Defining the landscape

This module helps you select and define the boundaries of your landscape; whether you have or have not already selected your landscape. It also guides you through the scouting process, in case this is required.


Drawing a boundary

Before diving into landscape and stakeholder analyses, you need to make an initial definition of your working area. If the boundaries are unclear, scoping will help in deciding on the (preliminary) landscape boundaries. This chapter describes how you can define these boundaries.

What do we mean by landscape?

A landscape is a unique geographic unit determined by its geology, climate, flora and fauna as well as human economic, social and cultural activities. It also includes the history of these factors in that place. When water or oceans are the dominant features, we refer to these systems as waterscapes or seascapes.

What shapes a landscape?

We differentiate three ‘levels’ of forces that shape a landscape:

Geological forces – These forces occur on very long timescales but are very strong. They include tectonic movement, uplift and volcanic activity. They determine the basis of the landscape: the rock types and the basic topography.

Geomorphological forces – Weather, vegetation and other forces erode and put sediment down, weather rock and build soil. These effects occur in the medium timescale: decades to millennia.

Anthropological forces – Human activities have a profound effect on the landscape. They cut down forests; drain, mine or cultivate the land; change the course of rivers; and build roads and cities.  These effects are seen at very short timescales (months to decades). Humans have interacted with landscapes for thousands of years, but their capability to change their environment has increased massively since the invention of the steam engine. Culture is a vital influencing factor: it informs the beliefs and behaviour that ultimately shape the land.

Assessing the landscape’s restoration potential

A landscape is a living synthesis of people and place, often vital to people’s local and national identity. Drawing its boundaries is a process of dialogue as much as science.

To start with, identify the specific interests of the partners who intend to work together on landscape restoration. For example, one of the partners may want to demonstrate a certain approach (e.g. agroforestry), or they may prefer a specific kind of landscape (e.g. coastal mangroves).

Compile a list of criteria for landscapes you want to scope. Two of the most important criteria we recommend are:

  • Places where there is already an awareness of the need for landscape restoration (sense of urgency)
  • Places where local initiatives already work on topics related to landscape restoration.

A high sense of urgency means stakeholders more readily cooperate and experiment. Existing initiatives mean we can reach scale more quickly by strengthening and building on their work rather than starting from scratch.

Further criteria may include: showcase potential (if communication of impact is a priority); implementation potential (combination of high urgency and high local interest); presence of specific industries or land use, presence of key initiatives you may know and want to include, proximity to key markets or transportation hubs, presence of key species you may want to protect, et cetera.

When no specific landscape is determined, scouting is required. Its simplest form contains three phases:

  • Determine search criteria (as described above)
  • Desk research turn longlist into a shortlist
  • Field visits to select the final landscape from the shortlist

With criteria in hand, use desk research to find potential landscapes. Gradually reduce your longlist down as landscapes are scrutinised further. Your shortlist should contain 1-3 landscapes.

Now it’s time for a visit. This can be seen as a ‘light’ version of the landscape and stakeholder analyses (see chapter 3 here). With the information you collect, deciding which of the shortlisted landscapes shows the best potential should be relatively straightforward. Criteria that can be used for this step are:

  • Knowledge networks
    • Who do we already know in the area who could support in the early stages of the programme?
    • Are there any knowledge institutions/NGOs already involved in the area that could be relevant to the programme?
    • Are there cultural/traditional norms/values which promote land care?
    • Which are the main drivers determining land use now?
  • Stakeholders and Governance
    • Are there frontrunner initiatives in the area? What is happening already? Are these something we can build on? What obstacles are these initiatives facing now?
    • Who are the key stakeholder groups in the landscape? What are their main challenges? What are their stakes?
    • What are the power dynamics in the area?
    • Who are the leaders in the area, if any?
    • Is cross-sector/integrated landscape planning already taking place (e.g., led by the government)?
  • Business, value chains and finance
    • What are the main value chains in the landscape? Do they serve local, regional, and international markets
    • What is the effect of the major value chains on the landscape?
    • Are production systems financially viable and resilient to changes in markets and extreme weather events?
    • Are there already examples of regenerative/4 returns businesses or business cases in the landscape?
    • What is the business climate like in this area? Is it easy to do business or not, why?
    • What are the main streams of finance that flow through the landscape now?
  • Restoration potential
    • What is the scope for restoration in the natural zone in this area? Are there patches of remnant/pristine vegetation left? How long does it take to create conditions where nature can thrive again?
    • What is the scope for rehabilitation in the combined zone in this area? Are there already examples of productive land use in collaboration with nature?
    • What is the scope for sustainability initiatives in the economic zone? What are the demands the economic zone is putting on the landscape now, is that sustainable? Is there scope for urban/rural integration initiatives? Energy? Water? Biomass? Mining? Other?

