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Landscape research in Belgium

La recherche sur les paysages en Belgique
Marc Antrop, Veerle Van Eetvelde, Dimitry Belayew, Emilie Droeven, Magali Kummert et Claude Feltz
p. 209-222


De monographies géographiques régionales, les recherches réalisées en Belgique en matière de paysage ont évolué vers des recherches plus appliquées mais aussi plus spécifiques à chacune des régions de l’état fédéral. Au nord, en Région flamande fortement urbanisée, ce sont les aspects de la suburbanisation et de la fragmentation des paysages qui sont surtout considérés. Ces recherches sont menées par des géographes, des historiens, des archéologues, des agronomes, des forestiers, des écologues selon leurs objectifs et préoccupations spécifiques, l’intégration de ces différentes approches étant principalement accomplie à travers la planification spatiale.
En Région wallonne, d’importantes étendues sont encore rurales et forestières, les zones urbanisées étant relativement concentrées. Ici, la recherche en matière de paysage implique principalement les géographes régionaux, les agronomes, les écologues et les aménageurs du territoire. Les aspects naturels et esthétiques du paysage dominent les recherches tandis que l’étude de sa construction historique est moins prononcée.
Dans la Région de Bruxelles-Capitale, les aspects paysagers rencontrent peu d’attention, celle-ci étant principalement portée sur les questions spécifiques du milieu urbain.
De ces multiples approches découle l’élaboration de différentes typologies du paysage selon les régions.

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Texte intégral

Fields of landscape research

From basic science towards applications

1In Belgium, the study of the landscape started with regional monographs by geographers and historians who followed the French tradition of Vidal de la Blache. In fact, the French geographer Blanchard, published in 1906 dealing with Flanders, made the first leading monograph. This resulted in many regional studies where landscape was an important topic (Tulippe, 1942; Christians, 1960, 1961; Snacken, 1961; Brulard, 1962; Daels and Verhoeve, 1979; Knaepen, 1995), as well as local case studies in historical geography (Verhulst, 1965; Verhoeve and Larnoe, 1988). Characteristic was the intimate integration between history, landscape genesis and physical geography, including soil science and geology (Snacken et al., 1975). Some more specific research followed also the general West-European tradition of the study of rural landscapes (Christians, 1982) and focussing upon specific themes in the landscape such as field patterns and hedgerows (Petit, 1942; Dussart, 1961), settlement patterns (Van der Haegen et al., 1982; Lefèvre, 1964; Dussart, 1957) or land use (Van der Haegen, 1982). Air photo-interpretation became also an important tool, not only for mapping (Wilmet, 1970), but also for landscape analysis (Larnoe et al., 1988; Daels, Verhoeve and Antrop, 1989) and archaeological prospecting (Daels et al., 1982; Ampe et al., 1996). The historical approach to landscape evolution is given by Verhulst (1965, 1990, 1995).

2With the new orientation in geography in the 1970s and 1980s landscape research became marginal. Whereas few geographers joined the revived landscape ecology (Zonneveld, 2000), landscape became an interesting subject for many disciplines. A lot of interesting research emerged in ecology, agronomy, forestry and planning (Gulinck and Wagendorp, 2002; Gulinck, 2001; Froment, 1999; Hermy & De Blust, 1997; Tack et al., 1993; Gysels et al., 1993; Froment et al., 1992; Oncklincx et al., 1987; Neuray, 1982; Van Hecke et al., 1981). This interest was closely related to the early concerns for nature conservation (Massart, 1912).

3Last, the interest for the new urbanized landscapes is recent (Antrop, 1994, 2004).

4Recent projects and studies dealing with landscape are more focussed upon applied research and policy supporting. This shift from basic scientific research to applications is strongly stimulated by funding possibilities.

Geography and landscape science in a federal state

5Gradually, Belgium became a federal state with three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital) and three communities (Flemish, French and German-speaking). Policy in different aspects was decentralised accordingly. Spatial and urban planning, environmental planning, agriculture, nature conservation, protection of monuments, sites and landscapes became the responsibilities of the regions and communities.

6The consequences for a comprehensive study of the Belgian landscapes are important. First, the natural landscape gradients (soils, geology, and relief) in Belgium are almost all west-east oriented zones varying from the north to the south. The hydrological system is completely oriented from south to north. The political borders divide the whole of this natural pattern. The results are differences in policy, legislation, data collection and monitoring. Second, most research is nowadays funded on an international (European) or regional basis, not on a federal or interregional one.

