What is Landscape Ecology?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Landscape ecology is the study of variation within landscapes, on both large and small scales. This field is highly cross-disciplinary, with people approaching landscape ecology from a number of perspectives, ranging from landscape architecture to energy conservation. As the use of the term “ecology” would imply, landscape ecology is heavily involved with the study of the environment, but it includes built environments in addition to natural ones.

Landscape ecology and environmental activism are often linked.
Landscape ecology and environmental activism are often linked.

Within any given landscape, there is a great deal of spatial variation. Some variation is natural, caused by a variety of processes from geologic activity to migratory animals. Other variation is artificially created. Landscape ecologists are especially interested in landscapes which are mixed, and in the impact of human activities on the environment.

Landscape ecologists study purely natural and purely built environments, and they explore the bridge between the two. They are interested in topics like how native populations shape forests, how tree cover influences temperature in cities, how people respond to cultured landscapes, how agriculture impacts the environment, and so forth. They may study a landscape as small as a backyard, or as sweeping as a large geographical region.

The field of landscape ecology is naturally involved with environmental advocacy, as well as advocacy for thoughtful planning of human communities, and the development of sensible land use policies and creative methods for using the natural landscape without overpowering it. Landscape ecologists look at the big picture, sometimes literally when they are studying satellite images of the landscape, and they are involved with government agencies, conservation organizations, private companies, and consulting firms, doing everything from recommending how a landscape might be restored after environmental damage to discussing ways in which buildings could be integrated into the landscape.

People who are interested in careers in landscape ecology can enter the field in a variety of ways. They may start out in an ecology program, learning about the principles of ecology and branching out into landscape ecology. They may also study horticulture, landscaping, conservation, land use policy, and even topics like anthropology, studying the history of land use and learning from the mistakes and triumphs of previous human societies.

Individuals can also have an impact on landscape ecology, even if they aren't landscape ecologists. Everyone who has a garden is engaging directly with the natural landscape, and can make planning decisions which will change the look, feel, and purpose of the landscape. Together, a community of gardeners can have a substantial impact on a regional landscape and the way in which people interact with it.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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