GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

6.5 Reading cultural landscapes

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In the previous section, we argued that landscapes are not only produced, but also consumed. More specifically, following Duncan and Duncan (1988), we took the position that landscapes can be thought of as texts that we can read. In this section, we turn to this idea in more detail.

Foundations

Before we can talk about how to read landscapes, it’s helpful to understand what purpose this exercise serves, and what its limits are. A cultural landscape in its current form is always the product of a long series of overlapping choices made by people (collectively or individually), and mediated by the culture in which it exists. Careful reading can thus produce a wealth of information that extends from the present backwards in history.

It is also important to understand the difference between actively and passively reading the landscape. For many of us, the landscapes we see every day are so familiar that we have internalized their elements and hardly think about them. When navigating somewhere, we might actively seek a particular feature on the landscape (e.g., a specific building number, street sign, or landmark), but when we do so, we tend to disregard the rest. Some features, such as markings for lanes or parking spaces, or street signs, we use in a referential way, but their visual aspects are generally unremarkable unless something about them has changed (or unless we go to a place where the markings are stylistically different. This kind of engagement with the landscape is passive, and it is likely only to reveal the most obvious information.

Actively reading the landscape is a process that requires both an attention to detail and the ability to understand the specific collection of features as a whole. For example, focusing on a single element of a landscape, as in figure 6.7a below, tells us only that there is a Shake Shack somewhere in the world.

The image is a narrow shot showing a two-story building with the Shake Shack logo on it. In the foreground, a few people (men and women) are visible walking along the street.
Fig. 6.7a: Shake Shack, 2016.
Credit: Cristopher Livecchi © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
This image shows a broader shot of the Shake Shack in image 6.7a. A few dozen people walk down the street or stand in clusters, getting their bearings. The people are generally well dressed and clean cut. Other buildings, three or four stories tall, are visible, with facades that appear older than the one on Shake Shack. A sign in the upper right-hand corner reads TURKCELL while one in the lower left-hand corner reads “GİRİŞİMCİ PİLOT ADAYLARI ARANIYOR.”
Fig 6.7b: Shake Shack, 2016, in its broader landscape context. Notice the signage in the lower left and upper right corners.
Credit: Cristopher Livecchi © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Yet, as figure 6.7b shows us, when we consider that single element with regard to other elements in the landscape, we are better able to situate it. In this case, the presence of signage in Turkish and the Turkcell banner in the upper right hand corner indicate that this is part of the Turkish landscape. Yet the elements in isolation tell us little; when we (actively) synthesize those elements, we might notice first, that there is a US-based fast food restaurant in this neighborhood, and second, that it belongs to one of the smaller American fast food chains. This might suggest to us first that this is a tourism-dependent area, and second, that there are American tourist dollars flowing into this landscape. (This was a Shake Shack that Dr. Livecchi encountered on İstiklal Caddesi during a visit to Istanbul in 2016. To the best of his knowledge, that Shake Shack is gone, but others have sprung up in the city.)

The rest of this lesson will address what the landscape can tell us, and presumes an active reading of the landscape. Note that while identifying the visual elements is an integral part of reading the landscape, an in-depth landscape analysis typically involves observation of individuals within the space, and often entails additional research to fully appreciate the history and social significance of the space.

NOTE:

Many of the examples that follow come from Kingston, New York, where Dr. Livecchi currently lives. We’re using these as examples in part due to ease of data collection (it’s easier to provide photos that display the relevant information), and in part because it affords a fair amount of diversity in its landscapes, and thus can provide a variety of examples.

Whose culture?

First and foremost, the cultural landscape gives us some indication of the dominant culture, as well as the economic circumstances of the place. For example, compare the images below.