7The gradual process of federalization of the Belgian State stimulated this split and led to different approaches in the Flemish and Walloon region (Daels and Verhoeve, 1979; Antrop et al., 1985; Schreurs, 1986; Christians, 1987). Publications dealing with the landscapes of Belgium as a whole are becoming rare. The synthesis about Belgian geography made by Christians and Daels (1988) describes landscapes as one characteristic of the geographical regions, although a separate chapter in the bibliography is devoted to landscapes. In the major work about the geography of Belgium (Denis, 1992) no chapter is devoted to landscape; reference to landscapes are only found indirectly in the chapter of the rural areas or regions (Christians et al., 1992). The bibliographic inventories made for I.G.U. congresses (Denis, 1996) do not have a chapter or index entry to landscape research at all. References about landscape studies should be looked for in the chapter of agriculture and rural development. This clearly shows the reduction of the broad meaning of landscape in the thinking of many Belgian geographers at the end of the 20th century.

8Only at the University of Ghent a core of landscape researchers remained. Their work is characterised by a regional synthetic approach on an interdisciplinary basis (Snacken, 1981). Much of the work is interdisciplinary, joining (regional) geographers, archaeologists, historians, soil scientists and (landscape) ecologists in common projects.

9In the Walloon Region, landscape research focused upon the rural landscape through agrarian structure and settlement forms (Christians, 1964, 1987) as well as through architecture (Genicot, 1984-1992; Demeuldre, nd). In the 1990s, the interest for environmental issues concerning the landscape component increased, also through the publication of a compendium of the actions and knowledge about landscape in the Walloon Region in the Etat de l’environnement wallon (Ministère de la Région Wallonne, 1997). This synthesis tackled the question of urban landscape.

Disciplines involved

10Table 1 gives an overview of institutions and organisations in Belgium dealing with several fields of landscape research.

Table 1. Institutions in landscape research and study fields.

Table 1. Institutions in landscape research and study fields.

Landscape types and regions

A small country but a high diversity of landscapes supporting a wide variety of changes

11The regional and landscape diversity is very large in the small geographic territory of Belgium (Christians & Daels, 1988; Antrop, 1994, 1996). This is explained by its physical structure, which is very varied and which is amplified by very diverse cultural influences during a long history (table 2). Belgium, which is sometimes described as the battlefield of Europe, was created as a buffer state in 1830. The physical structure gives the basis for the classification of geographical regions and of the traditional landscapes (Antrop, 1997; Christians and Daels, 1988).

Table 2. Stages of landscape development in Belgium.

Table 2. Stages of landscape development in Belgium.

12In a densely populated and highly industrialised country, the pressures upon the geographical space are high and the changes are rapid. Actually, the landscapes in Belgium show a wide variety of changes due to urbanisation and fragmentation by transport infrastructures. In fact, the development of railway, that already started in 1835 (Van der Haegen, 1992), meant the opening of the countryside and initiated the first important transformations of the rural landscapes, in particular near the disclosed places. The Belgian situation illustrates very well the difficulty to distinguish urban and rural landscapes. The Global Report on Human Settlements (United Nations Centre for Human Settlement (HABITAT), 1996) gives for Belgium the misleading number of 97% of urban population in 1995. In the most urbanised part, i.e. the region of Flanders, the average population density was about 431 inhabitants per square kilometre in 1993, while the uplands of the Ardennes in southern Belgium face average densities of 40 inhabitants per square kilometre (Van Hecke & Dickens, 1994; Ministère de la Région Wallonne, 1998). The urban fringes occupy vast areas. The urbanisation of the countryside occurs in many different forms and is the most important factor in the transformation of the landscapes of Belgium (Antrop, 1994, 1998).

Taking care of the landscape

13In the 19th century the new state of Belgium followed the international trend of protecting areas for their natural and esthetical quality (Van Hoorick, 1999). This resulted in laws concerning the protection and listing of monuments and landscapes. Landscapes could be protected for their “scientific, cultural-historical and esthetical value of national importance”. After the federalisation of the Belgian State, protection of the landscape became the responsibility of the Regions. Today, the three regions of Belgium have their own legislation. Gradually, objectives, interests and legislation about nature conservation and landscape protection diverged, not only between the federal regions but also within each one.

14In Flanders for example, visions about the landscape are found in the legislation for landscape protection, but also in the ones concerning nature conservation and spatial planning. Although the different policies focus upon different aspects of the landscape, they are not always concerted and make an integrated holistic approach of the landscape management difficult.

15In Wallonia, no specific legislation exists but several landscape management tools are available, such as the Plan de secteur and the Schéma de structure communal for the regional and local land management. Since 1985, building in rural areas is regulated by the Règlement général sur les Bâtisses en Site rural.

