Influence of Landscape on Identity

In essence, the landscape is not just a physical backdrop, but an integral part of how people understand themselves and their place in the world. The lifelong influence of one's formative landscape is a key part of personal identity.


Changing landscape identity—practice, plurality, and power

Landscape has always been in constant flux; yet, historically landscape change was local, gradual, and nested within existing landscape structures. By contrast, contemporary landscape changes are often seen as threatening, characterized as abrupt, unpredictable, and highly dynamic transformations with little relation to locality. Such transformations are driven by interrelated factors including globalization, urbanization, level of accessibility, calamitous events, economic factors, technological development, as well as changing cultural values.

Historically, the environment in which identities form was downplayed in academic studies. However, relationships and connections to others are always geographically located, as in ‘To be human is to have and know your place’. The relations we develop with our surroundings create and establish belonging, meaning, and security.

A significant step in the landscape identity concept is the unique psycho-sociological perception of a place as a spatial-cultural space as both a physical entity and a vessel for existential meaning. Alterations to the landscape affect how people see themselves. If changes are negative or non-democratic, they undermine the relationships individuals and communities have to their surroundings.

Changes to the landscape’s physicality may result in continued connection becoming untenable or only possible to maintain through increased effort, as the practice no longer fits the landscape and results in a ‘tipping point’ to landscape identity where through change new identity forms. Such change has the potential to create ‘landscape induced alienation’ or Solastalgia, homesickness without leaving home. Recognizing the psychological impact can help explain why landscape change arouses resistance. Identities become important when they are perceived to be under threat. As individuals, if we perceive a threat to the landscape, we find the need to defend it as an identifiable space; consequently, new relations to the landscape develop.

Such connections and understanding impact spatial behavior, the extent of which becomes clear when we are faced by people or practices that appear ‘out of place’, bringing into question who is recognized as a worthy or responsible community member. Yet, identity can also be constructed through change with such change having a positive effect if it provides increased self-esteem.

Contemporary landscape identities are situated in a world characterized by mobility where identities undergo a perpetual process of “rewriting”. Disembodied global processes are manifested in local landscapes restructuring localities from outside. The awareness of being part of global flows and systems undermines local place identity.

The uncertainty generated through global flows and resulting landscape change creates a search for identities of resistance, creating tension between globalization and the local. Landscape identity as a local construct is anchored in a specific place while global identities are abstract, generalized, subsuming the specific and the unique. In spite of and also as a response to global drivers, local identities and landscape distinctiveness become more significant as they provide a sense of security.

As such, location-based identities have to be seen as solid and fixed in order to provide anchors where collective practices, traditions, and shared material can form. The identity individuals draw on depends on the issue being addressed as individuals and groups draw on identity from various sources; place of residency, social standing, ethnicity, practices. Consequently, as individuals, we position ourselves on many axes at the same time depending on the issue at hand.

Multiple identities entail power structures, with different value holders vying for recognition, with global community values taking priority over local agendas and informing landscape identity. This raises a need to question the drivers in order to understand what instigates change in identity. Although landscape identity is generally perceived as having positive connotations, joining people together and developing shared values, it also constructs exclusion through the distinction of ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘the other’.

Identity, including landscape identity, becomes utilized as a means for classification, an objectifying scientific tool, masking the conflicts and ignoring the question of who belongs, who has a right to engage in landscape activities, legitimizing their identity in their surroundings. This discussion reframes landscape identity as a political entity, underwritten with power struggles, as all attempt to make their view and position significant. Landscape identity defines who can inhabit the place, who is included and who is excluded, and how people relate to each other.