The image, taken from an intersection, shows a narrow street paved with brick and stone, running between two buildings. The buildings, no more than two or three stories in height, have facades of stone (lowest level) and plaster (upper levels), and functioning wooden shutters on the windows. In the left foreground, two young men sit at a table on the street while a third one stands with the group. In the right foreground is the corner of a shop that sells rugs, some of which are displayed on metal stands in front of the building. Small electric lamps with conical black shades are visible on either side of the street, situated at about the second floor of the buildings.
Fig 6.8: Streetscape in the Old Town district of Antalya, Turkey. The architecture, street width, activity, and presence of the rug shop all provide clues as to the history and dominant culture of the place.
Credit: Cristopher Livecchi © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
The image shows a plaza, at the far end of which is a church built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. To the right of the church is a tall, modernist, glass skyscraper, and behind that is a square tower with a weather beacon on the top.
Fig 6.9: Copley Square, Boston, taken from in front of the Boston Public Library, and featuring Trinity Church, the Hancock Tower, and the Berkeley Building (referred to locally as the “Old Hancock Building”). The mix of architectural styles suggests various historical periods of construction, each of which is indicative of the dominant culture of the place.
Credit: Cristopher Livecchi © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
The image shows a street paved with gray blocks, which leads to a five-storey building faced in plaster and half timbers. Behind the building, to the left, the edge of a grassy hill is visible. In the left foreground is the side of a church faced in plaster, and in the right foreground is a series of shops, also half-timbered and plastered.
Fig. 6.10: Street in Rüdesheim am Main, Germany. The building with the half timbers at the center is a hotel. To the left is a church, and to the right are several small shops.
Credit: Cristopher Livecchi © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
The image depicts a street, taken from ground level. On either side of the street are low (one- and two-storey buildings) featuring shops and restaurants. A man rides a bicycle down the street, away from the viewer, and a second person riding a bicycle is visible down the street. In the distance stand two skyscrapers against the cloudy sky. Architectural elements and signage suggest this is in Japan.
Fig. 6.11: Street in Asakusa, Taito, Tokyo, Japan. This area has a long history as an entertainment district, and is considered a more traditional part of the city. It features a major Buddhist temple and several significant shrines.

The architectural styles, signage, width of the streets, and infrastructure in these landscapes give us hints as to where they are. Although these landscapes may share some similarities, the visible qualities of each set them apart from one another. Even if we cannot readily identify the locations of these landscapes, we can be certain that they were produced within different cultural contexts. These images were chosen because they provide relatively clear indicators of location; it is important to remember that in some cases the differences may be small enough that they require close attention to detail — street lane markings, curb cuts, sidewalk and crosswalk design, and the (in)visibility of things like telephone or electrical lines are all indicators that observers often overlook because they are either meant to be overlooked or they are so familiar that we only passively recognize them.

All of these landscapes are situated in tourist areas of different cities. The differences in architecture, street design, and visible infrastructure (e.g., street lights, signage, bike racks, etc.) offer some idea as to where they were taken; they also suggest the histories of the places. The types of structures and decorative flourishes tell us that these are spaces where people either congregate or intend to spend money — and the condition of the structures indicates that someone (or several someones) has invested money into upkeep, presumably to maintain an inviting space that welcomes tourists.

Form follows function, sometimes

Second, the landscape can tell us something about the intended function of the space, and for whom the space is intended. For example, consider the landscapes in figures 6.12 and 6.13.

The image shows a courtyard-like area dominated by low masonry walls with rows of carved and inscribed stones standing on top of them. The stones vary in shape: some are narrow cylinders, others are rectangular with orbs at the top, and others are flatter rectangles with pointed tops. Leafy green plants are set between some of the stones.
Fig. 6.12: Ottoman cemetery in Istanbul, Turkey.
Credit: Cristopher Livecchi © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
The image shows a grassy rural cemetery with clusters of headstones, obelisks, and other grave markers. Some are set off by stone curbs. The stones generally face the same direction.
Fig. 6.13: Wiltwyck Cemetery, Kingston, New York.
Credit: Cristopher Livecchi © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The landscape in figure 6.13 will be familiar to anyone who has visited a rural cemetery in the United States. Even without knowing the location, the language used on the stones, or the visual culture associated with the landscape in figure 6.12, even a casual observer would recognize it as a cemetery (despite the obvious differences with regard to density and groundcover). In both of these images, the kinds of features and their arrangement give us information as to these landscapes’ functions.

