NPS Cultural Landscapes Explained And Featured On This Website

The formal grounds of Bellefield Estate at Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site are one example of a cultural landscape. NPS photo.

History buffs and students working on a class report are among potential users of a website that features cultural landscapes in the National Park System. Not with familiar the term "cultural landscapes"? This site can help fill in the gaps.

For the record, here's the official definition: "A cultural landscape is a geographic area, including both cultural and natural resources and the wildlife or domestic animals therein, associated with an historic event, activity, or person, or exhibiting other cultural or aesthetic values."

According to the site, cultural landscapes can include "any lands public or private, large or small, with historic significance (or importance in American history) and historic integrity (or physical authenticity)."

Those are pretty broad parameters, so among the listings you'll find quite a range of locations, "from scenic parkways to battlefields, formal gardens to cattle ranches, cemeteries and pilgrimage routes to village squares and industrial areas."

Some Cultural Landscapes Seem Obvious, Others May Surprise

The website limits its coverage to those in which the NPS has a direct role, and areas included are either eligible for listing or are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of the listed examples of cultural landscapes may seem pretty obvious to most readers, such as the Bellefield Estate at Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site. The formal country estate includes "an expansive lawn and tree-lined drives" which lead to an imposing mansion.

Another rather logical example, Appomattox Court House Village in Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, is described as "...a rehabilitated 19th century Virginia courthouse town and surrounding agricultural landscape that commemorates Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant there in 1865, ending the Civil War and beginning the peace."

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The Stevens Canyon Highway in Mount Rainier National Park is classified as a cultural landscape. NPS photo.

Other examples of cultural landscapes may be a bit less obvious, such as the Stevens Canyon Highway in Mount Rainier National Park. It's described as "...a linear landscape in Mount Rainier National Park that extends 19 miles from Paradise to its intersection with the East Side Highway.... The Stevens Canyon Highway is a historic designed landscape, significant as a part of a rare example of an early national park scenic highway, and an integral part of the early master plan for the park. The highway is distinguished by outstanding engineering achievements and features of naturalistic design."

Four General Categories of Cultural Landscapes

The NPS recognizes four general categories of cultural landscapes, although there can be some overlap between types: historic site, historic designed landscape, historic vernacular landscape, and ethnographic landscape.

Historic sites "are significant for their associations with important events, activities, and persons. Presidential homes and battlefields, such as the Big Hole Battlefield in Montana, are prominent examples. In these areas, existing features and conditions are defined and interpreted primarily in terms of what happened there at particular times in the past."

Historic designed landscapes are "deliberate artistic creations reflecting recognized styles, such as the twelve-acre Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C., with its French and Italian Renaissance garden features. Designed landscapes also include those associated with important persons, trends, or events in the history of landscape architecture, such as Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts, and the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina."

Historic vernacular landscapes "illustrate peoples' values and attitudes toward the land and reflect patterns of settlement, use, and development over time. Vernacular landscapes are found in large rural areas as well as small suburban and urban districts. Agricultural areas, fishing villages, mining districts, and homesteads are examples." The 17,400-acre rural landscape of Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve in Washington state is included in this category.

Ethnographic landscapes "are associated with contemporary groups and typically are used or valued in traditional ways. In the expansive Alaska parks, Native Alaskans hunt, fish, trap, and gather and imbue features with spiritual meanings. Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Louisiana illustrates the strong interrelationship between the dynamic natural system of the Delta region and several cultural groups through many generations."

"Stories, People and Places"

The website includes a page titled "Stories," which is updated on a monthly basis. The current theme, Hidden in Plain Sight: Reading History in Everyday Landscapes," features ordinary and overlooked landscapes that upon closer examination reveal tales of our shared national identity."

The "People" page highlights some individuals whose stories provide behind-the-scenes insights into NPS sites. Most of us, for example, aren't familiar with the names Elizabeth P. Thomas or George B. Dorr, but their lives are closely associated with Fort Stevens Park in Washington, D.C. and Acadia National Park.

The "Places" page includes a pair of drop-down boxes which allow readers to search for cultural landscapes under NPS management, listed by state or the name of the NPS unit. Select an entry and you'll see a description of the area with a map, some photos and a link to the corresponding park website.

Finally, cultural landscapes may deal with places associated with the past, but if this is a topic that interests you and you'd like to use modern technology to keep up to date on the subject, the NPS Cultural Landscape Program has a Facebook page. You'll find it at this link.