Landscape Assessment

Effective landscape management is underpinned by landscape assessment. If robustly and rigorously applied, landscape assessment should inform both the approach and decision making process relating to how landscapes are managed, and thereby reduce subsequent costs in the policy-making process or proposed project.  

Landscape assessment in New Zealand focuses on ensuring landscape is sustainably managed and developed. The process for each particular assessment is specifically tailored to the area, issue or proposal being considered and the decision making context. The methodology and scope of a landscape assessment is usually determined by the purpose for which it is required. It is important to identify the most appropriate scale and/or particular landscape pressures in order to select a methodology that is suitably fit for purpose.  

Landscape assessments in New Zealand can be broadly separated into two categories – ‘area-based’ and ‘proposal-driven’ assessments. A third type, the ‘capacity-driven’ or ‘issue-driven’ assessment is part of the larger area-based assessment process but can also be undertaken as a stand-alone assessment. Landscape description and characterisation undertaken as part of an area-based landscape study typically provides much of the ‘baseline information’ from which judgements determining landscape evaluation, landscape capacity or the effects of a proposal are based.  

‘Area-based’ landscape assessments and studies 

Area-based landscape assessments can be carried out at regional, district, city or catchment scales to identify landscape areas and values. Such assessments help determine where landscape management is required and the appropriate approach. The following components are widely accepted as part of the area-based landscape assessment process: 

  • Landscape Description/Inventory
  • Landscape Characterisation
  • Landscape Evaluation

Landscape Description/Inventory  

‘Landscape description’ involves a process of data compilation during which the layers or components that make up the landscape are identified. In New Zealand, ‘land typing’ has proved a useful basis from which such information has been gathered. This can include: landform, soil, geology, drainage patterns, vegetation cover, land uses, built development, infrastructure, heritage sites, cultural meaning and associations etc, as well as associations with water bodies such as lakes, rivers and the sea. 

Clear, concise descriptions of the types of landscape that exist within a Council’s administrative area can provide objective base information. Such descriptions are usually generic in nature in that they may occur in different parts of the country (e.g. coastal dunes or glacially sculptured valleys). This is usually based on an understanding of geomorphology, ecology and cultural patterns and may include a description or inventory of how the landscape has come about.  

Landscape Characterisation  

Landscape character is derived from a combination of landscape components (i.e. landform, land cover and land use) that distinguishes one area from another. It normally follows a process of landscape description, and is not concerned with ranking or evaluating landscapes or identifying which areas of landscape are better or worse.  

‘Landscape characterisation’ is the term used to encapsulate the process of identifying, mapping and describing landscape character areas. Each character area has a distinguishing combination of biophysical and cultural factors that make it distinctive. Characterisation provides a sound basis for the understanding of landscape diversity and change. Put simply, landscape characterisation aids understanding of what makes an area of landscape distinctive or unique. 

Landscape character assessment can be applied at a number of different scales from the national to local levels. Ideally assessments at different scales should fit together as a nested series or a hierarchy of landscape areas so that assessment at each level adds more detail to the one above.  

As there are currently no nationally agreed assessment criteria (i.e. as part of a landscape related national policy statement or national environmental standard), the criteria used to characterise landscapes need to be well-defined and consistently applied within the context of a region, district or local level at the outset of the assessment.  

Landscape character areas should be mapped to communicate their location and general spatial extent. The factors that distinguish one character area from another often do not conveniently stop and start at a particular boundary. Consequently, boundaries should be treated as ‘zones of transition’ rather than precise lines that mark absolute points of change between adjacent character areas. Such zones can be further refined through consultation with the community. 

Landscape characterisation should also include a description of the combinations of elements that make a particular contribution to landscape character. These can form a set of ‘key characteristics’ used to describe the particular combinations of geology, landform, soils, vegetation, land use and human settlement that create a particular sense of place. The processes of change and specific threats to landscape character can also be identified as part of the landscape characterisation process.  

Landscape Evaluation 

Landscape evaluation (i.e. assigning value) should identify important landscapes and natural features. The rationale for their importance or the important characteristics of particular landscapes should also be defined. The judgements required when undertaking landscape evaluation are based on the application of a clear understanding of landscape characterisation.  

The findings of a landscape evaluation require an explicit description and weighing up of the landscape values recognised. This stage also includes engagement, as appropriate, with tangata whenua, communities, stakeholders and interest groups. Values are generally identified according to criteria that have been agreed through practice and case law which assist in determining an appropriate threshold.  

