Library of Creative Sustainability

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A new Environmental Impact Assessment: Environment, Imagination and Aesthetics

Artists Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman worked with researcher Dr Claire Haggett and residents living close to the site of a proposed new wind farm to explore how planning processes could consider beauty, naturalness, and impact on people, place and community.

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Project Description

This project was conceived in response to issues around the construction of wind farms, which are built as part of a necessary transition away from fossil fuels but do have impacts on the landscape and create issues for local communities. It focused on gaps in the current planning process and the information that is included in Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) of proposed new developments, including wind farms. 

EIAs currently provide little information on local communities’ and individuals’ relationship with the place being considered for development. This is partly due to the lack of techniques or research tools for gathering this kind of intangible information, but arguably is also a result of a lack of weight given to how people experience and value their environment. The artists Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman pointed out that more information is required on any archaeological remains of ancient farming on the site than on the existing human inhabitants and contemporary land use. The project was ultimately presented as the ‘missing pages’ of an Environmental Impact Assessment, focusing on ‘People, Place and Community’.

The project was initiated by Coleman and Hodges, who contacted Claire Hagget as a researcher with highly relevant expertise. They jointly submitted an application to the ‘Imagining Natural Scotland’ programme, which was seeking proposals for collaborative projects between artists and researchers. The application was successful and the project commenced in early 2013. 

The artists worked closely with the members of a small rural community situated 1km away from the site of a proposed new windfarm development. The community was chosen as one that was local to the artists and where they had some existing contacts. This helped make initial contact more straightforward and ensure the acceptance of the project by the community. With Haggett, they developed a series of creative studies that sought to understand and map the relationships that people have with the landscape and each other, and to present them in a way that would be understandable and useful to planners, using a number of visual tools including maps, photos and text collages.  

The studies explored individual responses to home, landscape and change.  They included examining what people valued about the place and how they came to be there, mapping landscape use and how people felt about the landscape. Other exercises explored a ‘community narrative’ and sought to understand how the community felt as a group.  

The process was carried out via a series of community ‘meet ups’, promoted through artist designed postcard invitations that were posted through people’s doors or sent by email, where people gathered to share food and stories and to participate in certain elements of the project. Participants were given experimental exercises to take away and complete in their own time and each household also participated in a photo shoot.  

The project used a number of participatory methods including:

Place and memory

At the first community event, each participant was asked to write on a postcard why they lived where they do and what they valued about the place. This qualitative approach gave residents the chance to express their feelings in their own words, in an open, relaxed and non-leading way. Responses revealed how the place was invested with meaning for them and their feeling of responsibility to protect and preserve it. The method provided a non-intimidating entry point that opened up discussion and laid the groundwork for future participation.

Favourite views

The participants were asked to identify their favourite view, take a photograph of it, and then to mark on a map the location and the direction of their favourite views. The photos were returned to participants in the form of postcards and they were invited to write on the back why they chose this view. A full set of postcards was then returned to each person. The exercise provided a chance for people to create their own images and interpretations rather than responding to pre-set ideas. It demonstrated that people’s value of views was intimately bound up with their lived experience of being in that place rather than being reducible to visual appearance alone, showing the difficulties of the value of a place being understood from an outsider’s perspective. 

Point of view: Change in Landscape

Mock-ups were created of imaginary changes to the landscape, including the proposed new wind farm, but also a single wind turbine, a set of traditional windmills, a coal power station, a forest, a cathedral, and others. Participants were asked whether they supported each change to the landscape, and were asked a series of subsequent questions to see whether this had an impact on how they felt about the landscape. The exercise revealed that changes to the landscape weren’t rejected out of hand, but were not favoured if they were perceived to be out of scale (e.g. a giant willow sculpture), industrialising the landscape (e.g. a factory), and not an appropriate fit with the perceived nature of the area (e.g. deciduous woodland was accepted, but a cathedral was not). Participants were also more accepting of proposals when they could have a genuine involvement in the decision making process, as presented through follow-up questions and discussion, or when they would be owned by the community and operated for their benefit. 

