Defining the landscape

In this chapter

  • Different forces shape a landscape: including geological, ecological, and human influences. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for effective management and restoration efforts.
  • Landscape boundaries are defined by spiritual, natural, cultural, and economic factors. Boundaries are more than lines on a map; they align activities, create project identity, and aid monitoring.
  • The 3 Zones can help define and understand your landscape. They help you to zoom out and see the big picture, and to understand the complexity and dynamics between natural, economic, and combined zones in support of better decision making.

One of the first steps in working at a landscape level is to analyse the landscape to gain a better understanding of how it was shaped and what factors influence it. To begin, you need to define your working area by drafting boundaries. Sometimes the boundaries of a landscape are clear, but at other times it can be difficult to be precise. This chapter explores methods for defining the boundaries and the advantages of embracing a 3 Zones perspective.

Reminder: what do we mean by landscape?

Let’s revisit the concept of a landscape. It is a socio-ecological system that consists of multiple interconnected natural or human-modified lands and wetlands. It is influenced by geology, climate, flora, and fauna, as well as historical, economic, socio-cultural, and political activities (modified from The Little Sustainable Landscape Book). Within a landscape, a variety of land uses coexist, from agriculture and forestry, to biodiversity conservation and urban areas. Generally, if the area only has one type of land use, it is considered a site, not a landscape. These different uses are managed by different stakeholders, each with their own objectives, such as biodiversity preservation, agricultural productivity, or livelihood security. Given the diverse use of landscapes, defining boundaries can be challenging. So, where do we begin? 

It’s crucial to find the right balance in terms of scale, and to optimise ecological restoration efforts. Ideally, a landscape is small enough to manage effectively but big enough to serve the needs of various stakeholders. Landscapes should be large enough to accommodate all components of their complex systems, typically ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 hectares, though this may vary depending on the specific context. 

What shapes a landscape?

Looking back in time to understand the factors that shape the physical and biological environment of a landscape will guide effective management and restoration efforts. By recognising these influences, stakeholders can develop informed strategies. Key factors that shape landscapes are: 

  • Geological influences. These forces operate over long timescales and include tectonic movements, uplift, and volcanic activity. They determine the fundamental characteristics of the landscape, such as its rock types and basic topography.
  • Geomorphological influences. Weather, water, vegetation, and other natural forces shape the landscape by eroding land, depositing sediment, and building soil. These processes occur over medium timescales, spanning decades to centuries.
  • Ecological influences. The dynamic interplay between biodiversity and the geological environment drives continuous evolution within ecosystems. Vegetation, plant-eaters, meat-eaters, prey, and predators continuously shape the ecosystem which they have inhabited since evolutionary times. From large wildlife to microorganisms, species interact to shape the landscape’s ecological balance. This has been ongoing for thousands of years, just as human activities have dramatically altered landscapes over the past millennia.
  • Anthropogenic influences. Human activities have a profound effect on the landscape. People cut down forests, drain, mine, or cultivate land, change the course of rivers, and build roads and cities. These effects are often seen at short timescales of months or decades. Although humans have interacted with landscapes for thousands of years, their ability to change their environment has increased massively since the invention of the steam engine. Cultural factors also play a role in shaping beliefs and behaviours that influence land use and management practices.

Identify the landscape’s boundaries

A landscape is vital to people’s local and national identity, but its boundaries are not rigid; they can shift over time. Defining where one landscape ends and another begins is a bit like finding the border on a map — sometimes clearly defined, other times uncertain. Deciding these boundaries involves more than just scientific analysis; it requires open dialogue. Establishing boundaries fosters shared understanding and provides clarity for organising activities and monitoring progress. 

As you deepen your understanding of the landscape, boundaries may change to better reflect the scope of your work and the landscape’s dynamics. For example, landscape boundaries might be adapted when setting tangible goals aligned with your vision (see chapter Creating a shared vision for the landscape). To define your landscape’s boundaries, it is helpful to analyse the landscapes characteristics and to define the 3 Zones — which we will explore next.

Factors for defining boundaries

In this section, we explore factors that contribute to the way you define your landscape’s boundaries. Set by stakeholders involved in landscape management, the boundaries may align with natural features, socio-cultural areas such as Indigenous territories, or administrative boundaries, sometimes even crossing national borders. Let’s delve into how each of these factors influences the delineation of your landscape for effective planning and management. 

Watershed boundaries

Water plays a key role in shaping landscapes. A watershed is where all the water from rainfall and snowmelt flows into a common body of water, such as a river, lake, or wetland. These areas act like natural bowls, collecting water and directing it into larger bodies of water. Wetlands, often found within watersheds, filter water and prevent flooding. It’s important to consider watershed boundaries, starting from the top. Issues such as flooding, drought, and invasive species can be understood and addressed better by focusing on the watershed. This approach, which focuses on managing resources within a specific geographical area defined by its hydrological boundaries, helps target restoration and conservation efforts strategically. 

