Landscape matters?

25th April 2012

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Naushad Tahsildar and John Flannery discuss the issues surrounding landscape and visual impact assessments in developing countries

The role of environmental impact assessment (EIA), also referred to as environmental and social impact assessment, has been crucial to the development process in most parts of the world since its inception in the 1970s. EIAs are formally required for certain types of projects across developed and emerging economies and implemented through a number of country-specific regulations requiring identification of significant impacts.

Project financing agencies and banks such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development also have their own environmental and social standards. These additional standards, in particular the IFC’s performance standards, have driven international best practice and are particularly useful in countries where EIA regulations or guidelines do not exist or are in development.

Landscape and visual impact assessments

As included in the UK Guidelines for landscape and visual impact assessment (GLVIA), landscape and visual impact assessment is a separate, but closely-linked process that operates within the overall framework of EIA. Landscape and visual impact assessments aim to ensure that all possible effects of change and development, both on the landscape itself and on views and visual amenity, are taken into account in decision making.

In the UK, and some other developed countries, such assessments are a core part of the EIA process and are required to be compliant with EIA Regulations. Numerous guidelines have been produced to improve the quality of landscape and visual impact assessments and the third edition of the GLVIA, which is written jointly by IEMA and the Landscape Institute, is in the process of being published.

Absence in developing countries

While landscape and visual impact assessments are common practice in the UK, they are often noticeable by their absence in the EIA of major projects undertaken in developing countries.

The key reason for its omission is often the absence of a regulatory framework in the relevant country, as well as the absence of landscape and visual impacts as a stand-alone topic in international best practice guidelines and regulatory requirements. The IFC’s recently revised performance standards and environment health and safety guidelines, for example, do not include explicit reference to landscape and visual impact assessment.

On a more positive note, the importance of landscape has, to a certain extent, been recognised in two new IFC performance standards, entitled:

  • Biodiversity conservation and sustainable management of living natural resources
  • Cultural heritage

Missing out on benefits

In not explicitly carrying out landscape and visual impact assessments in EIA, there is the potential for important aspects of the landscape and visual amenity to be overlooked, and that impacts and mitigation activities are not taken into account in decision making and consenting.

The GLVIA states that: “Even where landscape and visual impact assessments are not formally required they have benefitted the EIA process as a whole and also assisted in other forms of land use change or development that fall outside the requirements of the directives and regulations.

“Informal use of such procedures can be a very useful way of thinking about the different forms of development or other projects that may possibly bring about environmental change.”
This is true and, as an EIA consultancy, we have found a number of benefits of carrying out landscape and visual impact assessments on projects where they might not, under normal circumstances, have been undertaken.

In a recent study in Egypt, the stakeholders and regulatory authorities were pleased to see that a landscape and visual assessment had been undertaken, and this has set a benchmark for newer studies. The guidance used in this case was based on UK guidance with a pragmatic approach.

In the absence of international guidelines on landscape and visual impact assessment, the opportunity to carry out such assessments in international EIA is being missed, even on the most significant, large-scale projects. In many cases landscape and visual issues are being considered only on an ad-hoc basis and the scope, methodology and quality of these assessments vary from project to project.

As a global practice, we are seeing a much greater need for collaboration with our social team to help understand how different cultures react to changes in visual amenity and landscape. We are very interested in the views and thoughts of other IEMA members with similar experiences and concerns.

This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice.

John Flannery is a principal consultant and head of the UK and Ireland landscape team at Environmental Resources Management, and Naushad Tahsildar is a senior consultant specializing in landscape and visual impact assessments.

To share your experiences of international attitudes towards landscape and visual impact assessments contact ERM at: [email protected]


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