The Secretary of the Interior’s "Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes" describes landscapes in terms of larger organizational elements (spatial organization and land patterns), followed by individual features (topography, vegetation, circulation, water features, structures, buildings, furnishings, and objects) that may contribute to a landscape’s historic character. The arrangement and interrelationship of these character-defining features should be described as they existed during the period of significance. Situations vary, and some features will be more important than others in a particular landscape, but landscape features should always be assessed as they relate to the property as a whole. Visual character, intangible qualities, and a landscape’s feeling and association should also be conveyed, along with the physical description.

Organizational Elements of the Landscape

Spatial organization and land patterns: Spatial organization is the three-dimensional arrangement and patterns of natural and cultural features in a landscape. It includes visual links or barriers, such as fences and hedgerows; open spaces or visual connections, such as topography and bodies of water; and groupings or clusters, such as farmsteads. Both the functional and the visual relationships between spaces are integral to the historic character of a property.

Character-defining Features of the Landscape

Topography: The shape of the ground and its height or depth are character-defining features, whether naturally or artificially created. Topographic features may contribute to the creation of outdoor spaces, serve a functional purpose, or provide visual interest.

Vegetation: Vegetation may derive significance from historical associations, horticultural or genetic value, or aesthetic or functional qualities. It is a dynamic component of the landscape and subject to the continual process of plant germination, growth, seasonal change, aging, decay, and death. Vegetation may include individual plants, groups of plants, and naturally occurring plant communities or habitats.

Circulation: Circulation features may include roads, parkways, drives, trails, paths, parking areas, and canals, either individually or linked into networks or systems. Their character is defined by alignment, width, surface and edge treatments, grade, materials, and infrastructure.

Water features: Fountains, pools, cascades, irrigation systems, ponds, lakes, streams, and aqueducts can be aesthetic as well as functional components of the landscape. The characteristics of water features include shape, sound, edges and bottom condition and material, level or depth, movement or flow, reflective qualities, and associated plant and animal life. Water supply, drainage, and mechanical systems are important elements of water features.

Buildings and structures: Buildings are roofed and walled constructions that shelter human activity, from houses, barns, and sheds, to office buildings, schools, and warehouses, to greenhouses and public restroom buildings. Structures are nonhabitable constructed features, as opposed to buildings. Structures include highways, dams, bridges, arbors, terraces, tennis courts, walls, windmills, and earthworks. Buildings and structures may be individually significant or contributing elements only of a landscape. Their placement and arrangement are important to the character of a landscape.

Site furnishings and objects: Small-scale elements of a landscape may be decorative or functional or both. They include items such as benches, lights, signs, drinking fountains, flagpoles, urns, planters, trash receptacles, watering troughs, sculptures, and monuments. They may be movable, seasonally installed, or permanent. They can be single items, part of a group of the same or similar items, or part of a coordinated system, such as signage.

Visual Character and Intangible Qualities

Visual character and intangible qualities can be the most compelling evidence of a landscape’s historic qualities. Experiencing the landscape can provide a vivid sense of time and place, conveying the essential elements of feeling and association that link an area to its past. The landscape’s visual character should be described in detail, especially those sensory qualities that are not well conveyed in photographs. Intangible qualities such as cultural values also require careful interpretation, including the perceptions of both the surveyor and local people regarding the landscape’s feeling and association. Consideration of these qualities is essential in landscape studies, but findings must be accurately and precisely documented for credibility. Both visual and intangible landscape components must be fully described, linked to existing physical features, and placed within their historic context.