Revival of landscape-scale research?

By Joern Fischer

It’s easy to by cynical about the state of the world, and the state of academia. A recent commentary in Nature suggested that “current trajectories threaten science with drowning in the noise of its own productivity”. Leading journals are full of technocratic formulas for how to fix the world; while the deeper questions underpinning our sustainability crisis remain unaddressed. But every now and then, there’s a glimmer of hope.

I’ve recently been hopeful about a possible revival of landscape-scale research. To me, conservation science went a bit like this: general principles were being established in the 1960; reserves were advocated in the 1970s; reserve planning was perfected in the 80s and 90s; the “matrix” outside protected areas attracted attention in the 1990s, along with a rise in landscape ecology; ecosystem services arose as a new field of enquiry in the 2000s; and protected areas re-gained attention via the concept of land sparing in the last few years, with areas outside protected areas losing in popularity.

But just recently, it appears there is also a revival of the “landscape” bubbling under the surface, along with genuinely better integration across disciplines. This latent revival of the landscape as a focal area of interdisciplinary research efforts is despite prestigious journals favouring larger scales. If you read only the highest impact journals, you may miss out altogether on the landscape scale. But if you read work one or two notches below in terms of supposed “prestige” of the journals, landscape research is alive, and perhaps even on the rise.

I was encouraged to see, for example, Reed’s latest paper in Global Change Biology; or Wu’s paper on landscape sustainability science. Similarly, the PECS network encourages investigation of social-ecological systems in actual physical locations – often landscapes, as shown in a recent review of literature on scenario planning.

There are several (different) communities of people who are passionate about getting out into the field; working in real landscapes; and investigating issues in depth from multiple perspectives. Perhaps part of the problem is that those communities do not (yet?) speak the same language – without having done a citation or network analysis, my guess is that work on the “landscape approach” (sensu Sayer or Reed) is largely separate from work on “landscape sustainability science” (sensu Wu) and “social-ecological systems” (sensu PECS). In addition, there are many “conventional” ecologists and social scientists who continue to focus on landscapes even when the incentives are skewed towards scaling up – but they may not read any of the interdisciplinary work listed above. These communities of people thus look different at first glance, but they probably share key interests and aversions: including the interest to actually “get out there” rather than just model things from a distance; and healthy skepticism regarding simplistic fixes for complex problems.

There’s nothing magic as such about the landscape as a focal scale – but as a space for integration across disciplines and between researchers and stakeholders, it is uniquely relevant. My hope is that over the next few years, we’ll see a major revival of landscape-scale research – and who knows, maybe even the high-impact journals will realize that bigger is not always better.

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