Landscapes as Kaleidoscopes

A recent special issue of The Professional Geographer focuses specifically on the integration of theory and methods from Landscape Ecology and Geographic Information Science (GIScience). Entitled “Landscape Form, Process and Function: Coallescing Geographic Frontiers”, the six papers arose from the Centennial meeting of the 2004 Association of American Geographers and span the application-theory (e.g. Mast and ChambersMalanson et al. respectively) and the GIScience-Landscape Ecology (e.g. Southworth et al.Young and Aspinall respectively) spectra.

The general message is that the integration of method and theory GIScience and Landscape Ecology offers the opportunity to better examine and understand the interactions of pattern, process and landscape change. Concluding the special issue, Young and Aspinall use the metaphor of landscapes as kaleidoscopes;

“… a kaleidoscope serves as an engaging metaphor in this context because of its visualization of fragments, shreds, patches, and filaments that create a host of mosaics. A kaleidoscope creates these and other patterns and then shifts them, changing one set of forms into another, by altering colors and the locations of edges, thereby changing the appearances, sizes, and spatial distributions of the fragments. This device captures some of the complexity and shifting dynamics of the forms that characterize the Earth’s land surfaces. It would be difficult, but feasible, to record, measure, and otherwise describe those changes taking place within a kaleidoscope. It might even be possible to predict future patterns, or at least bracket the possible forms and patterns that could occur by tracking changes through time. Rather than a person creating these patterns by rotating a colorful tube, however, it is the landscape-forming and landscape-transforming processes that do so in reality.”

But in the majority of contemporary landscapes it is people rotating the landscape. Those landscape-forming and landscape-transforming processes are people-driven. The emphasis in this special issue is still largely presented from a formal (spatial) scientific perspective in the tradition of American Landscape Ecology, emphasising technical and philosophical approaches for examining patterns and processes. Given Professional Geographer is the forum and journal of the Association of American Geographers this is understandable and these approaches will surely improve and enhance our ability to examine and understand landscape change. However, landscape is an intrinsically holistic concept and change is often due to the interplay of both biophysical and human causes. Alongside furthering our technical abilities to study changing landscapes we need to continue to develop innovative approaches that consider the more humanistic side of landscape change and integrate them with the technical tools. Computer models, satellite imagery and the tools of GIScience are and will continue to be useful to monitor, evaluate and project change in their own right, but increasingly we need to find and develop ways that incorporate and include the humans turning the kaleidoscope.

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