Administrative boundaries

Administrative boundaries often fail to match the natural layout of the land. While it might make sense to define your landscape according to natural features, doing so can present challenges when working across administrative borders, such as provincial or national boundaries. A river or mountain range may serve as a clear natural boundary within a landscape, while administrative borders may cut across these features, for example. This mismatch can complicate collaborative efforts that span multiple administrative areas. 

Vegetation types

In certain regions, vegetation varies noticeably. Distinct types of vegetation may have vastly different dynamics and requirements for restoration or sustainable management. Depending on your priorities, you might decide to focus on just one type of vegetation or include a mix in your landscape plan. In a coastal wetland area, for example, salt-tolerant mangroves may thrive alongside freshwater marshes and upland forests. Depending on your objectives, you might opt to concentrate on restoring a specific vegetation type, such as mangroves, or incorporate a combination of habitats into your landscape plan.

Geology and soil types

Just like vegetation, you need to consider whether to concentrate on specific types of geological or soil characteristics, or to embrace the variation in the landscape. If the aim is to restore wetland habitats, for example, focusing on peat meadows could be a strategic choice.

Migration routes of wildlife

Important wildlife migration routes could define the boundary or require complete inclusion within your landscape boundaries. In a forested region, for example, the migration path of a herd of deer might cross various habitats, including woodland, grassland, and wetland areas. Ensuring that these routes are fully encompassed within landscape boundaries supports their protection and conservation.

Total size

Landscapes are not characterised or defined by size but for practical reasons it is best to work in large landscapes of 50,000 to 1,000,000 hectares, or more. This makes it possible to restore ecological processes, such as animal migration and seed dispersal, that require large areas. Exactly what is too small and what is too large varies in different contexts worldwide, but landscapes should be of a size that makes it is possible to restore ecological processes and monitor progress throughout. Remember, landscapes have multiple uses, comprising interconnected natural land, human-modified land, and wetlands. Also, if the area only has one type of land use, generally it is considered a site, not a landscape. 


Consider the significance of wetlands in your landscape assessment. These are areas where water is the primary factor controlling the environment as well as the associated plant and animal life. They occur where the water table is at or near the surface of the land, or where the land is covered by water (find a more detailed description of wetlands by the Ramsar Convention here). These areas, which encompass water bodies such as streams, rivers, lakes, and coastal seas, play a vital role in the dynamics of a landscape. Wetlands connect land, vegetation, and water, exerting considerable influence on each. When defining landscape boundaries, wetlands must be included to ensure the protection and conservation of critical habitats for aquatic species, for example. 

Topography and dominant weather patterns

If the landscape features varied terrain, you need to consider prevailing weather patterns. This helps identify areas of high rainfall and those prone to rain shadows. The latter are patches of warm, dry land caused by mountains blocking precipitation to one side. Topographical features greatly influence water flow, soil erosion, and agricultural viability. 

Cultural diversity and local identities

It is important that boundaries accurately reflect the diversity of cultures and subcultures in the landscape, including cultural heritage, sacred sites, and traditional land use practices. A holistic approach builds on traditional and Indigenous wisdom to encompass centuries’ worth of sustainable practices that are often deeply rooted in harmonious relationships with nature. 

Potentially interesting stakeholders

Funders, government agencies, showcase farms, and other potentially relevant stakeholders should also be considered when defining the landscape. It may be strategic to incorporate their areas of operation into your landscape definition, which can be visualised using pins on a map. Collaborating with a government agency on watershed management, including its operational area within the landscape boundary, ensures alignment with its objectives and facilitates coordination, for example. 


Your initiative’s boundaries could be shaped by industry. If focusing on a specific industry or value chain, such as citrus farming for example, you might define your landscape boundaries around areas where citrus farms are concentrated. This approach ensures alignment with the industry’s needs and facilitates targeted interventions to support citrus production and associated activities within the defined landscape.

Sketching boundaries

When you have mapped out the factors that contribute to defining your landscape’s boundaries and overlaid them on maps, your working area will begin to take shape. You will notice areas where boundaries overlap or where there’s a concentration of potentially interesting opportunities, whether they involve stakeholders or other factors. Sketch out the boundaries roughly, using a pencil for flexibility. Precision isn’t crucial at this stage; what matters most is that stakeholders identify with the defined area. Reading the next section about understanding and defining the 3 Zones could also be helpful when sketching out the boundaries.

Here are some tools that can assist you in exploring spatial information and digitally mapping boundaries: Terraso, Explorer.land, Restor, Leaflet.js, CarryMap, Mapeo, Google Earth Engine and QGIS.

