A Participative Landscape Contract: lessons for the Forestry Panel from Europe


in Articles, Expert Articles, Opinion

Flowing across the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna is the Panaro river, a deeply incised and degraded system that is also the final right-hand tributary of the great Po. As it winds through the province of Modena, more famous for its balsamic vinegar than watercourses, a project to reconnect people with the Panaro now offers something to celebrate for landscape management across Europe.

Since 2008, the Panaro river has been the focus for a ‘social landscape experiment’—and it has important lessons for the future of England’s landscape management, including our forests.

The Panaro River Project is part of the Atelier of Mediterranean Landscapes programme, a decade-long project to bring people and the environment together. The programme uses ‘intrinsic participative experiences’ to promote relationships between communities and the environments in which they live. It focuses on communities taking action to repair and recreate healthy habitats. This is the Participative Landscape Contract: in Modena, a pact between the society and the river site that offers a social-environmental guarantee for the continuity of care of the landscape.

The report can be found here, but these are the summary of the aims and achievements. First, the researchers set out to:

–       Discovering the eco- and social contexts through environmental surveys, official meetings with public bodies, and informal meetings with local communities, social groups, schools and individuals;

–       Emphasis was placed upon the participative: taking a ‘friendly approach’ to create a ‘learning context’ that offered a fluent, free interchange among all participants (something our @ForestryPanel could learn from?);

–       These accounts were used to create shared evaluations and interpretations, synthesised into an agreed Social Perception of the Life Environment.

From this, the project developed a ‘Hive’ (of people, actions, processes, and operators) to A) map new relationships among the community around the river, and B) allow participants to recognise themselves as equal actors in caring for the river territory. And from here, a map of actions/context was created to identify key actions:

–       The requalification of the river

–       The reorganisation of rural areas around the river

–       The revival of ancient medieval canals

–       The protection of fluvial biodiversity and ecological networks

And more. Some of these actions were led by the officials. Others by individuals. Others by schools. And together, all these groups agreed actions which were enshrined in the Participative River Contract directly promoted and encouraged by all participants. The benefits to the Panaro river area are already becoming manifest.


The Panaro River Project works under the principles of the European Landscape Convention 2000 (ELC), the mechanism by which the Council of Europe promotes the value of landscapes for the daily life of people through “measures to protect, manage and plan landscape throughout Europe” (Report, 7).

As Professor Adrian Phillips, former head of the Countryside Commission and National Trust trustee, notes in his essay “Landscape—The Maturing of an Idea over 60 Years” when the European Landscape Convention was first being drafted it drew disproportionately on UK knowledge and experience going back to 1949 and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, the first of its kind in Europe.

As Professor Phillips puts it, the sound principles of landscape promotion, management and creation laid out in the articles of the ELC were “precisely that holistic concept that had come to be accepted in the UK. The message that all landscapes matter [not just the ‘beautiful’] reflected the direction of thinking that had been underway for many years and captured the democratic idea that everyone has a right to be concerned with what happens to their own landscape and be involved in decisions affecting it” (Phillips, 14).

Perhaps it was then more tragedy than irony that, on Monday this week, as the Forestry Commission presented details of 250 job losses and the 25% cuts in its budget handed down from DEFRA, the Panaro River Project was being presented to the Council of Europe under the auspices of the ELC.

On Monday the Working Group on Landscape at the Italian Ministry for Agriculture (same document) also presented to the Council of Europe. They propose “conservation is the new face of innovation in contemporary society. An authentic innovation is one that adds to a store of values slowly accumulated over the ages” (Report, 9).

It’s a useful concept for thinking how the Panaro river success can shape questions to ask our @ForestryPanel and particularly the NGOs that sit upon it. Questions such as:

1) We were once ahead of Europe in nature and landscape promotion, management and creation. We are also signatories to the European Landscape Convention (although strangely as latecomers, only in 2007). But what do the cuts to the Forestry Commission say about our ability to develop innovatory participation in the management of our forested landscapes?

2) Shouldn’t that start with recognising our existing commitments, learning from best practice from across Europe? How is this feeding into the @ForestryPanel?

3) And perhaps most of all, how are they ensuring an approach to forested landscapes that uses a ‘free, fluent and friendly’ synthesis of the views of all participants who, as Professor Phillips says, have “a right to be concerned with what happens to their own landscape and be involved in decisions affecting it.”?


Alex Lockwood

Alex is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Research in Media and
Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland, researching on
environmental representations in culture. His latest research is published
in the collection Climate Change and the Media (Peter Lang), Land and
Identity (Rodopi) and the journal Geopolitics, History and International
Relations. He is also co-founder of the MeCCSA Climate Change Network.
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