As with any type of valuation, landscape assessment presents significant issues in terms of defining values, assigning rankings and prioritising management. Assessments to address these issues should normally be carried out by trained practitioners as they have the appropriate skill set to exercise professional judgements which acknowledge and address the range of possible perceptions relating to landscape issues. However, it is also good practice to validate expert opinion by gauging it against local opinion as well as using expert peer review to comment on the methodology to be used and the draft study findings. 

Where to draw the line when mapping outstanding landscapes and natural features can be contentious. The legal system often drives the use of legal/ownership boundaries but this can cause problems as landscapes are generally defined by topography with obvious linear boundaries rarely occurring on the ground. Affected landowners also want certainty concerning whether their land is ‘in or out’. In practice it may be more logical to define landscape areas in terms of natural elements such as landform where possible, but with careful consideration aligning outstanding natural landscapes and features with cadastral boundaries is achievable.  

The process of landscape evaluation relies on the information gathered during landscape characterisation however the boundaries that result from landscape evaluation do not necessarily coincide with boundaries identified during the landscape characterisation process. Landscape evaluation boundaries can overlap landscape character areas, occur entirely within a landscape character area, or share common boundaries either in part or in their entirety as illustrated in Figures 1 to 4 below. 

figures 1 to 4

 Source: Boffa Miskell Limited (2010) RMLA/LGNZ Seminar 

‘Capacity-driven’ or ‘Issue-driven’ landscape assessments 

This approach is usually undertaken in response to a particular development pressure or landscape management issue that has arisen in a given area. Examples might include demand for increased residential subdivision on a particular coastline or public concern about landscape change brought about by changed land uses. Assessment involves an analysis of the factors that potentially influence the capacity of a landscape to accommodate change as well as consideration of opportunities for enhancement. 

A capacity assessment can be undertaken as part of a full area-based assessment or as a separate study. Understanding the ability of an area to accommodate the impacts of a particular pressure can be useful to gain a focussed understanding of a particular issue or place. 

Decisions about capacity of the receiving environment reflect the interaction between the sensitivity of the landscape, the way that landscape is valued, and the type and extent of change proposed (if that is known or can be assumed). Capacity assessments usually assist in determining appropriate management mechanisms and thresholds for identified landscapes, and typically consider the following issues: 

  • In what ways are the identified landscapes and features in the district or region threatened? (e.g. urban expansion from rapid population growth).
  • What are the specific threats to them? (e.g. demand for development on a particular lake margin).
  • What are the hidden threats? (e.g. the cumulative effects of residential development and the rate of change).
  • What would be inappropriate subdivision, use, and development of these landscapes and how can this be avoided?
  • What opportunities are there for compatible subdivision, use and development?

‘Proposal-driven’ landscape assessments 

Proposal-driven landscape assessments are submitted with development proposals and typically accompany an application for resource consent. Such assessments range in scale from small subdivisions to large infrastructure developments such as wind-farms, transmission lines and roads. Their purpose is to identify the effects of a proposal on landscape values. 

Where required, an assessment of landscape and visual effects forms part of the assessment of environment effects (AEE) in accordance with Schedule 4 of the RMA. Landscape and visual effects can form a key to planning decisions by identifying the effects of new development on the landscape and/or in relation to views.  

Landscape and visual assessments are separate, although linked, procedures. The existing landscape and its existing visual context all contribute to the existing ‘baseline’ for landscape and visual effects assessment. The types of effects considered within proposal-driven landscape assessments can be summarised as follows: 

Landscape effects derive from changes in the physical landscape, which may give rise to changes in its character and how this is experienced. This may in turn affect the perceived value ascribed to the landscape.  

Visual effects relate to the changes that arise in the composition of available views as a result of changes to the landscape, to people’s responses to the changes, and to the overall effects with respect to visual amenity.  

As an initial step in any ‘proposal-driven’ landscape assessment, both the existing landscape character and the action being undertaken under the proposal are described. The area involved generally includes both the site of the proposal and the surrounding area which could be affected by the proposal. This typically draws on an area based assessment as part of the ‘baseline’ assessment and normally sets out:

  • The terms of reference specific to the proposal and assessment;
  • A description of the assessment methodology used;
  • The landscape policy context which must be addressed; and
  • A description of the landscape and visual context within which the proposal is located including the potential viewing audience. 

