The Pursuit of Evidence by Alayna Renata

July 2015

As defined in the Oxford Dictionary, evidence is ‘the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid’. As such, evidence has become the basis for determining authenticity in the landscape planning and assessment realm, across a number of countries. This approach is complementary to judicial frameworks, which further adopt methods enabling the quantification and evaluation of landscape values as a means of determining those in need of safeguarding. This principled manner of measuring landscape values has proven beneficial for many countries and has permitted the protection of places which are universally valued.

The available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.

However, it is possible that not all values are able to be measured, assessed, quantified and proven in a way which aligns with traditional evidence based assessment. Furthermore, not all values are universally appreciated and as such, the notion that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is perhaps the most encompassing description of how landscape is perceived. For those countries which are home to indigenous cultures, wider societal comprehension of values occurring outside of the universal norm can be challenging. This article introduces the complexities of the pursuit for evidence within the discipline of landscape architecture. It considers the status quo of universality and its alignment with indigenous comprehension of landscape.

Landscape architecture is recognised as a profession that encompasses much of what can be understood about nature, built form and social interaction. Subsequently, landscape architecture has diversified across a number of disciplines, improving knowledge sharing and in turn increasing recognition of landscape values at an international level (Zube, 1982). Similarly, the resurgence and celebration of indigenous cultures around the world has generated much attention in recent decades. This has occurred through the assistance of global organisations dedicated to building intercultural understanding, such as the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), along with other groups. As is to be expected, landscape architectural institutes and practitioners across the globe have close affiliations with the likes of UNESCO and ICOMOS, particularly with regards to cultural landscapes and historic places. Landscape design, assessment and planning procedures can therefore play a significant role in the protection, management and enhancement of these places and their communities.

While landscape design is granted a degree of freedom of expression and subjectivity, landscape assessment is more directly aligned with statutory planning frameworks and is therefore founded on expectations of evidence based decision making and objectivity. The measurement of tangible landscape data, such as resource availability, fauna populations, visibility or sight lines, is a realistically achievable exercise. This approach allows for quantification, mapping, ranking and analysis, as has been researched by the likes of Brown and Brabyn, in seeking to understand quantitative opportunities associated with the extrapolation of social landscape values in New Zealand (Brown, 2012). All such data can then assist in formulating a base point for further studies, comparative investigation or judgements on the contribution that any given place may make to a community.

Landscape architecture has diversified across a number of disciplines, improving knowledge sharing and in turn increasing recognition of landscape values at an international level.

Notwithstanding the importance of such quantitative findings in a judicial setting, not all associations with landscape are measureable and intangible associations are not so easily assessed. For indigenous groups across the world, unique associations to landscape exist, which have been carried through genealogy and oral traditions, often for many generations (Jones, 2012). Indigenous language and social parameters were guided and influenced by landscape, where spiritual derivatives and personification of natural features assisted in understanding natural process. For indigenous groups, these processes form the inherent understanding of the world where greater importance can often be placed on spiritual associations with a particular place, rather than a place where archaeologically valuable middens might occur. As such, the lack of quantifiable data is of little concern to indigenous groups as this is not an approach which has been commonly used to identify places of significance (Aikenhead, 2011). This lack of quantifiable data does however present an issue for judges, commissioners, planners and policy makers who endeavour to determine how one best goes about protecting something which has no physical boundaries and no evidence of existence.

For Māori, the evolution of indigenous culture occurred in landscape, for which shelter, resource availability, trade and settlement location determined the likelihood of survival (Kawharu, 2009). If place-making was to be understood for its most primal purposes, it is reasonable to postulate that similar principles have carried through from indigenous settlement to contemporary society. For example, proximity to shopping centres, social exchange points and a provision for safety are all elements which follow similar instinctive requirements to those aforementioned. However, such modern day experiences are able to mapped, statistically analysed and evaluated to understand their value to society. This is in stark contrast to those of early Māori settlement, where trading trails, harvesting routes and gathering areas exist only in oral traditions and arts. In pursuing the requirements associated with defining the boundaries of development and urban sprawl, much difficulty can come from the request to define where the grey line of subjectivity transitions to the black and white evidence of occupation.

In a New Zealand context for example, many Māori individual’s display a strong association to their maunga, or ancestral mountain, and to their awa, ancestral river, when identifying oneself. This association occurs at an individual, hapū and iwi level and as such, an individual from Ngāi Tahu is unlikely to have the same landscape values as an individual from Ngāti Tūwharetoa. The associations to these mountains and rivers are unmeasurable, as they occur at a spiritual level; they are further unquantifiable as they exist only in the minds of the individuals and tribes to which they relate. Evidently so, the ancestral mountain of the Ngāi Tahu individual is therefore of no greater or lesser significance to that of the Ngāti Tūwharetoa individual’s and an evidence based analysis could prove neither association to be more authentic than the other. Similarly in Australia, where aboriginal groups are suspected of having occupied the same landscape continuously for longer than any other human population, tribal associations to flora, fauna, landscape and landform go beyond that which is quantifiable through hard evidence. For some aboriginal groups, landscape features, plants and animals can be the embodiment of deities, further indicating the patterns of association that indigenous groups may have to landscape as a holistic and unquantifiable connection. Their associations with these landscapes run deeply in ancestry, through many language groups, and across many clans (Davey & Gorring, 2013).

The evolution of indigenous culture occurred in landscape, for which shelter, resource availability, trade and settlement location determined the likelihood of survival.

However, with the demand for land becoming increasingly high, development pressures are resulting in an increased number of submissions to local councils relating to impacts on amenity and the protection of those values that are held true by communities. Nonetheless, the scope of requirements for expert witnesses appears to be ever decreasing across both New Zealand and Australia, all in the name of progression and accelerating a return from recent years of global financial strife. However, such development pressures are further increasing the necessity for supporting evidence to be presented throughout judicial enquiries, as a means of competing with the overwhelming need for the development of new infrastructure in growing cities.

So what does this all mean for those landscapes which are valued by indigenous groups whose association with a landscape may be intangible, and where little or no evidence exists? Furthermore, how is it possible to consider such intangible associations alongside the statistical outputs prepared by developers or infrastructure agencies, which indicate that the progression of a development may reap great societal benefits? In returning to the definition of evidence being the ‘available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid’, this article hypothesises that it is the latter part of the statement that is the most impartial. This is, that trueness or authenticity are not reasonable terms for considering those matters which are subjective, and thus, no such universal truths exist within this realm. But rather, that validity is a more reasonable term and could be appropriate to qualitative landscape perceptions as it supports that there is soundness to the rationale of the associations. In the eager pursuit for evidence, it is plausible that social equality has been overlooked and the universal truths have prevailed, leaving pockets of society disadvantaged by an ideal that holds relevance to only a proportion of the community.

The complexities surrounding the ever increasing need for authentication of association, is a situation that impacts inherently on the role of landscape architects in their professional practice. An opportunity therefore exists for the profession to showcase their breadth of understanding of social and environmental overlays in both the design and assessment realm, through the meaningful integration of cultural knowledge in the landscape architectural process. This approach does not however condone landscape architects to usurp, or seek to usurp, mana whenua by integrating cultural knowledge into planning and design processes without their sought approval, but rather to encourage dialogue between practitioners and communities.

The opportunity for improved outcomes extends beyond that of design and includes a conscious decision by practitioners to understand the degree of subjectivity that comes with cultural perceptions of landscape and to reply with compassionate design and assessment responses. However, if beauty truly sits in the eye of the beholder and universal values represent only the few, is it best that such associations remain unquantified, where designs and assessments are only conducted by those with inherent knowledge?

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