In some cases, function also entails some assumptions about for whom the landscape was designed. Figures 6.14 and 6.15 below provide two contrasting examples.

The image shows an empty playground dominated by a large, wooden, multi-use structure featuring ladders, a rope net, stairs, and towers. In the background stand two broad apartment buildings of four and five stories, and a third apartment tower in the distance.
Fig. 6.14: Playground in Tróia, Setúbal, Portugal.
The image shows a brick-paved pedestrian street split by a canal down the center. On either side of the street are three-story row houses. Some of the facades feature red lights on sconces, and some windows are lined in red neon lights. Bicycles are parked along parts of the canal, and about two dozen figures (who all appear male) are visible walking along the street. In the distance, a pedestrian bridge crosses the canal. In the lower right-hand corner, a sign reading “AMUSEMENTCENTER” hangs on one facade.
Fig. 6.15: Red light district, De Wallen, Amsterdam; a large, well-known red-light district in the city.

These two landscapes physically express their intended functions and audiences. The playground is sized for children, and surrounded by apartment buildings. The red-light district relies on an established visual signal (red lights) to denote the availability of sex workers. Although the playground landscape is deserted, we would expect to see children playing. Adults without children might seem out of place and suspect. Likewise, the notable absence of children in the red-light district is in line with our expectations; their presence might be puzzling or concerning, as they might seem out of place.

As a corollary to this, elements on the landscape sometimes broadcast not only who is expected within them, but who is welcome within them. Consider, for example, the Old Dutch Church in Kingston, New York.

The image shows a Renaissance Revival-style stone church. Headstones are visible in the small lawn around the building, and a flagpole stands out front, with several flags hanging from it. A low iron fence marks the boundary between the yard and the stone sidewalks; red-white-and-blue bunting hangs along the railings.
Fig. 6.16: The Old Dutch Church in Kingston, New York. The current structure, built in 1852, stands on the site of the original Dutch Reformed Protestant church, founded in 1659.
Credit: Cristopher Livecchi © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Even casual observers familiar with the United States will instantly recognize the building as a Christian church (and as an old church, given the presence of the churchyard and the stone and style of the headstones); we can surmise without real question that the space has a religious function and that members of some Christian denomination are welcome there. What stands out, however, is the flagpole, from which four flags fly: the American flag, a Black Lives Matter flag, a Pride flag, and a Transgender Pride flag. These symbols on the landscape are a visible means by which the church proclaims its identity as both American and as welcoming to members of social groups who have historically been marginalized.

Resistance

Third, landscapes can tell us a little about resistance to the local social order or to local conventions. Some activity leaves traces that indicate a use other than what was intended. For example, municipal officials may install benches in public spaces with the intent that people will sit on them — yet those same benches might also be used by homeless populations as somewhere to sleep. Likewise, skateboarders find particular joy in sliding across benches and low walls of concrete or granite. The presence of hostile or defensive architectural features such as spikes (figure 6.17), or less obvious features such as extra rails on benches (figure 6.18) visibly indicate the contested nature of some landscapes.

The image shows the exterior of a store window. The sill is made of concrete; a metal plate covered in short, thick spikes has been affixed to the sill and runs its entire length.
Fig. 6.17: An example of hostile or defensive architecture. These spikes are intended to deter people from sleeping in the window of this shop.
The image shows two park benches lining a stone walkway. The benches are long and consist of wooden slats with decorative iron feet and rails. Three rails divide the benches into five sections, making them too short for a person to lie down.
Fig 6.18: Park benches in Manhattan, New York. The two sets of curving rails on the interior of the bench are additions designed to prevent people from sleeping on the benches.

What matters most?

Fourth, the landscape can tell us what is important to a particular community — both in terms of what a community claims is important in an official capacity, and in terms of resistance to that official line by smaller subgroups within that community. With regard to the former, things like monuments and street signs are visible, physical markers that reflect the values officially embraced by the community (discursively constructed or mediated by people in power). Choosing to commemorate individuals by naming or renaming streets after them is an established practice. Consider, for example, streets in cities with which you are familiar that were named for former political leaders such as presidents, governors, or mayors — or streets that are given secondary names to honor individuals, especially those fallen in combat. Later renaming of streets and alterations or removals of monuments can reflect cultural changes, as with the removal of Confederate monuments or the names of Confederate generals from military bases. Till (2004) captures this dovetailing of culture, politics, and space in the ways that landscapes are manipulated to political ends on both national and local scales.