Professional judgement forms an important element in assessing actual, potential or cumulative landscape and visual effects. While there is some scope for quantitative measurements (i.e. the numbers of trees planted or lost) much of the assessment relies on qualitative judgement (i.e. relating to visual amenity or the change in character of an area of landscape). Depending on the scale and nature of the proposal, ‘proposal-driven’ landscape assessments will typically contain:  

  • A detailed assessment of the physical changes to the landscape that will result from the proposal;
  • A description and analysis of the impact that physical changes will have on identified landscape values, visual impacts from key locations and cumulative effect of the proposed activity;
  • A detailed assessment of the extent to which the changes will affect the existing landscape character and the way in which affected parties’ perception and experience of the landscape including visual amenity values is likely to be affected;
  • An evaluation of the significance of natural character, landscape, visual and amenity effects in relation to statutory requirements; and
  • Identification of landscape mitigation measures, including enhancement or rehabilitation and assessment of the effectiveness of such measures. 

To ensure that the identification of likely significant effects is as transparent as possible, such effects need to be identified and accurately described and the basis for their determination clearly explained. This should also include a determination as to whether landscape and visual effects are positive, negative or in some cases neutral.  

There are no hard and fast definitions in what makes a significant effect. When making findings in relation to landscape and visual effects it is important that a robust and consistent rating scale is used for the sensitivity, magnitude and significance of effects. In this regard the following seven point scale devised by NZILA can act as a useful guide: 

            Extreme / Very High / High / Moderate / Low / Very Low / Negligible  

Best Practice Considerations 

  • Landscape studies and assessments should be carried out by people with skills and experience in the field of landscape assessment, such as qualified landscape architects or landscape planners. They, in turn, can determine appropriate methodology, including definition of assessment criteria, based on individual and collective professional experience, and the scale and purpose of the study or assessment. 
  • An interdisciplinary approach will broaden the credibility of landscape assessments as the identification of landscape values involves a range of specialist areas including natural science, cultural and historic heritage. It is also good practice to involve statutory planning expertise in the assessment process to advise on the legislative framework and development of management mechanisms. Appropriate recognition of land-water associations can also be useful to the achievement of an integrated approach to sustainable management.
  • Community engagement and consultation should be carried out in order to determine how the community perceives and values the landscapes and natural features and why. Community engagement prior to or as an integral early phase of a professional assessment can provide useful baseline information, aid issue identification and educate the community. Consultation on the findings of an assessment can also help to validate the professional assessment.
  • Professional judgement is a very important part of landscape assessment. Ideally and especially for complex projects, more than one person should be involved in the assessment to provide checks and balances, especially in terms of identifying the significant effects that are likely to influence decisions. Ideally reports should be peer reviewed and made publicly available. Having peer reviewed technical reports available can give the community confidence in the findings and the decisions made. 
  • Ensure criteria used and the limitations to studies and assessments are made explicit in the landscape assessment and the reasons for their selection are clear (e.g. confining a visual assessment to key viewpoints). 
  • Illustrative material, including land-based photographs, aerial photographs with information overlays, GIS datasets, and diagrams can all be used to support and clarify text. Computer aided techniques including geospatial and visualisation techniques are also a powerful tool to assist landscape assessment (e.g. Zone of Theoretical Visibility (ZTV) and visual simulations / photomontages). Visual simulations should be prepared in accordance with good practice guidance.
  • It is better not to formally define RMA terms that are not interpreted in Part II (natural character, natural, landscape, natural feature) as interpretive case law continues to evolve. However, it is important to clearly state the way in which these elements are important within the district or region and why their sustainable management is an issue.
  • Terms used should be clearly defined and used consistently, to avoid confusion between similar words with different meanings (e.g. ridgeline, ridgetop, ridge and skyline). Additionally, as landscape assessment often draws upon theoretical or academic research in which specialist terms have been coined, such terms should be translated into everyday language so that they can be readily understood and their intended meaning taken.

Other Relevant Landscape Assessment Guidance Material 

  • Best Practice Note 10.1: Landscape Assessment and Sustainable Management (2010)
    Prepared by Simon Swaffield and Frank Boffa and published by the NZILA Education Foundation to set out the principles for an integrated approach to landscape assessment.
  • Best Practice Guide 10.2 Visual Simulations (2010)
    Published by the NZILA Education Foundation to promote best practice standards and procedures in the preparation and use of visual simulations by the landscape profession.
  • Guidelines for Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment 3rd Edition (2013)
    Published by Routledge and Produced jointly by the Landscape Institute and the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA) and sponsored by English Heritage, Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural Resources Wales. The third edition of Guidelines for Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment (GLVIA) sets out the principles and approach for identifying and assessing the landscape and visual impacts of development proposals. 
  • Landscape Character Assessment: Guidance for England and Scotland (2002)
    Prepared by Carys Swanwick Department of Landscape University of Sheffield and Land Use Consultants on behalf of The Countryside Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage to inform the process of landscape characterisation.