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Landscape and nation-building

Photo by Cherry Bueza on Unsplash

Landscape is a key concept in geography and pertains to everything on the surface of the earth – this includes not only the natural terrain and climate, but also the earth’s inhabitants and how they have shaped, and been shaped, by the environment. For geographers, landscape is the lens by which we can understand how society works. In this article, we will be examining how landscape has been integral in the spread of modern ideologies; in particular, how it helped shape the modern nation-state. Let us start our exploration with the ways by which the landscape supports an imagined nation and how the landscape reproduces cultural values and ideals so that these continue to have meaning for citizens of the nation-state.

How does landscape inform us of nation and nation-state?

1. Landscape depictions

Landscape depictions such as maps, photos, and paintings have been essential in creating territorial borders and defining peoples, for both the imperial powers and the colonized. The use of landscape depictions served to construct group identity and demarcate territory in the making of the nation.

When the French were staging their many revolutions in the 1700s, landscape paintings depicting peaceful and copious rural environs spread among the ruling classes of England. Denis Cosgrove (2008) notes how these paintings reassured the English ‘squirearchy’ that “all was well with the world.” England had no starving peasants; it was not the mess that was France. But the lowliest of English farmers were being evicted from the land by sheep and by a more rabid execution of the Enclosures Act, where land for communal farming was enclosed as the private property of the lords. The peasants were far from pastorally comfortable. They were starving, fleeing to cities to become cogs in an industrial system; those remaining bled dry by exorbitant rents. Yet, the image of the English countryside as painted in the 1700s has persisted.

– Roda, A. (2016). “The election question: How disconnected are we from rural realities?”, in ( )

While many of you today are familiar with the use of art as resistance (in memes, posters, etc.), art was integral to shaping early ideas of nation, including people’s sense of place. As mentioned in the preceding quote, landscape depictions prevented a revolt from taking place among the peasants in England. While the French revolutions were going on, English peasants were driven out of farm lands; landowners wanted to use the land for raising sheep, a more lucrative investment given the industrial revolution and the mass production of wool. To avoid unrest among the peasants and their supporters, the English ruling classes commissioned popular painters to do landscape paintings depicting the English countryside as idyllic, a far cry from what it actually was. But the image of the English countryside as idyllic stuck – nobody revolted – and persists until today. There is a BBC show called Escape to the Country, where city residents aim to buy property in the countryside precisely because of this image.

In contemporary times, what comes to mind is a kind of romanticisation of, for example, farming and rural life. We see celebrities and influencers espousing “growing your own vegetables” and posting photos of their abundant backyards on social media. Farm tours, where kids can feed and play with animals and adults can relax in the middle of nature, are a popular out-of-town leisure activity (at least, pre-ECQ). In fact, agri-tourism is a growing enterprise in the country. But in the Philippines, problems of either excess production or poor crops still plague the countryside. The poorest of the poor – landless farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples – are in rural areas. Now, we have this Balik Probinsya initiative, where Metro Manila residents are encouraged to go back to their provinces. What image of the probinsya dominates and what are the implications?

2. The shaping of landscapes

Landscapes, including settlement forms, architecture and design, place and street names, and monuments, have been fashioned from particular historical, political, social, and cultural ideals. These ideals are embedded in the landscape as it is carved out by the dominant groups. As such, how the landscape is shaped leads to the discipline and control of subjects (i.e. as modern citizens). The landscape reminds users of a particular history; encourages particular ways of living; instills values and beliefs; and serves to exclude particular groups.

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The above is an example of a park in Turin, Italy. Parks emerged in the early 1900s, in Victorian England, as places of leisure for the working classes. Cosgrove (2008) notes that the construction of parks as having “winding paths, herbaceous borders, water features, mown lawn, and rest areas” are deliberate. Everything on the landscape was intended for moral and social control. Park features were meant to instill in the working classes the ideals of decency and propriety present among the bourgeoisie.

Conway argues that the motives for parks construction varied widely; this included:

“To add value to new housing developments… to give a green space to the urban sprawl. Some were even used to try and regulate the leisure activities of the working classes. Other’s viewed them as expressions of civic pride”[4].

Parks became increasingly a priority and were used as a way of providing green spaces of leisure for town-dwellers, and most notably the working class – this was the main purpose of parks… they were … designed to control the activities of the working class as Conway suggests, the idea being that working class leisure time was spent at a public house simply because there was nowhere else to go after work other than there or home[5], whereas the Middle classes were seen as examples of desirable behaviour – valuing fresh air, exercise, and walking. Professor Paul Elliot from the university of Derby states that “the [public parks] were for the mill workers and citizens of the town… significant because the majority were free”[6]. By allowing the working class somewhere to absorb Victorian culture it was hoped that a nation built even more so on national pride would emerge and a more civilised working class would follow.”

Williams, S. (2018). “The intriguing history of public parks during the Victorian era, and the craze for exotic botanicals”, in Digital Victorians.( (Links to an external site.))