It is perhaps easy to overlook street signs; we are accustomed to using them as references for navigation and to ignoring them at other times. Monuments, by contrast, are designed to stand out on the landscape. Their placement, size, and construction provide some indication of their importance to a given community. The Ulster County Courthouse in Kingston, New York (fig 6.19) provides an interesting example here.

The image shows a Georgian style building in gray stone with a domed cupola. The building and its small yard are set off from the sidewalk by a low, wrought iron fence. At the near right corner of the building, a flagpole flies the flags of the United States and New York State. A car sits parked on the street in front of the building.
Fig. 6.19: The Ulster County Courthouse, in Kingston, New York. Kingston is known for its role as the original capital of New York State, and is the county seat of Ulster County. The courthouse, located in the historic Stockade District, amidst shops, restaurants, and offices, has a prominent place on a main commercial street in the city.
Credit: Cristopher Livecchi © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

On the courthouse grounds stand two monuments. One of these (figure 6.20) is just visible just beyond the fence, near the base of the flagpole. The other (figure 6.21) stands just beyond the left edge of figure 6.19.

The image shows a rectangular stone monument. On it is a bronze relief bust of Sojourner Truth, and to the right of that is a plaque detailing her historical significance.
Fig. 6.20: Monument to Sojourner Truth, Ulster County Courthouse, Kingston, New York.
Credit: Cristopher Livecchi © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The text of this monument reads:

“SOJOURNER TRUTH

CA 1797 - NOV 26, 1883

FAMOUS SLAVE OF ULSTER COUNTY, BORN IN HURLEY, N.Y. THOUGH ILLITERATE, THIS WOMAN OF INDOMITABLE CHARACTER AND INTELLECT LEFT HER INDELIBLE MARK AS AN ELOQUENT CONDEMNER OF SLAVERY. FROM THIS COURT, BY WINNING HER LAWSUIT - THE FIRST EVER WON BY A BLACK PARENT - SHE SAVED HER SON FROM SLAVERY IN ALABAMA. A STAUNCH ABOLITIONIST AND A FERVENT CHAMPION OF HUMAN RIGHTS, SHE MET PRESIDENT LINCOLN AND SUBSEQUENTLY SERVED AS ADVISOR AT FREEDOM VILLAGE IN VIRGINIA. HER OWN WORDS EXPLAIN HER TRIUMPH: “I TALK TO GOD AND GOD TALKS TO ME.”

The image shows a standing stone monument bearing a large metal plaque. On the left side of the plaque we can see the standing figure of George Washington. In the lower right hand corner is the emblem of the Society of the Colonial Dames of America.
Fig. 6.21: Monument commemorating the founding of the State of New York and the inauguration of its first governor, George Clinton (note: not the funk musician). Notice the use of George Washington’s likeness, and the emblem of the Society of the Colonial Dames of America.
Credit: Cristopher Livecchi © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The text of this monument reads:

“THE SOCIETY OF THE COLONIAL DAMES OF AMERICA PLACE THIS TABLET TO MARK THE SPOT WHEREUPON WAS SET IN MOTION THE COMMONWEALTH OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK ON THE THIRTIETH DAY OF JULY IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD ONE THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED AND SEVENTY SEVEN BY THE INAUGURATION AS GOVERNOR IN THE PRESENCE OF THE COUNCIL OF STATE OF MAJOR GENERAL GEORGE CLINTON OF ULSTER SEVEN TIMES GOVERNOR OF NEW YORK AND TWICE VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.”

