HydroSpheres:Co-Design for Landscape Decision-Making

Lead Research Organisation: Sheffield Hallam University


The role of arts and humanities research in engaging communities with the water environment has received recent attention but there has been little exploration of the potential of interdisciplinary arts and humanities research for interrogating the decision-making process itself, understanding the varied perspectives of the actors within it, and enabling the co-creation of shared visions for future landscapes and their effective management. The HydroSpheres network aims to address this by exploring with landscape decision-makers the use of interdisciplinary co-design methods to deconstruct the decision-making process itself and develop new models that enhance both decision-making processes and the ways in which we manage landscapes in the UK. We focus on a case study presented by our project partners the Sheffield Lakelands Landscape Partnership, a four-year (2019-2022) Heritage Lottery Fund programme in the Upper Don river catchment to the north-west of Sheffield, South Yorkshire. We define the Sheffield Lakelands as a marginal landscape, caught between the Peak National Park and the urban-industrial corridor of the M1 motorway. It is also a hydrological landscape, defined by its historic and contemporary roles in the storage and supply of water for the industrial and post-industrial city, and by its potential role in protecting populations downstream against flooding under future climate change.

The way in which landscapes are managed is governed by a complex web of interactions among decision-makers and stakeholders (some visible, some tacit, others entirely unexplored). A recognition of the various conflicts, antagonisms and diverse values attached to particular landscapes is central to understanding the everyday decision-making experience in the marginalised hydrological landscapes addressed by the HydroSpheres network. George Monbiot recently argued that a radical new participatory approach to socio-environmental concerns is needed, which thrives on divergent political energies of different stakeholder communities who nevertheless share a sense of belonging within a locality - or a landscape. Others have similarly argued 'for forms of participation that take 'the antagonism [...] constitutive of human societies' as their point of departure rather than the Habermasian consensus-seeking [of top-down decision-making]' (Roth et al., 2017). The HydroSpheres network takes as its starting point the possibility of a new co-design-based 'radical hydrology' that foregrounds issues of conflicted human responses to landscape among the diverse community of decision-maker-stakeholders. This is a prerequisite for understanding and transforming decision-making processes for the holistic management of landscapes in increasingly uncertain ecological, economic and political futures.

To this end, the network brings together researchers from literature, creative writing, design, performance, and geoscience, with third-sector, governmental, and corporate decision-maker-stakeholders from the Sheffield Lakeland Landscape Partnership. Participants will collectively explore their own preconceptions about landscape decision-making; envision new ways of capturing different understandings of landscape value; and boldly state new decision-making criteria and processes that celebrate diverse, perhaps conflicting ideals rather than pragmatic compromise. The network will host a series of researcher-stakeholder workshops exploring the distributed nature, changing dynamics, and legacies of decision-making in marginal hydrological landscapes. Using co-design methods (design fictions, storytelling, scenario planning, performance) the network will seek to establish a transformative agenda for the integration of the human with the quantitative in future landscape decision-making.

Planned Impact

Who might benefit from this Research Networking project?

The direct beneficiaries of the HydroSpheres Network include organisations within Sheffield Lakelands Landscape Partnership which has been closely involved in the design of the network and which has committed to be a partner in the project. The Sheffield Lakelands Landscape Partnership is a 4-year (2019-2022) Heritage Lottery Fund programme of landscape management, conservation and community engagement projects in the 120 square kilometre region to the north-west of Sheffield. The partners and stakeholder groups involved in the SLLP cover a wide range of actors from government authorities, major utilities, third sector and NGOs to community groups, town and parish councils and individuals living in and around the region:

Yorkshire Water; Sheffield City Council (Flood Management Steering Group); Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust; Bradfield Parish Council; Natural England; the Environment Agency; Sheffield United Community Foundation; South Yorkshire Archaeology Service; Stocksbridge Town Council
The network membership will include representatives from several of these groups as well as decision-makers from the wider national network of landscape management representing other active and legacy HLF-funded landscape partnerships, for example the Churnet Valley Living Landscapes Partnership (Staffs) and the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs Partnership (see partner letter of support).