The project output was a printed A3 document in the style of an EIA containing the ‘missing chapter’, the project analysis by Dr Claire Haggett, and accompanying posters derived from the activities undertaken. It included the results of these sessions as well as reflections from the collaborators on what this meant for the planning process, pointing to issues that had been laid bare, such as:

  • The wide divergences between how residents and developers conceptualised the landscape and its purpose
  • The impacts of the development on local activities that are obvious to an outsider, such as farming, would be very slight, but the impact on the relationship with the place as only understood by residents would be substantial
  • The limitations of the application of quantitative methods when dealing with emotive situations that can arise within the planning process

A copy of the document was encased in a metal box and buried by the community to act as a time capsule. The artists saw this as pointing an ironic finger to the fact that any development in that location 900 years from now would have the archaeological information ready made to add its weight to the planning process. A description of the project was also included in a published book about the ‘Imagining Natural Scotland’ programme. 

Although funding was limited to work over a relatively short period, the collaborators have since entered into discussions with planners both locally and nationally and with wind farm developers as to how this work may be able to inform practice and thinking on people, place and community. The project has also been presented in various academic and artistic contexts and has been cited in a number of academic publications, including work on good practice in community engagement on wind farm developments. 

A New Environmental Impact Assessment: Environment, Imagination and Aesthetics

Partners & Stakeholders

  • Robbie Coleman and Jo Hodges, public artists based in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland
  • Dr Claire Haggett, senior lecturer in sociology at Edinburgh University with research interests including social responses to and acceptance of renewable energy
  • The residents of Craigdarroch Glen, Dumfries and Galloway

Sustainability Issues

  • The project considered how communities experience changes to landscape, and how and where the mechanisms of the planning process intersect with local feelings.  It provided an opportunity to examine the issues and dynamics involved in the current changes to the Scottish landscape. 
  • The project developed novel methodologies for involving and including and valuing people, giving them a voice within the planning process that could inform part of how future wind farm developments are approached.
  • The methodologies also provided means of considering, accessing, and presenting information that is normally excluded from EIAs both for practical and ideological reasons, which could be developed further to apply to work with planners and policy makers
  • The meet ups arranged as part of the project helped form, re-establish and develop community bonds, which was both recognised and valued within the group. The collaborators saw this as an additional deliberate aim of the project.

Lessons, Tips & Advice

  • The arts-led approach helped grant the freedom to cross between and explore interactions of a wide array of academic disciplines and lenses.
  • Spending time in the physical location was essential for building a form of understanding that is normally missing from Environmental Impact Assessments, which are frequently written without visiting the site in person. It was also essential for building relationships with and understanding of the local community, who appreciated this effort. 
  • The creative methods used diverged markedly from methods of data collection ordinarily used by social scientists. The project organisers felt that methods of data collection tend to shape results so having creative methods that users could help shape was vital for collecting information on issues that are not usually addressed.
  • Haggett felt that working with the artists made new outcomes possible, such as exploring the connections that bound the community together while celebrating their differences in a way that gave everyone a genuine voice.
  • All parties found the process of collaboration stimulating and appreciated the chance to encounter new perspectives and practices that allowed them to expand their future practice, meaning that the project was also of personal value for the artists and researcher.
  • The organisers felt that more could be achieved given more time and resources and that the project opened up new avenues for research that they haven’t yet been able to explore

Funding

The Imagining Natural Scotland project, initiated by Creative Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and the University of St Andrews, administered funding from Creative Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage as part of the 2013 Year of Natural Scotland. 

The total budget for the project was £8,265.

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Quotations

‘At the start, the focus of the project was on the ‘missing pages’ – whether there was something lacking in a traditional EIA, and if so, what. We have certainly found that there is a great deal ‘missing’ – and that this matters to people. They feel excluded, under-valued and ignored. The meaning that a place has to them, its value in their lives, and defining effect on their way of life, is not taken into account in an EIA in its current form.’ Dr Claire Haggett, researcher
‘The process of prompting went both ways and allowed all parties to feel that they were involved in an authentic creative collaboration. There were times of real excitement as we realized that this way of working suited us a team and gave us opportunities to push ourselves into areas of which we would have felt unsure in other circumstances. The easy development of mutual trust and understanding of intent meant that we could venture into complex areas of social science and take risks.’ Robbie Coleman and Jo Hodges, artists

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