The socio-spatial qualities of the landscape

The socio-spatial qualities of the landscape

The perspective of the city constitutively presupposes peripheries – whereas from the perspective of the land, which today we usually perceive as landscape, peripheries do not exist. Cities are referred to via attributes such as the public sphere, specific characteristics, intrinsic logic, subjectivity, use value, integrating effects, openness, encounter. The land has lost all these aspects and an exclusively aesthetic perspective on landscape cannot replace them.

And yet it might be a mistake to bring up periphery at all, to think in terms of peripheries, as in other abstract spatial categories such as ‘rural’ or ‘suburban’, which emphasise the separating aspects. Virtually no one today who wants to explain the phenomenon of the city, primarily relies on the abstract terms ‘centre’ and ‘urban space’. Rather, they describe actual places and characteristics; instead of separation, they tend to highlight the dialogue of figure, spatial structure, form and sustainable economy as well as social coherence. The city is the medium of:

  • Density and mix of residents, construction and infrastructure, social, cultural and economic interactions;
  • Accessibility and openness of urban environments, the diversity and variety of cultures and individual lifestyles, as well as social cohesion, responsibility, hospitality, integration, inclusion and civilization – i.e., taken together, progress, innovation and prosperity;
  • Development and permanence of the urban fabric and building structures, identity, peculiarity and legibility, but also renewal, sustainability and sufficiency.

This dialogue is always a combination of people and city forms, of history and society. Negotiations on urban structures, from which their spatial qualities should emerge, are invariably based on floor plans and spatial concepts. Today, urban development in any large city is supported by legible ‘historical layer’ analyses, informal framework planning and visualisations, public forums and publications. This form of the city is even described as its landscape – so that the Stadtlandschaft (urban landscape), an abstract category since Bruno Taut, Hans Scharoun and Le Corbusier, today is used again to describe its specific peculiarity. By contrast, landscape in rural and suburban areas only appears as a category in today’s planning practice – typically as a protected area, regional green corridor or as an area with regional planning objectives in formal landscape and regional plans (in England, Landscape Character Assessments do exist after all, but this type of spatial analysis is not applied in Germany, where the European Landscape Convention was not ratified).

The renaissance of the urban form, which in the city even includes the landscape form, is thus neither a contradiction in itself, nor does it signify a reactionary idealization of former urban misery or its relations of domination. Rather, careful renewal and critical reconstruction focus on the – ecologically sustainable – release of new social and economic forces in the context of historically developed structures. Developed in the urbanistic theory and confirmed by practice, it is not only social conditions but also spatial forms that contain or even engender social qualities.


Transformation – The Land and Urban Land

In the face of ongoing social structural change and the necessity of certain global transformations, it is no longer acceptable to attribute fundamentally different ways of life, life opportunities and spatial responsibilities to The City!, and to suburban and rural areas respectively. The aim of a collective ecological responsibility for a future that is democratically based, as formulated in the social contract for a Great Transformation, relates to all types of space and also addresses The Land!. Urban ways of life, processes of civilisation, social integration, creative innovation, resource efficiency, even if they originate from the social and spatial structures of the city, are to be aimed for indivisibly – for all parts of the population – and everywhere – ‘in the whole space’ – today and in future. This goal does not eliminate the categorical difference between city and land; simultaneously the question of how to address these issues in suburban areas must be answered specifically, and not generally. The same basic ecological and social objectives must be pursued everywhere, following the parameters for a new urban contract for the European City, but under the structural conditions and possibilities of the European Cultural Landscape.

As landscape architects we are interested in landscape as a morphological structure and social everyday space. Following Henri Lefebvre’s theory of the social production of space, we recognise in landscapes – viewed as historical subjects, not as pictorial sceneries – the potential of a mediating level between private living environments and global infrastructures. Landscape as ’tissu paysage’ can reconstruct social forms and spatial subjects in rural and suburban spaces that have degenerated into functional categories. Our investigations are therefore always of equal morphological and social interest. Our research approaches focus on spatial-social structures in rural and suburban areas and address the issue from three different perspectives: the concept of meta-culture, the concept of public sphere and the concept of use value.