Have a look at this East German housing estate:

Mass housing for workers in Weissensee District (Plattenbau), 1975.  By

As a socialist landscape, it was designed to promote the values of socialism and equality, function over beauty, sameness, and efficiency, among others. Notice how the architecture and the surroundings allow for the transmission of said values, as well as of a particular sense of history.

Who belongs to the nation?

1. As the landscape has the ability to shape behavior, its features can also serve to include or exclude peoples. Consider all of the subdivisions in the country. How many of them have gates and guard houses? Consider condominium buildings and the cost to buy or rent a unit. The gates, the prices, give us an idea that certain groups are being kept out. If we live in these gated communities or condominium complexes, we want to feel safe. But that notion of safety implies an idea of who is, or which groups of people are, a threat to our safety. Being in a landscape that has “gates”and “gatekeepers” shapes our ideas of the other, of people who are undesirable.

Have you seen the Facebook post on Hypebeasts in Bonifacio Global City that went viral some time ago? BGC is open and non-gated, but it is where a lot of expats and wealthy people live, where a lot of corporate offices and high end shops are located. Thus, certain “others” are kept out in various ways. The “hypebeasts” mentioned are not trouble makers, but the fact that a particular group has been labeled and seen as such tells you of who the landscape considers as the other.

Gatekeeping can also take place in other ways. A number of geographers have noted how the urban landscape reflects male dominance – from the lack of safe spaces for women to the lack of public conveniences that women might need but that men take for granted (please read: Kern 2020, “Is it time to build feminist cities?” ) . For instance, in Manila, urinals dot public spaces, but who can use these? What are females supposed to do? Having male-only urinals also inform you of perceptions about men’s work – that it is the men who are often outside, in motorcycles, in public transport, on the street. Further, how many of our restaurants are child and stroller-friendly? I have eaten in popular restaurants whose staff frown at the sight of young children in strollers, mainly because strollers often don’t fit. Spaces in restaurants are optimised to get the maximum number of paying customers inside (and babies/toddlers are not lucrative customers). The design of urban spaces also puts persons with disabilities and the elderly at a disadvantage. How accessible are cities to them?

As mentioned previously, the way the landscape is shaped exerts a strong influence on behavior. How does the masculine city influence the way we act? And how is this a form of gatekeeping? Some PWDs and pregnant women would not be able to access buildings and overpasses that require climbing a lot of stairs, and would therefore either opt to stay home, find more accessible spaces, or think of another way to get where they want to go. Women will avoid staying out on the streets late at night or walking through dark areas and unknown neighborhoods, unless they are in a group or with a (male) escort. If they can, they will avoid sitting next to men in public transport should they happen to wear short skirts.  And what legitimizes this form of gatekeeping is how many of us, regardless of gender, feel that these actions are commonsensical. Why indeed, would you walk in unfamiliar neighborhoods?  Such is the influence of landscape on thought and behavior. While certain areas can be unsafe for all genders or for varied groups of people, the burden of safety, among others, is twice as heavy on women – there are so many things for women to consider before they step out. Urban spaces have been more convenient for men, and women are left with the decision to either proceed or keep out.

2. The landscape enables representations of the “other” based on prevailing discourses. Escobar (1995) interrogates the discourse of development as creating the “Third World” and promoting the idea that certain areas of the world are underdeveloped and thus, require development. Such notions of development and underdevelopment, however, are based on the Western experience of progress, and are impositions on the non-West. The West assumes that the ways it has responded to conditions of modernity are commendable and should be applied everywhere else, regardless of differences in cultures and experiences. And given Western hegemony, their discourse of development continues to hold sway until today.

Discourses find representation and are materialised in the landscape. The Third World, for instance, is on an imagined map – it is the non-Western, non-White part of the world; the “Global South,” as thinkers call it today, in an attempt to change the discourse. In popular culture, in literature, in media and advertisements, we can see depictions of the Third World and its peoples, and almost all of these representations revolve around poverty. All of these representations emphasise the need for Western models of development.

Discourses lead to practices in the landscape as well. For instance, a study I did on a microsavings program in an urban poor area found that half of the residents surveyed did not belong, or refused to join, the program. This savings program was conceptualised using rational and sound economic principles – residents can choose to save anywhere from one peso to P20 a week; once a certain amount is reached, they can make a loan without interest. Still, some were not convinced. Did their non-participation mean irrationality; that these residents were not thinking of their future? But again, whose rationality has been imposed here? People act on the basis of their own sense of what is rational, on the basis of experiences and cultural understandings. Non-participation does not imply irrationality; but Western hegemony often drives us to consider only one strand of rationality among many possible rationalities. This is the reason why some economic models fail, and why development in the Third World has resulted in even more poverty.

A great deal of our “dependency” on the West has to do with our colonial past.  As conditions of modernity prompted and encouraged colonies to gain independence and become nation-states, post colonial assertions of identity began to take shape in the landscape. New, non-Western understandings of the modern started gaining traction around the world. Still, this Western discourse of development remains – and has been a force for the dominance of the West over the non-West (just think, for instance, of where the bulk of aid is coming from).

3. The idea of the nation-state also implies the idea of citizenship. Thus, the imposition of citizenship controls, such as passports, immigration, national IDs, residential addresses, among others, through state policies in the landscape.

