Principles of landscape architecture

To discover and reveal the deeper substrate of the landscape is something the natural sciences alone cannot accomplish.” – Günther Voght


The Department of Urbanism at the Faculty of Architecture and Built Environment, TU Delft considers urbanism as a planning and design oriented activity towards urban and rural landscapes. It aims to enhance, restore or create landscapes from a perspective of sustainable development, so as to guide, harmonise and shape changes which are brought about by social, economic and environmental processes. In this respect we can consider urbanism as an object or goal-oriented interdisciplinary approach that breaks down complex problems into ‘compartments’ or ‘themes’. The core of urbanism is formed by the disciplines of urban planning, urban design, and landscape architecture. Giving shape to the relationship between man and natural landscape is a core task for this disciplines and involves civil-, agriculture-, nature-, and environmental based techniques as operative instruments. However, in order to work together effectively it is important to identify and develop the qualities of the involved disciplines individually. What is the particular nature of landscape architecture as an independent discipline? The presumption is that the answer can be found in a repertoire of principles of study and practice typical for landscape architecture. [1, 2]


Landscape as a three-dimensional construction

Here the focus is on research and design of the landscape ‘from the inside out’, as it could be experienced by an observer moving through space. It elaborates on the visual manifestation of open spaces, surfaces, screens and volumes and their relationships in terms of structural organisation (e.g. balance, tension, rhythm, proportion, scale) and ordering principles (e.g. axis, symmetry, hierarchy, datum and transformation). The basic premise is that the shape of space, plasticity (form of space-determining elements), and appearance (e.g. colour, texture and lighting) of spatial elements in the landscape determine the relation between design and perception. This principle addresses the form and functioning of three-dimensional landscape space, which creates a spatial dynamic. This might be the construction of a pictorial landscape composition, the framing of a landscape or urban panorama, or creating optical illusions. The treatment of space is not only about designing merely, static images but about the design of a kinaesthetic experience. The images are not ends in themselves but part of a series of three-dimensional images that draw together the architectonic or mental image of the composition. Since there is a causal relationship between seeing and moving the role of movement is of great importance.[3]


Stourhead landscape garden (Wiltshire, UK) is a landscape designed from the observers point of view. Views and sightlines are combined with formal, transitional and progressive elements. Study map of Stourhead in 1779 by Frederik Magnus Piper showing important sight lines at eye-level (image courtesy: Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Stockholm)

Landscape as history

The landscape is 'read' as a biography, as a palimpsest that evidences all of the activities that contributed to the shaping of that landscape. Here the concept of the longue durée is crucial, understanding the landscape as a long-term structure, which is changing rather slowly.[4]  The physical traces that time has overlaid can reinforce or contradict each other. Knowledge of these layers is one of the starting points for new transformations of the landscape involved, or for adding a new design layer. This principle involves the evolution of landscape over time and elaborates on operations of ‘erasing’ and ‘writing’ history.[5] Operations of erasing history include: complete or partial eradication, etching, excision, entropy and excavation. Operations of writing history include: parcelling, infill, addition, absorption, enveloping, wrapping, overlay, parasitize and morphing. The genius loci, the character of the site, is at the heart of this principle. Examples include the re-development of industrial brownfields, and the conservation and transformation of cultural-historical valuable sites.


Bunker 599 (Diefdijk, the Netherlands) is an example of a careful design intervention in an important historical defence structure of the Netherlands, the New Dutch Water Line. Project by Rietveld Landscape with Atelier de Lyon, 2010 (source: Rietveld Landscape)

Landscape as a scale-continuum

Landscape is considered to be a relational structure connecting scales and spatial, ecological, functional and social entities. Landscape is viewed as a scale-continuum. The design involves establishing relationships via the attachment, connection, and embedment of a specific site or location into the broader context at different scale levels. A landscape intervention will have impacts on different levels of scale, hitting interests of stakeholders operating on that level. Although scale is a matter of grain and radius, it implies that a particular site is always part of the larger context.[6] Once the extent and grain of the site (object of study) is determined, the rest is regarded as ‘context’. The reach of scale is also important, because conclusions on a specific level of scale could be opposite to conclusions drawn on another level of scale (this is called: scale-paradox). This principle addresses working through the scales as an important basic premise, for example for systematic elaboration of planning strategies (e.g. regional planning and design) and design interventions (e.g. project-based realization). This might include, for example, the development of regional park systems as armatures for urban development, or the design of water infrastructures with regional implications. Thus landscape design operates on different scales of intervention, or conceptual zones, which provide a cultural lens to landscape. In sixteenth-century Renaissance Italy these conceptual zones were defined as: the ‘first nature’, the natural landscape (wilderness, untouched by man), the ‘second nature’, the cultural landscape (agriculture, urban development’s, etc.) and the ‘third nature’, the designed landscape where the former two where absorbed, used and represented.[7]


