Landscaping Change

Changes in landscapes inevitably impact on local communities. Whether they are caused by environmental events, regeneration and conservation initiatives, or development spurred by business, changes to the material fabric of place can disturb the experience of those whose sense of identity and feelings of belonging may be entangled with that place. Through the support of the British Academy’s Rising Star Engagement Award, over the course of 2015 I will be hosting a series of events around Bristol and Bath which aim to foster critical discussion and performative evaluation of landscapes and places under processes of change.

As 2015 European Green Capital, Bristol City Council has launched a range of green regeneration policies and activities focused on enhancing the city’s infrastructure sustainably, improving access to natural environments that sustain health and well-being, and enhancing habitats for wildlife. Although the Green Capital is, in my opinion, a fantastic initiative which aims to make environmental issues publicly engaging and essential to policy and local politics, at a grass roots level responses to the award have been mixed. The ‘Landscaping Change’ events will connect writers and artists with early career researchers and, most importantly, local community groups seeking to influence policy to ensure that changes to environments work for local wildlife and connected ecologies and for local people.

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The value of connecting those interested in local environments from very different backgrounds and perspectives comes from the recognition of how rich and layered what we call ‘place’ really is. A place is—in simple terms—a physical area demarcated in some way, but how we demarcate that place is cultural, personal and political. Do we define the place by its usage (which is subject to historical change), or its meaning to the people who live there (who may move in or out of the area, or whose views may be excluded from dominant narratives of that place)? Is place to be defined geographically according to the river that waters it, or in a wider context; by bio-region perhaps? How will such ways of thinking of place withstand alterations to the water table caused by damming or deviating a river, or indeed through far-reaching climate change events?

While the main focus of ‘Landscaping Change’ is to explore the values of place at a local and personal level, the environmental and social challenges Bristol currently faces are also being faced by communities in nations across the world, in the context of climate change and devastating threats to green and blue environments and the cultures that depend on them. These series of events hope to spark discussion about these challenges by organising collaborative and multidisciplinary discussion of pressing issues: building green economies; understanding how sustainable development can meet local cultural needs; and advancing environmental legislation which ensures nature’s recovery and enhances human well-being.

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As I have been planning the events and traversing Bristol by bicycle, I’ve become ever more aware of the ways these issues intersect at very real places: a heartfelt campaign to protect a small wooded area—‘an unsightly corner’, according to its owners—from development; the awkward cohabitation of a cooperative farming project and a building sites’ security team on a contested strip of land by the motorway; a local factory, which until recently shaped the lives of its workers and neighbours, slipping into cultural memory. One problem seems to be that there is no shared language of place: this was a problem pinpointed by the arts activist group Common Ground (founded 1983) whose projects celebrated local distinctiveness, ordinary nature and the complex ways that people create and value place. Their writing and activities have profoundly influenced my interest in place and approach to these events, particularly their statement on local distinctiveness:

We want to inspire people and communities to protect and promote whatever is distinctive about a place. But this is no fusty attempt to freeze the present and resist change; the identity of a place needs change, reinvigoration by the new, stimulated as much by looking back into the past as it is thinking and plotting its future. Localities are always open to outside influences, new people, ideas, activities, and just as nature keeps experimenting, they must face the paradox of persistence and change. But change may enrich or it may homogenize and diminish. We all know too many high streets which look the same, housing estates which could be anywhere, fields which have lost both history and birdsong or festivals which have no authenticity. Local Distinctiveness is concerned with celebrating the unique characteristics of a place and with demanding the best of the new, so that quality and authenticity adds richness to our surroundings making them convivial to us and to nature.

It is my hope that the ‘Landscaping Change’ events will help affirm the role of subjective and creative responses to environments and will bolster and enrich debates about the value of place-making in discussions concerned with enhancing relationships between nature and society.

Upcoming events in this series

Route – Thursday 10th December 2015
Light Studio, Arnolfini, Bristol, doors 18.45. Free

Streets – Thursday 21st January 2015
Dark Studio, Arnolfini, Bristol, doors 18.45. Free

For more information about this event and others in the series, visit the Facebook page or the Website.

Samantha Walton
Dr Samantha Walton is Lecturer in English Literature, Writing and the Environment at Bath Spa University. She is the current holder of a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award, and in 2016 will be Environmental Humanities Research Fellow at IASH, University of Edinburgh. Her research brings environmental and health humanities methodologies to the study of landscape, ecology and psychology in literature from the interwar period to contemporary writing.

The British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award enables established early career scholars to actively engage in the work of the Academy and to enhance their own skills and career development through the organisation of events, training, and mentoring activities for a wide range of other early career researchers.