16However, in Belgium, there is a growing interest in grouping and organising the many local thematic initiatives for the protection of the cultural heritage in the landscape.

17In 1996, a survey started to map the relics of the traditional landscapes in Flanders, based upon the orthophotomaps of 1990 (Antrop & Van Nuffel, 1997; Antrop, 2001). For each province, an atlas was created with maps at a scale of 1/50.000. These indicated the cultural and esthetical relics that were complementary to the natural ones already mapped in the Biological Valuation map (De Blust et al., 1985). Relics are not classified according to their age or nature, but to their spatial properties. Thus, relic zones, anchor places, lines, points and views are distinguished and mapped in a GIS linked to a relational database. The finalisation of this atlas was achieved in 2000. For the first time it gives a complete coverage of remaining landscape values in the highly urbanised and fragmented Flemish landscape (see Hofkens & Roosens, 2001). The atlases will be used intensively for further landscape protection, spatial and environmental planning and environmental impact assessment.

18In the Wallonia, Neuray’s work (1982) was fundamental for an integrated and multidisciplinary approach in landscape evaluation. His work introduced the evaluation of sites prior to land reallocation. It also formed the basis for the guidelines for the architecture of new agricultural buildings (Ministère de la Région Wallonne, 2001). To promote active protection of sites and heritage values in the countryside several associations were created, such as Qualité Village Wallonie and Fondation rurale de Wallonie.

19In 2000, the government of the Walloon Region installed the Conférence Permanente du Développement Territorial, which was given the task to make the inventory of Walloon landscapes according to the European Landscape Convention (Council of Europe, 2000). This resulted in the map of the Territoires Paysagers, mainly based on physical structures and land cover and aims to characterise the different landscapes at a scale of 1/50.000. This work was finalised in 2003 and gives a basis for further work on identification of heritage landscapes (Feltz et al., 2004).

Landscapes of Flanders and Wallonia

20In Flanders and Wallonia a different typology and classification of the landscapes is used. In Flanders the traditional landscapes form the main framework (Figure 1). They represent the landscapes based upon natural conditions and cultural-historical aspects before the great changes that started in the 18th century. In Wallonia, landscape territories (territoires paysagers) are used, which are based upon ensembles defined by physical-geographical properties and the actual land use forming scenic units (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Traditional landscapes of the Flanders Region.

Figure 1. Traditional landscapes of the Flanders Region.

0. Main urban agglomerations, 1. Coast and dunes, 2. Coastal Polderland, 3. Polderland of the Scheldt river, 4. Interior Flanders, flat and sandy soils in the Flemish Valley, 5. Interior Flanders, flat and sandy soils, 6. Interior Flanders, hilly and loamy soils,7. Northern Kempenland, 8. Central Kempenland, 9. Southern Kempenland, 10. Plateau of Kempenland, 11. Maasland, 12. Hageland, 13. Dry Haspengouw, 14. Wet Haspengouw, 15. Brabantse Ardennen, 16. Voerstreek, 17. The tidal Scheldt valley, 18. The Scheldt valley, 19. The Dijle-Gete-Demer valleys, 20. The Nete valley, 21. The Ijzer valley, 22. The Meuse valley. Brussels Capital region is not mapped.

Figure 2. Territoires paysagers of Wallonia.


01 Hainaut silty plain and low plateau, 02 Brabant valleys, 03 Brabant and Hesbaye low silty plateau, 04 Entre-Vesdre-et-Meuse, 05 Haine and Sambre, 06 Meuse, 07 Fagne, 08 Condroz middle plateau, 09 Fagne-Famenne depression and edge, 10 Thiérache, Sarts & Rièzes, 11 Nord-east Ardennes high plateau, 12 Central Ardennes high plateau, 13 Cuestas of Lorraine.

Issues of environmental and spatial planning and monitoring

22Care for the landscape is explicitly mentioned in the spatial and environmental planning policies of the different regions of Belgium. Because of the different geographical conditions and because of differences in policy and legislation, the approach to landscape management is different too (Van den Bergh, 1999).

23In Flanders, policy rules related to the landscape are found in both spatial (Ruimtelijk Structuurplan Vlaanderen – RSV) and environmental (Mina-plan2) planning. Both plans explicitly refer to landscape in different aspects. The “quality of space”, which implies environmental quality as well as spatial organisation and physical planning, is considered insufficient and should be improved. It is believed that a structural change will improve many functional aspects. Considering the landscape, spatial planning focuses on the conservation of the remnants of undisturbed traditional landscapes and on the intensification of recognisable and legible structural relief forms and transitions between different landscape types and regions. Also, the perceptive meaning of visual landmarks in structuring space is considered important as well as the making of buffer corridors of open space between urban zones. The main problems are defined by the important suburbanisation and the high-density transportation infrastructure, both causing severe fragmentation of the countryside with important losses or degradation of both natural and cultural values of the landscape. The rapid homogenisation of the landscapes is recognised, as well as the loss of identity and diversity of natural, ecological and cultural values. Therefore, surveys and inventories of landscapes and environmental qualities are considered of high importance. Also, the setting up of integrated monitoring systems is considered.

