding landscape. The Bath House is now a ruin tucked away behind the township of Blackball and Holman told stories of the ‘rituals’ which were carried out in the Bath House after every day in the mine. The Bath House was a symbol of that community’s existence and played a vital part in the daily life for Holman’s father and fellow miners.

Buckley highlighted the importance of the Brunner Mine site. The site is the location of New Zealand’s worst mining disaster.  She explained that although the site is now suited for tourists, we must not forget the people who lived and worked on this site as opposed to elevating the relics of that place as picturesque ruins. It is also important to note that the tragic death associated with this place is now not all that ‘Coasters’ recognise it for. Eason identified both the association of the miner’s lives with the site, and its new use, becoming a popular swimming hole and picnic spot for locals.

The Brunner Mine. An artwork by Hokitika artist, Kate Buckley. Buckley, 2019

The Brunner Mine. An artwork by Hokitika artist, Kate Buckley. Buckley, 2019

The results of these interviews suggest important questions for the profession of landscape architecture and more specifically for the Resource Management Act review. The first relates to the nature and type of expertise used in landscape assessment. 

As a profession our expert landscape opinion is given significant weight, but that also brings the unconscious bias we have when looking at landscapes which are not always familiar to us. For many New Zealanders, including landscape planners, the landscapes of the West Coast Region are judged to be outstanding through an aesthetic frame of picturesque and sublime values that draw upon natural forms and patterns.  This same landscape can also be valued because of the relationships it has to the people who live there. Although all of the artists acknowledged at some point the natural beauty and health of these landscapes, being ‘natural’ alone was not enough to make it outstanding. The Blackball Bath House for example might be seen as unremarkable or ordinary by outside assessors, but had a strong associative value for Holman, who saw it as an emblematic place of real people, community and industrial past. This was much deeper than the beauty or biophysical intactness of the surrounding Paparoa Ranges. This creates a challenge of how to balance outside expert perceptions of outstanding natural landscapes with the need to ensure that the ‘outstanding landscapes’ of the community who live there are also acknowledged.

Reconciling outstanding natural landscapes and landscapes recognised as outstanding for other reasons also raises the issue of scale.  Both of the expert landscape studies analysed as precedents were carried out at broad regional and district scales, but the outstanding associative values identified by the artists were experienced at a more local, human scale. There has also been a tendency across the profession to conflate the idea of outstanding natural landscape as a matter of national importance with the evaluation of what might be outstanding at a national scale. The results of this study suggested that although outstanding natural landscapes can be found at a broad scale and in a national context, we must not forget that there are landscapes which are regionally and locally outstanding to the people of that place, and that may not always be obvious to an outsider.

There is also the internal issue of time amongst the local community. What is outstanding to someone who grew up during the height of mining and timber felling on the West Coast can be completely different to someone who is now raised in that landscape today in a world of tourism, climate change and sustainability. How can associative values be monitored and assessed to ensure all ‘outstanding landscapes’ are encapsulated to represent everyone in that community?

Many of the artists identified outstanding landscapes that expressed values found in section 7c (amenity values) of the Resource Management Act, rather than in section 6b outstanding natural landscapes. This raises the question whether matters considered in section 7c might be more closely aligned with the ‘outstanding’ associative values that may also exist. Just as the term ‘natural’ has been much debated in case law, there needs to be more careful attention to associative values in landscapes, and perhaps a distinction be drawn between qualities that create an outstanding “natural landscapes” and those that create an ‘outstanding landscape’.

Although many of the landscapes in the Grey District have been identified as outstanding natural landscapes, there are also the issues of both neglecting to acknowledge how much modification has actually occurred in some of these landscapes, and to recognise an ordinary landscape as being rich in ecological and associative value. Buckley compared the Rapahoe Scenic Reserve to the Cobden Wetlands bordering the Grey River. She noted that although the wetland is covered in scrub and gorse, it is actually an important habitat for whitebait, compared to the beach near the reserve where the wildlife population was not as plentiful. Should these ‘ordinary’ or ‘unnatural’ landscapes also be considered outstanding natural landscapes?

Buckley’s point raised the issue of how it is common in our methodology to conflate picturesque, scenic and ‘natural’ looking landscapes with ecological health, implying that a landscape must be outstanding if it looks healthy. Both are completely different concepts. One associative, the other biophysical. What is an outstanding landscape visually does not always equate to biophysical health – and nor is an ecologically healthy landscape visually outstanding in picturesque terms.  For New Zealand the conflation was engrained into the forming of institutions which were set up at the time of European colonisation. These include our national parks and scenic reserves, through to our contemporary resource management legislation. But just as an ecologically healthy landscape is not necessarily scenic, so too a culturally rich landscape is not necessarily scenic. The conflation of natural and scenic has not only confused the definition of ‘natural’, but also restricted our view of what is outstanding. Unpacking the conflation will allow for an untethering of scenic and natural, and the recognition of other types of outstanding landscape.  

What this research showed was that contemporary Pākehā New Zealanders have developed a deeper connection to landscapes than earlier European colonisers. The timing of New Zealand’s European colonisation was crucial to the formation of national parks, scenic reserves and current legislation. This brought an appreciation for the picturesque that prevailed in Europe at that time and still shapes current legislation and practice. It is time to loosen that tether. As a country, New Zealand is moving away from the superficial view of landscape, to a recognition that people can have attachments to places beyond visual appreciation and a more holistic approach to landscape management. This concept was supported by each artist, with the human element of landscape taking precedence over values ingrained in picturesque ideals. As the RMA undergoes review, and assessment methodologies are revised, it is critical to recognise the need for tools to acknowledge and sustainably manage all of New Zealand’s important landscapes. Biophysical and associative; ordinary and outstanding.

Hannah Wilson.

Hannah Wilson.

Footnote: Since completing her Master of Landscape Architecture degree at Lincoln University, Hannah Wilson has taken up a position as a Landscape Planner with Boffa Miskell in Christchurch. After completing her Bachelor of Landscape Architecture in 2017, she was motivated to further explore her interests in landscape planning and using landscape architecture as a way to improve the connections between people and place.

Given the review of the RMA and landscape assessment methods (Project LAM), it seemed timely to ask the question of whether there are outstanding landscapes which are not ‘natural’? Hannah’s thesis looked at historical cultural perspectives of what makes a landscape outstanding and whether these views are still relevant to New Zealanders today. This enabled her to address legislation and landscape assessment methods which could be improved to further incorporate associative values and other outstanding landscapes. Her supervisors were Dr Jacky Bowring, Lloyd Carpenter and Simon Swaffield, all from Lincoln University.