In case scouting is not required

If the landscape boundaries are already clear – e.g. because a partner is already working in a defined project area – scouting for a high-potential landscape is not required. However, the exact boundary of the landscape may not be clear yet or there may be a desire to sharpen its definition further. In these cases, it is advisable to move straight to the landscape and stakeholder analyses (see chapter 3 here) and redefine the boundaries based on the insights from the analysis. It is easier to analyse a big area and then take a narrower focus than to expand the area on which you focus after you’ve done your analysis. You can therefore scope a slightly larger area than necessary to avoid overlooking important initiatives.

Defining boundaries

When you have settled on an area, determine – however roughly – where the boundaries of the landscape are. A few factors can help in determining boundaries:

  • Water catchment boundaries – water is the main force in landscapes and properly managing water is often crucial to landscape restoration. Water catchments therefore need particular attention. You often need to start at the top of the catchment, as any effects positive or negative (e.g. flooding or alien invasive seed dispersal) are exacerbated as water moves down the catchment.
  • Administrative boundaries – in many cases, administrative boundaries do not follow natural features in the landscape. Although it can make sense to define your landscape according to natural features, it can be difficult to work across the borders of administrative areas sometimes. By the same token, choosing administrative boundaries may not cut across natural features.
  • Vegetation types – vegetation may be clearly differentiated in some areas. Different vegetation types may have very different dynamics and requirements for restoration or sustainable management. Depending on your priorities, you may choose to limit the landscape to one of these vegetation types or include a variety in your landscape definition.
  • Geology and soil types – similar to vegetation types, it may make sense to either focus on specific geology or soil types or to embrace the variation present in the landscape.
    Topography and dominant weather patterns – if there is stark topography in the area, pay attention to the dominant weather patterns to make sure you know where high rainfall areas are and where rain shadows may occur.
  • Culture and identity – a lot of our work is with stakeholders. It’s important to look where shared cultures and identities lie as they can be important spurs for collaboration. Examples may be local tribes, or resident and farmers’ groups.
  • Potentially interesting stakeholders – in some cases there may be certain stakeholders (funders, government agencies, showcase farms, et cetera) that you want to include in the work at some point. In that case, it can be strategic to include their working area in your definition of the landscape.
  • Industry – you may want to focus your initiative on a certain industry or value chain (e.g. citrus). In that case you may draw the boundary around the areas where the citrus farms are concentrated.
  • Total size – there is a minimum size, below which an area is no longer a landscape but a ‘site’, but there is also a maximum size: larger than that, and it becomes very difficult to keep tabs on what’s going on in all parts of the landscape. Exactly what size is too small and what is too large varies for different contexts worldwide; we generally work in landscapes between 100,000 and 1,000,000 hectares. One criterion to keep in mind is the fact that landscapes must have multiple land uses in them; if the area has only one type of land use it is considered a site, not a landscape.
  • Water bodies – look beyond the land. Water bodies, such as streams, rivers, lakes, and even coastal seas are important parts of the landscape. They have a large effect on and are affected by what is happening on land.

Some tools to help you explore spatial information and to do the digital mapping of the boundaries are:

Explorer.land explorer.land is a map-based online platform designed for presenting landscape projects, communicating their activities, and connecting them to like-minded organizations and stakeholders from around the world.



communication tool, mapping & analytical tool

finding funds, inspiring community, mobilising people, partnering, regenerating farms, restoring nature

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If you want take an in-depth look at scouting, you could use the Restoration Diagnostic Assessment Tool developed by the World Resources Institute. For guidance on how to guide collaborative processes around spatial planning, we’d recommend the guide Spatial Planning and Monitoring of Landscape Interventions: Maps that link people with their landscapes.

To recap, landscape boundaries are very valuable in determining your working area and focus, especially at the beginning. However, setting boundaries for a landscape is not hard science. They can be changed as you become more familiar with the landscape and as appreciation for the scope of your work develops.

What has been your process to define the boundaries of the landscape you work in? Are the tools and ideas in this chapter useful to you? Let us know in the comments!

This chapter has been written by Bas van Dijk, in cooperation with various Commonland colleagues. 

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