24In the Walloon region, the spatial planning policy is based upon the Code Wallon de l’Aménagement du Territoire, de l’Urbanisme et du Patrimoine (CWATUP) and realised by a spatial master plan called Schéma de Développement de l’Espace Régional (SDER). Development means the improvement of the quality of living. The Walloon territory is seen as “a collective heritage for its inhabitants”. Urban and rural landscapes are both considered and valued for having a great diversity, which is important for the environmental quality and for cultural and territorial identity. Degraded landscapes are considered as negative for the image of the Walloon region. Urbanisation processes also affect towns and village fringes and the continuing development of transportation infrastructures causes fragmentation of the countryside.

Future landscapes and landscape research

25The change of the Belgian landscapes in the future is likely to be conditioned mostly by changing mobility patterns and accessibility of places. It is likely that edge cities will continue to develop in the highly urbanized areas and at the best time-accessible places. In the countryside functional changes will be more likely than important morphological changes in housing and land use. Uncertain is the effect of the changing EU CAP, in particular in the intensive agricultural areas. Non-ground bound agriculture is likely to develop further.

26Landscape research will be more policy-oriented. The sources of funding indicate that less fundamental than applied research will develop in close relationship to spatial and urban planning. Also, a synthesis of Belgium is needed in the international context. A landscape character typology for the whole of the country will be published in the new National atlas.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1. Institutions in landscape research and study fields.
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Titre Table 2. Stages of landscape development in Belgium.
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Titre Figure 1. Traditional landscapes of the Flanders Region.
Légende 0. Main urban agglomerations, 1. Coast and dunes, 2. Coastal Polderland, 3. Polderland of the Scheldt river, 4. Interior Flanders, flat and sandy soils in the Flemish Valley, 5. Interior Flanders, flat and sandy soils, 6. Interior Flanders, hilly and loamy soils,7. Northern Kempenland, 8. Central Kempenland, 9. Southern Kempenland, 10. Plateau of Kempenland, 11. Maasland, 12. Hageland, 13. Dry Haspengouw, 14. Wet Haspengouw, 15. Brabantse Ardennen, 16. Voerstreek, 17. The tidal Scheldt valley, 18. The Scheldt valley, 19. The Dijle-Gete-Demer valleys, 20. The Nete valley, 21. The Ijzer valley, 22. The Meuse valley. Brussels Capital region is not mapped.
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Légende 01 Hainaut silty plain and low plateau, 02 Brabant valleys, 03 Brabant and Hesbaye low silty plateau, 04 Entre-Vesdre-et-Meuse, 05 Haine and Sambre, 06 Meuse, 07 Fagne, 08 Condroz middle plateau, 09 Fagne-Famenne depression and edge, 10 Thiérache, Sarts & Rièzes, 11 Nord-east Ardennes high plateau, 12 Central Ardennes high plateau, 13 Cuestas of Lorraine.
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Marc Antrop, Veerle Van Eetvelde, Dimitry Belayew, Emilie Droeven, Magali Kummert et Claude Feltz, « Landscape research in Belgium », Belgeo, 2-3 | 2004, 209-222.

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Marc Antrop, Veerle Van Eetvelde, Dimitry Belayew, Emilie Droeven, Magali Kummert et Claude Feltz, « Landscape research in Belgium », Belgeo [En ligne], 2-3 | 2004, mis en ligne le 14 septembre 2013, consulté le 18 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/belgeo.13573

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Marc Antrop

Geography Department, Ghent University, Belgium,

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Veerle Van Eetvelde

Geography Department, Ghent University, Belgium,

Dimitry Belayew

Département de Géographie, Facultés Universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix, Namur, Belgium,

Emilie Droeven

Laboratoire d’Etude en Planification Urbaine et Rurale (LEPUR), Gembloux agricultural University, Belgium,

Magali Kummert

Laboratoire d’Etude en Planification Urbaine et Rurale (LEPUR), Gembloux agricultural University, Belgium,

Claude Feltz

Unité Sol-Ecologie-Territoires, Laboratoire d’aménagement des territoires, Gembloux agricultural University, Belgium,

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