How powerful is your passport? The nation-state determines who can and cannot enter. Consider the most powerful passports in the world. Citizens of these countries can enter almost all countries without a visa. While visa requirements depend on mutual policies between states, it also hinges on how state leaders view citizens in other countries, and of how they see those countries as well. For instance, people from the Middle East or with Middle Eastern features often find it hard to get visas or go through immigration when they travel, even though many of them might be frequent travelers or might have some other citizenship. Tan France, a presentor on the show, Queer Eye, and a British national (but now an American citizen) with Pakistani ethnicity, talks about how, before he became famous, he had been stopped for questioning by immigration when he visited his partner in the United States.

How does the landscape make sure that “citizens” of the nation are united?

While the nation-state implies an “imagined community” (see Anderson 1983) of citizens who share cultural elements such as history, language, and territory, not everyone in the nation-state will identify with these supposedly shared elements. The nation-state comprises different groups of people with differing beliefs, ideologies, cultural practices, and place-making processes; groups can therefore contest interpretations of space and history. But, as sites of social and collective memory, landscapes – through museums, monuments, parks, tourist spots, street and place names, and cyberspace (see, e.g. – become grounds for the formation, contestation, and adaptation of identities and histories.

In creating the nation-state, the plurality of narratives and experiences are negotiated and interpreted to fit national or state ideologies. For groups to envision an “imagined community,” varied remembrances and practices, myths and traditions (refer to Hobsbawm 1992) must be negotiated with a shared history. For the nation-state, these varied remembrances and traditions must be incorporated within a nationally shared history – social memory (the common memory and history of groups tied by ethnicity, religion, language, and other sociocultural traits) is subsumed by collective memory (the memory of the “mainstream”) – to reinforce a national identity.

Such shared history is memorialized through “rituals of communal remembrance” (Johnson 2002) in the landscape. While monuments, public art, and place names remain important in making citizens remember, history has to be made active in the present – it needs to be officially remembered and celebrated through, for example, official holidays and special days; public rituals such masses and fiestas; public festivals; or even through media advertisements. Memory-making is thus, a process, and one that also constitutes a form of gatekeeping.

Of note though, is that this national history or collective memory is often contingent on the memory of the dominant ethnolinguistic group in the nation-state, imposed on non-dominant ethnolinguistic groups. Further, negotiations for national memory often involve “selective remembering and institutional forgetfulness” (Chang and Huang, 2005). The histories passed on to us do not involve everything; some take precedence over others. Think, for instance, of our national heroes. Many others fought the good fight and struggled against injustice but are hardly celebrated in official channels. Think as well, of the Philippine history that you know. How many of us are familiar with the stories of the Ifugao, the Tausug, the Talaandig, the Mangyan; of the history of Pampanga, Iloilo, Cotabato; of agriculture in the country and the rituals observed with fishing, or with the planting and harvest seasons? There are many provinces in the Philippines; there are many ways of life; indigenous peoples are Filipino and part of the nation-state. But apart from an awareness of some of these places as tourist sites; apart from remembering indigenous peoples through street names or class sections in elementary, we know little about them.

With the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and Europe today, many groups have either called for the removal of, or are already toppling down, statues and monuments of slave owners, slave traders, and white supremacist leaders. This illustrates the importance of monuments in memory-making and identity assertions in space. However, with these statues going down, marginal groups could also run the risk of erasing memories of oppression, making them forget, when the fight is clearly not over. But perhaps with the replacement of such statues with those of current activists, these new monuments can serve as sources of inspiration for groups to continue the fight.

Chang and Huang (2005) talk about the “creative destruction” and “destructive creation” taking place along the Singapore River in the making of modern Singapore. Creative destruction involves the erasure of spaces not in keeping with the nation’s ideological agenda; for example, the demolition of certain old buildings and the maintenance of others, allowing for some memories to flourish and for others to wane. Destructive creation, on the other hand, involves the rebuilding of landscapes that have little to do with an area’s history; for example, the staging of festivals along the Singapore river that, while evoking collective bonds among people, have nothing to do with the river’s history as a “working river.” We see instances of creative destruction and destructive creation taking place in the Philippines – tourist sites that showcase old historical houses taken out of their original context; traditions such as flower festivals and music festivals “invented” to draw in tourists; historical sites and farm lands giving way to condominium and leisure developments. This is the kind of memory-making taking place today. We can only surmise its effects on our national consciousness.


Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Cosgrove, D. (1989) Geography is everywhere: Culture and symbolism in human landscapes. In: Gregory, D.; Walford, R. (eds.), Horizons in Human Geography, pp. 118–135. MacMillan Education, London.

Chang, TC and Shirlena Huang (2005) “Recreating place, replacing memory: Creative destruction at the Singapore River”, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 46(3): 267-280.

Escobar, Arturo. 1995. “Development and the anthropology of modernity.” In: Encountering development, the making and unmaking of the third world. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Hobsbawm, M., & Ranger, T. (eds.) (1992) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, N. (2007) “Public Memory”, A Companion to Cultural Geography, UK: Blackwell.

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