What are landscape approaches?

Landscape approaches recognize the interconnections between people and nature in places where productive land uses – such as agriculture, livestock and mining – compete with environmental and biodiversity goals.

The concept of Integrated Landscape Management (ILM) has risen up the global development agenda in recent years. Although interpreted in different ways, there is widespread agreement that integrated approaches are critical to addressing the triple challenge of sustaining a growing human population, preventing biodiversity loss, and mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Such systems-based approaches aim to improve the allocation and management of land to simultaneously achieve social, economic and environmental objectives, while preserving valuable ecosystems and the essential services they provide.

Applying such approaches demands an in-depth understanding of the multifunctionality of ecosystems and production systems and the roles played by all actors, as well as potential synergies and trade-offs between different sectors, land uses and institutions. This sensitivity to local conditions is what makes each ILM project unique since approaches and solutions are necessarily tailored to landscape-specific challenges, needs and interests.

Ensuring that the needs and interests of all stakeholders are fully captured in ILM initiatives demands participatory, multi-stakeholder planning processes and governance structures. This helps empower marginalized groups that are too often alienated from decision-making processes, while ensuring that landscape solutions fully correspond with local practices, norms and knowledge.

Even though in every landscape ILM approaches are interpreted and applied differently, most are premised on common set of guiding principles. The 10 principles proposed by Jeffrey Sayer and colleagues in 2013 often serve as inspiration for ILM projects. These principles relate to among other things the multistakeholder processes, multifunctionality, participation, adaptive management and common concern entry points.

See also

Characteristics of Integrated Landscape Management (ILM)

Our experience suggests that ILM is a process for managing the competing demands on land through the implementation of adaptive and integrated management systems.

When combined with well-planned and executed technical interventions (such as tree growing, sustainable agriculture etc), ILM enables landscape multi-functionality to be managed, and its benefits (to society and the environment) to be captured and distributed.

We see six critical elements in the ILM process:

Stakeholder identification

We see landscapes as systems comprising the combined behaviours of multitude stakeholders exploiting a shared natural resource. Stakeholder assessments serve to delimit the system, and should, ultimately, define a limited number of stakeholders that an ILM project will “target.”

Stakeholder assessments are critical to thinking about who should be doing what differently if the project’s vision is to be achieved. There are many different stakeholder assessment methodologies. Our preferred one is Net-Mapping, because of the emphasis it places on the influence an actor has to enable or impede a project achieving its vision. The higher that influence, the more necessary the need for strategies to address the actor.

A stakeholder assessment is necessary to determine who should be in a multi-stakeholder forum (MSF) (see below). This choice needs to be highly strategic – any landscape will have multitude stakeholders and the level and degree of animosity between needs to be determined – both to determine who should be in the MSF, but also so strategies can be developed to address this animosity and aim towards cooperation (if not collaboration). So too, the choice of stakeholders needs to consider their degree of influence in the system.

Fundamental to the latter exercise must be an assessment of the relations between stakeholders. The dominance of one system actor necessarily diminishes the prominence of other actors and it is this interplay between actors that determine system direction.

Multi-stakeholder fora

Multi-stakeholder Fora (MSFs) are probably the single most powerful way of enabling integration in any natural resources management. MSFs are carefully moderated spaces for stakeholder deliberation and decision-making around a vision. MSFs have significant additional benefits revolving around fairness, inclusion, empowerment, equality and equitability. They also represent a centre into which new knowledge can be developed, introduced and deliberated.

To be effective, MSFs must have decision-making powers. For some of our projects, that decision-making power is enabled by having government stakeholders on board – but we do not see this as a pre-requisite to decision-making powers. An MSF can make decisions that will be followed through by local institutions, or through decisions to pursue certain activities. Obviously, all MSFs can make decisions at some level. We are interested here in MSFs that can make decisions that can affect the direction of the landscape system.

There is no blueprint for how MSFs can or should be created because their design is heavily influenced by context. Where stakeholders are unable to even speak with each other, it might be necessary to form two (or more) separate MSFs, with the project implementing team creating some kind of bridging mechanism between them.

Common vision

A vision to be a concise statement of who will be doing what differently if the project is a success. It serves to define a trajectory for the system over the short-term. Obviously, establishing a vision needs to start in the early inception phase of the project. A vision has immense strategic value in determining the project’s direction. It creates a north star which the project aims for, and stakeholders organise themselves behind.

A vision must be regularly revisited during project implementation to assess the extent to which project activities and direction are in alignment with it; to reassess how realistic it is; and to determine whether or not a new vision is necessary (based on project learning) for the next timeframe interval.


‘Institutionalisation’ refers to whether or not a project’s processes are incorporated in a landscape’s governance institutions. Where this happens, the likelihood of project sustainability is significantly increased.

It should be noted that ‘governance’ is not the monopoly of government. “Effective governance” usually references governance delivered by a multitude of institutions, be these government, social or community level. Hence, when it comes to institutionalisation, the adoption of project processes into local level, non-government, institutions is as relevant as their adoption into government institutions.

Iterative and adaptive management

Because landscapes are (complex) systems, we have to navigate them adaptively. As the former Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping put it, “We will cross the river by feeling the stones under our feet, one by one”.

In complex systems, levels of predictability and guarantee are low. Generally speaking, high levels of project rigidity and inflexibility reduce our ability to navigate complexity, which in turn, limit our ability to deliver change. When it comes to implementing projects in complex systems, rigidity generally needs to be eschewed.

Adaptive management references (based on Hilborn et al., 1995):

  • The extent to which actions are reversible.
  • Whether the system can be understood by small space and small time-scale experimentation.
  • Whether the rate of learning about the system is rapid enough to provide useful information about subsequent decisions.

Once a project has established a vision, it will necessarily have to design the strategies that it will employ for achieving it (for which it requires a Theory of Change). Once it detects that a strategy is veering the project away from the vision, the project needs to pause and reconsider. Either the vision is unobtainable, and in which case it needs to change; or another strategy needs to be employed. In this way, the project progressively improves its ability to generate outcomes (behavioural changes) during the course of implementation – in response to learning.

Technical solutions and tools

Throughout ILM, knowledge is one (amongst several other) ingredient. It is required to inform project implementation – and is not an end in itself. Ideally, knowledge informs MSF decision-making.

There are a wide variety of tools and applications that can be used to support landscape decision-making. It is worth remembering, however, that (based on Conway, 1985):

  • It is not necessary to know everything about the landscape system in order to produce a realistic and useful analysis.
  • Understanding the behaviour and important properties of the landscape system requires knowledge of only a few key functional relationships.
  • Producing significant improvements in the performance of a system requires changes in only a few key management decisions.
  • Identification and understanding of these key relationships and decisions requires that a limited number of appropriate key questions are defined and answered.


Conway, G. R. (1985). Agroecosystem analysis. Agricultural Administration, 20(1), 31–55. https://doi.org/10.1016/0309-586X(85)90064-0

Hilborn, R., Walters, C. J., & Ludwig, D. (1995). Sustainable Exploitation of Renewable Resources. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 26(1), 45–67. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.es.26.110195.000401