This train passage is a niche along much frequented paths for pedestrians and cyclists on the edge of the settlement that bridge the linear infrastructure/barriers of the space. This spatial “bottleneck” channels paths and produces casual and spontaneous encounters.
Alexandra Bauer

Meta-cultures & Urban Land

What are the socio-spatial conditions for urban and rural lifestyles, as well as the capacity for social integration and societal cohesion in suburban and rural areas? The importance of open places of encounter as a catalyst for identification and integration is already established in urban planning practice. According to Detlev Ipsen, the spatial prerequisites of an open city emerge in niches and outskirts (Ipsen 2000). Ipsen’s types of space are the very opposite of representative spaces. They do not seem to be of general public interest and are therefore places of encounter for different cultures including diverse minorities. As citizens of diverse cultural backgrounds meet in these places, a meta-culture (Ipsen) may form which integrates the various separate cultures and thus creates social cohesion. In current rural development, the focus is on prestigious village centres in established settlements, rather than on spontaneously created gaps or in-between spaces in residential areas and open landscape, i.e. outskirts and niches. Yet such places of encounter are equally important in suburban and rural areas, which are often affected by social structural change and a differentiation of lifestyles. They are conducive to identification, cohesion as well as integration – not only with regard to minorities but disadvantaged circumstances in general. The research project answers questions regarding what locations, usages and spatial characteristics of outskirts and niches institute them as open places of encounter in rural and suburban areas.

In a rural context, the path leading out of the village forms a kind of promenade with its row of trees, a public space from which one can get an overview, but which is used primarily to take a stroll. And finally, the connection into and with the landscape. Paths like this form the basic structure of the cultural landscape, often representing a network that has been created over centuries and carries historical significance, but can always be adapted to new needs.
Julian Schäfer

Public sphere & Urban Land

Current theories on the European City are linked by two shared premises: they conceive of the city foremost as a social form, and they presuppose built structures that provide a basis for it: floor plan, texture, type; street, square, monument, park and garden are in a sense a priori components of a city contract. Nowadays such fundamental qualities and structures must also be identified in the open landscape of the Urban Land and the Zwischenstadt (suburban land). We examine the structures of the cultural landscape for the kind of qualities citizens are used to being offered in the public space of the city. Public space offers the necessary freedom to develop social spheres, thereby enabling patterns of appropriation and interaction. While the public sphere it supports is immaterial, the public space itself is directly bound to the centralities, general accessibility and permeability of space. Perhaps more obvious than from a sociological vantage point, the architectural perspective is always aware that the city as a social form cannot be separated from the built form. The morphological method par excellence for mapping the texture of the public sphere is the Nolli Plan of Rome. As is well known, this is a detailed figure-ground diagram which associates publicly accessible and significant buildings and their internal floor plans with public space. Much less attention has been paid to the fact that in his famous plan, Nolli also examined the surrounding ‘peripheries’ – the suburban cultural landscape of Rome. We use the analysis of this historical source as the basis for an investigation of social space of open landscape. The results are transferred, in the manner of an experiment, to contemporary rural or suburban spaces, applying a morphological approach. The aim is to show which physical-material textures exist in the cultural landscape that give space to the public sphere and thus form an equivalent to public spaces in the city.In this context, the goal must be to identify those structures with the highest ‘density of information’ (Latz 2017), the most vital ‘permanence’ and the greatest diversity. This may just as well apply to very young landscape structures (see Konold 2017). For us, landscape is not an object of protection in the sense of nature conservation, but rather of life quality. It is conceived not as a passive object, but as an active provider of structure, the underlying aim being to qualify landscape as a form for social use.

Within the industrial logic of this transport infrastructure, new informal uses are emerging: the space between the arch of the bridge and the surface of the roadway is being used in almost subversive appropriation as a place of encounter, especially by young people. This social practice indicates an unused potential of the infrastructure, which has so far been dedicated to mono-functionality: the bridge as a place of assembly and connection and simultaneously as part of the local everyday landscape.
Michael Schmölz

Use value & Urban Land

Following the historical-economic theory of the city (cf. Lefebvre, Hoffmann-Axthelm, Benjamin), this approach concentrates on the relationship between material spatial structure and everyday use valueas well as their mutual dependency. In this field, we examine specific spatial structures of suburban and rural areas which are generated by and enable ‘free, social use‘.Of particular interest are not only places whose use patterns have been shaped and preserved over long periods of time, but especially those places where, in a dialectical sense, new values of useare revealed within the dominance of the industrial logic of exchange valuethrough an urban-landscape practice. Again, a morphological analysis forms the foundation – not as a determinant, but as a seed – for the new emergence of social space and social form.