Emscher Landscape Park (Germany) is based on a regional strategy elaborated by project-based design interventions. Section of the Masterplan 2010 indicating realised and future projects (source: Regionalverband Ruhr, 2010)

Landscape as a process

Here the landscape is regarded as a holistic and dynamic system of systems.[8] The landscape is regarded as a layered entity where different processes and systems influence each other and have a different dynamic of change. In that respect landscape is an expression of the interaction between ecological, social and economic processes. The landscape is considered as a process rather than as a result. Natural and social processes constantly change the landscape, making the dynamics of the transformation a key issue in research and design. The design is like an open strategy, aimed at guiding developments, not a blueprint design. Projects play a role in open-ended strategies, as in staging or setting up future conditions (e.g. manipulating processes of erosion and sedimentation by water or the development of project-based master plans). Operations focus on the interaction between landscape processes and typo-morphological aspects and facilitate social and ecological relationships between natural and human systems. This principle of study and practice elaborates on models for understanding the landscape as system (e.g. layers-approach and systems thinking), and concepts like sustainable urban metabolism and urban ecology. It employs social and ecological processes to create landscapes that serve multiple objectives.


Jardin Élémentaires is a theoretical experiment were natural processes of erosion and sedimentation by water are manipulated by dams, creating changing patterns of streams and sedimentary islands in a valley landscape. Project by Michel Desvigne, 1988 (image courtesy: Michel Desvigne)

The knowledge reflected by these principles of study and practice forms the core of landscape design and expresses the integrative nature of landscape architecture. It embodies a way of thinking typical for landscape architecture and is visible in landscape architecture theories, planning and design processes and products.

Further reading

To download:
  • Nijhuis, S (2013) ‘Principles of landscape architecture’, in: Farina, E & Nijhuis, S (eds.) Flowscapes. Exploring landscape infrastructures. Madrid: Mairea Libros Publishers, 52-61


[1] This is an abridged version of: Nijhuis, S. (2015). Landscape design as object of knowledge. In Idem,  GIS-based landscape design research. Stourhead landscape garden as a case study. Delft: A+BE

[2] The principles are adapted from: Marot, D. (1995). Landscape as Alternative. In Van der Marliere, K. (Ed.), Het Landschap/The Landscape (pp. 9-36). Antwerpen, De Singel; Prominski, M. (2004). Landschaft entwerfen: Zur Theorie aktueller Landschaftsarchitektur. Berlin: Reimer; Nijhuis, S. (2013). Principles of landscape architecture. In Farina, E & Nijhuis, S. (Eds.), Flowscapes. Exploring landscape infrastructures (pp. 52-61). Madrid: Mairea Libros Publishers.

[3] Straus, E. W. (1963). The Primary World of Senses. A vindication of sensory experience (Needleman, J., Trans.). New York: Free Press of Glencoe. (Original work published 1956); Berthoz, A. (2000). The brain's sense of movement. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[4] Braudel, F. (1992). De Middellandse zee en de mediterrane wereld ten tijde van Philips II (Vols. 1-3) (Gramata, E., Trans.). Amsterdam and Antwerpen: Uitgeverij Contact. (Original work published 1966).

[5] Lukez, P. (2007). Suburban Transformations. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

[6] De Jong, T. M. (2006). Context analysis. Delft University of Technology.

[7] De Jong, E. A. (1998). De tuin als derde natuur. Een beschouwing over natuur en kunst. Theoretische Geschiedenis 25(2/3), 97-112; Lazzaro, C. (1990). The Italian Renaissance garden: From the conventions of planting, design, and ornament to the grand gardens of sixteenth-century Central Italy. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[8] Zonneveld, J. I. S. (1981). Vormen in het landschap: Hoofdlijnen van de geomorfologie. Utrecht: Het Spectrum.