Defining the 3 zones

When the landscape boundaries have been defined roughly it can be helpful to view your landscape from a 3 Zones perspective. It is also helpful to do this if you’re still at the roughing out stage. Building on the introduction to the 3 Zones (see chapter The 4 Returns Framework), this section provides practical guidance on understanding and defining the current spatial configuration of the 3 Zones in your landscape.

Gaining perspective

Exploring the 3 Zones in your landscape isn’t just about drawing lines on a map — it’s about gaining insights, sparking discussions, and shaping a shared vision. Maps are helpful, but rich dialogue also plays a role in planning and managing your landscape. Understanding and defining the 3 Zones allows you to zoom out and gain a bird’s eye view, so you see the complexity and dynamics at play between the 3 Zones. This insight validates your boundaries and deepens your understanding of the landscape’s context. It enhances better communication, helps identify priorities, and guides interventions, ultimately shaping the vision of your landscape. In short, exploring the 3 Zones serves two important purposes: 

  • Facilitating a shift of mindset among landscapestakeholders. The 3 Zones help in viewing the landscape as an interconnected system, considering various aspects of human activities, conservation, and ecosystem health. It enables a more holistic approach to land-use management and fosters thinking at the landscape level. 
  • Providing an understanding of the landscape context. Understanding the 3 Zones in your landscape will contribute to a better understanding of land use, land use change, and the interconnectedness between different landscape fragments. This is important because the implementation of restoration activities within a landscape requires careful planning and an understanding of the needs of both nature and people. 

Criteria to define the 3 Zones

Recognising the diverse nature of landscapes, it is important to define the 3 Zones distinctly within each landscape. The main uses of land in each zone are shown in the table below, and the criteria that characterise the zones can be found in the tool Defining the 3 zones. Defining zones may depend on the context. What is considered an economic zone in one landscape, may be defined as a combined zone in another landscape. So, the 3 Zones and their criteria are intended as guiding principles and are adaptable to the context and restoration objectives of each landscape. 

Understanding the zones in your landscape

How do you apply those criteria to your own landscape? The 3 Zones exercise will help. It can be done in a workshop with your team or landscape partners and is useful for assessing the current situation and envisioning the landscape’s future, aligning with a long-term vision (see chapter From vision to action). The 3 Zones exercise offers different approaches to help define the 3 Zones, including a workshop in which stakeholders define and map the zones and an approach based on a geographic information system (GIS) using spatial mapping software. The approaches can be combined to complement each other. 

The workshop method gathers diverse stakeholders for an inclusive discussion on defining a landscape’s 3 Zones. Participants examine thematic maps of an area and discuss its current state and potential future zones. The guide Spatial Planning and Monitoring of Landscape Interventions: Maps that link people with their landscapes can help in selecting and tailoring maps for this exercise. When the 3 Zones are defined, participants can draw them on a landscape map and discuss what dynamics are at play between them now and potentially in the future. Boundaries are roughly outlined, capturing the distinctive characteristics and functions of each zone. Through this interactive process, stakeholders collectively create a holistic understanding of the landscape’s dynamics and develop an initial vision for its sustainable management and restoration.

The GIS-based approach uses spatial mapping tools, such as ArcGIS or QGIS, to visualise a landscape’s 3 Zones. It involves creating detailed maps that show distinctive features and land types. Satellite images and other data are used to outline each zone. These maps help clarify what is happening in the landscape now and what could change in the future. They spark conversations on the landscape’s support planning and decision-making processes.

Landscape story: 3 zones exercise

Stakeholders of the Victoria Wetlands and Islands Multi-Use Reserve in Parana Delta, Argentina, envision the landscape as an integral part of a biocultural corridor within a larger system. They aim to preserve water dynamics, biodiversity, and cultural richness. Essential to this is the sustainable production that is tailored to the wetland and the services that address people’s needs and activities. The stakeholders needed to inspire people to collaborate in caring for the wetland and decided to develop a management plan. They did this through a 3 Zones workshop facilitated by Wetlands International Latin America and the Caribbean. They identified 3 Zones with distinctive land uses. The natural zone consists of healthy wetlands integrated with other ecosystems. The combined zone includes scattered houses and ranches, fishing, cattle ranching, and beekeeping. The economic zone is where well-being initiatives and resources are being generated. They also identified areas outside the reserve’s boundaries to incorporate neighbouring economic and combined zones. The participatory approach to defining zones enabled a comprehensive and inclusive approach to land management. Stakeholders can prioritise conservation and restoration efforts while reducing conflicts.

What’s next?

From uncovering the forces that shape a landscape and its boundaries, to delving into the dynamics of its 3 Zones, you’ve built a solid foundation for effective management and restoration. As we move forward, the next chapter will build upon this groundwork, offering hands-on exercises and approaches to enrich your landscape understanding. These tools will empower you to develop targeted strategies for holistic landscape restoration and refine your vision. Let’s continue the journey towards gaining a shared understanding of the landscape.

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