Both monuments stand on the grounds of this historic courthouse — one to commemorate the founding of the State of New York (relying on the image of President Washington to establish its connection to the nascent United States), and one to commemorate the legal success of a Black woman abolitionist from the region. Both commemorate events that took place here, and both events are significant to the region’s history — though for vastly different reasons. These elements on the landscape symbolically represent some value or idea that officials were trying to communicate publicly at the time the monuments were erected.

Landscapes with monuments such as these are often the sites of celebrations — and protests. Event organizers and speakers frequently make reference to the symbols visible in the landscape around them in order to appeal to the emotions of the onlookers, whether to instill a sense of pride or to inspire them to protest.

One final example will help illustrate this point. There is a park in Kingston, New York, called Academy Green. The park is a large triangle of grass bounded by Clinton Avenue, Albany Avenue, and Maiden Lane. This space is situated in a liminal part of Kingston, outside the historic Stockade District and on the edge of a residential neighborhood, with a major thoroughfare (Albany Avenue) defining its longest side.

On the green are three 11-foot-tall bronze statues on plinths, all of historic figures: Peter Stuyvesant (the director general of the New Netherland colony before it was given to the British in the mid-17th century), George Clinton (first governor of New York State, and still not the funk musician), and Henry Hudson (English explorer who navigated up what is now the Hudson River). Cast in 1898, the statues were initially part of a set adorning a bank building in New York City, and were rescued from a junkyard by an individual in 1943, who donated them to Ulster County (Schwarz, 2018).

The image shows a section of a park, partly shaded by trees. A small plaza stands on a green lawn, bounded by a low wall on the far edge. Along the wall are three evenly-spaced plinths, upon each of which stands a bronze statue of a historic figure. Trees and the streetscape of Clinton Avenue are visible behind the statues.
Fig. 6.22: Academy Green, Kingston, New York. The statues stand near the edge of the park defined by Clinton Avenue.
Credit: Cristopher Livecchi © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The park generally functions during the day as a space of socialization for adults within Kingston’s Black community. Given its visibility along Albany Avenue and its position relative to other neighborhoods, it also serves as one of several active sites of protest within Kingston. In 2020 and 2021, the park has seen nonviolent protests against police brutality (particularly in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis), hosted weekly walks for Black lives, and has served as the rallying point for a protest and march against the sale of Chiz’s Heart Street — a large group home for mentally ill people — to a wealthy hotel developer (a common theme; Kingston is experiencing a wave of pandemic-enhanced gentrification as affluent New Yorkers leave Manhattan and Brooklyn for the Mid-Hudson Valley).

In 2020, Kingston-based community organizer Frances Cathryn began a project to point out the historically racist actions of the figures commemorated by the statues in the park. In an op-ed piece, she notes that there is an inherent irony as “local activists of color and young Black students gather at Academy Green and call for the acknowledgment of their basic civil rights in front of an enslaver” (Cathryn, 2020). Yet perhaps it’s not an innocent irony: event organizers or participants who are aware of the landscape might use those features as references to stir up stronger emotions among participants.

Landscape is not something that simply exists in the background. An understanding of the landscape can enable individuals and groups to deploy symbolically across a wide range of readings, and to make a variety of different public statements.

Read/Listen:

Davis, C. and Mars, R. (2018, August 14). It’s Chinatown. 99% Invisible. Podcast audio. [listen to the first story; 23 minutes]

Recommended:

Norton, A. and Mars, R. (2013, January 23). In and out of LOVE. 99% Invisible. Podcast audio.

Schein, R. (1997). The place of landscape: A conceptual framework for interpreting an American scene. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 87(4), 660-680.

Stilgoe, J. (1998). Outside lies magic. Walker and Company.


Additional sources:

Cathryn, F. (2020). The Kingston Monument Project: A community organizer on replacing the monuments in our public spaces. Chronogram.

Duncan, J. and Duncan, N. (1988). (Re)reading the landscape. Environment & Planning D: Society and Space, 6(2), 117-126.

Schwarz, A. (2018, September 12). An appreciation of Academy Green’s statues. Hudson Valley One.

Till, K. (2004). Political landscapes. In J. S. Duncan, N. C. Johnson, and R. H. Schein (Eds.), A companion to cultural geography (pp. 347-364). Blackwell.