First and foremost, the research aims to identify typologies of places and spatial structures in rural areas that represent the immaterial qualities of landscape, such as its private or free disposal, difference, autonomy and assembly (cf. Lefebvre on urbanised space). At the same time, it intends to apply such typologies by proposing rules for social interaction with them in order to ultimately reveal these rules in a socially negotiable way as a demand for a ‘Right to Landscape’ (cf. Lefebvre’s ‘Right to the City’).


Dialogue on the future of land and landscape

These perspectives on Urban Land bring together sociality and spatial form, material and immaterial qualities of landscape. To further the much-needed discourse on the future of Urban Land, land and landscape – which is comparable to the one of the built space of the city – we mainly work with mappings that morphologically describe, explain and update these manifold interrelations and provide a conceptual apparatus as well as social practice for discussing them. Relying on the instruments of historical-contemporary structural analysis, our research reveals the landscape as a palimpsestof the cultural landscape on the dimensions of its natural and cultural morphologies and textures, its social milieus, its free disposal and public sphere, openness and everyday appropriation. Landscape does not represent the aesthetic value of the periphery, but the mediating level as tissu paysage, analogous to how Lefebvre exposed it in the tissu urbain.


Alexandra Bauer, LAREG, TU Munich

Alexandra Bauer, research associate at LAREG. She investigates the integrative und societal cohesive effects of places and their spatial structures in open spaces and landscape of suburban and rural areas.



Julian Schäfer, LAREG, TU Munich

Julian Schäfer, research associate at LAREG. Julian searches for qualities in built and spatial structures of the cultural landscape as they are offered in the public space of the city and researches their cartographic mapping.


Sören Schöbel, LAREG, TU Munich

Sören Schöbel holds the Associate Professorship for Landscape Architecture and Regional Open Space at the Technical University of Munich. His research focuses on urban and regional open space structures as well as new rural cultural and energy landscapes.

(Photo Credit: Moira Rutschmann)


Michael Schmölz, LAREG, TU Munich

Michael Schmölz, research associate at LAREG. He focuses on the concept of free, social use in landscape and the interrelation between material spatial structure and everyday use value.



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Schöbel, Sören (Ed.) (2017): Zur kritischen Rekonstruktion der Kulturlandschaft, Berlin: Jovis.

Benjamin, Walter (1968): “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“, in: Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. by Hannah Arendt, New York: Schocken Books, based on the German version of 1939.

Hoffmann-Axthelm, Dieter (2017): “Planungskulturen in Stadt und Land”, in Schöbel 2017, pp. 27–51.

Ipsen, Detlev (2000): “Die sozialräumlichen Bedingungen”, in: Dirk Matejovski (Ed.), Metropolen als Laboratorien der Moderne, Frankfurt am Main: Campus; Ipsen, Detlev (2006), “Kultur der Orte”, in: Ort und Landschaft, Wiesbaden: Verlag der Sozialwissenschaften.

Konold, Werner (2017): “Landschaftsdynamik – Vom Eingriff zur Eigenart”, in: Schöbel 2017, pp. 111–131.

Latz, Peter (2017): “Informationsdichte von Landschaft”, in Schöbel 2017, pp. 155–163.

Lefebvre, Henri (1968): Le droit à la ville, Paris; English transl. 1996.

Nolli, Giovanni Battista: Nuova Topografia di Roma, 1748.

Schäfer, Julian (2017): “Der soziale Raum der freien Landschaft”, in: Schöbel 2017, pp. 247–265.

Schmid, Christian (2011): “Henri Lefebvre und das Recht auf die Stadt, in: Andrej Holm, Dirk Gebhardt: Initiativen für ein Recht auf Stadt. Theorie und Praxis städtischer Aneignung, Hamburg: VSA Verlag, pp. 25–52.

Schmölz, Michael (2017): “Zum Gebrauchswert einer Landschaft”, in: Schöbel 2017, pp. 207–230.



The topics of the article are discussed in more detail in:

Schöbel, Sören (ed.) 2017: Landschaftsvertrag. Zur kritischen Rekonstruktion der Kulturlandschaft.Berlin: Jovis.
The Landschaftsvertragis so far only available in German.