A broad range of indirect beneficiaries of this project exists, both as a result of its role within the wider UKRI SPF Landscape Decisions programme and as a result of the strongly interdisciplinary make-up of the network and its wider connections. Key beneficiaries will include: UKRI research strategy; other HLF-funded Landscape Partnerships both active and planned; policy-makers and decision-making bodies; councils involved in landscape-scale flood management and catchment-based approaches; water utilities and regulatory authorities; environmental consultancies and organisations planning the design and delivery of landscape-scale projects under future policy initiatives; local communities, landowners and land users.

How will these groups benefit from the Research Networking project?

The Pathways to Impact document details a range of direct benefits to organisations and individuals participating in or directly engaged by the network's activities and outlines SMART impact outcomes. The network aims to deliver impact for decision-makers, policy-makers and stakeholders with an interest in landscape management, in the following four ways:

Impact 1: the network findings will benefit SLLP by increasing their effectiveness in delivering their key objectives. This will in turn enhance the overall economic impact of the HLF public sector funding that underpins the work of SLLP. We will work with SLLP's existing monitoring and evaluation team to understand the enhancements that the network activities and outcomes have delivered for participating organisations.

Impact 2: the connection of SLLP to the wider HLF Landscape Partnerships Programme and its in-reach to regional and national organisations such as Natural England, will enable the findings of the network to contribute to regional and national discourse about 'integrated decision-making in distributed contexts'.

Impact 3: SLLP network participants will gain an understanding of the value of arts and humanities research for landscape decision-making, plus knowledge and experience of working with researchers to generate creative participatory methods for decision-making that moves towards a 'holistic framework for land-use decision-making'.

Impact 4: The network activities will provide professional development for decision-makers and opportunities for reflection into their own practice, that will help build an interdisciplinary cross-sector 'community capable of articulating a new framework' for landscape decision-making.


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Tarlo H (2022) Spillways

Title HydroSpheres landscape poems 
Description Following a successful workshop on landscape narratives in September 2020, Prof Harriet Tarlo and Dr Kym Martindale are working on a short collection of poems relating to perceptions of landscape in the Upper Don catchment. 
Type Of Art Creative Writing 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact None yet - currently unpublished. 
Description The HydroSpheres research network intended to explore a range of ways in which co-design involving a range of arts-based methods (poetics, participatory art, digital media, etc.) can contribute to and enhance the processes of making decisions about landscape management. For example, the design and completion of conservation and heritage projects; nature recovery and nature connection; natural flood management; recreation access; and land management for biodiversity and other ecosystems services. We worked in the context of a specific landscape - the 'Sheffield Lakelands' area of the River Don catchment, South Yorkshire - and with a set of non-academic partners including the Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust, Yorkshire Water, the Environment Agency, Sheffield City Council, and local community groups.

We ran a series of themed collaborative co-production activities in a programme that was modified quite heavily due to restrictions imposed by COVID: (i) curation of a set of volunteer-generated artworks and commentaries expressing their changing relationship with landscape during the first COVID lockdown (ii) recording of a set of facilitated dialogues between artists and landscape practitioners (iii) creation of a collaborative poetry collection based on walking the landscape, found text, serendipitous conversations (iv) exploration of digital tools to facilitate sharing of diverse experiences, knowledges and 'ways of knowing' the landscape.

Through these activities, we determined 4 key areas which arts-based co-design and co-production can elucidate information and add value to landscape decision-making:
1) Living with loss, 2) Elevating the marginal and more-than-human, 3) Mapping interfaces between diverse experiences and perspectives which present obstacles to communication and consensus decision-making, 4) the need to develop a more sophisticated 'catchment literacy' to enable the exchange of experience and different forms of knowing between stakeholders.

The work has stimulated the development of academic and non-academic networks around the key areas noted above. The project team is leading the development of a new 'Landscape Laboratory' research initiative at Sheffield Hallam University which is being adopted by key non-academic partners as a core workstream within a new, 10+ year Sheffield Lakeland Partnership involving local NGOs, water companies, government agencies, local authorities and community groups. The outcomes are also being taken up into a developing Horizon Europe 'New Bauhaus' proposal bringing site-based projects together across the continent to explore human and more-than-human well-being in 'Anthropocene' environments (where human infrastructure and recolonising nature are intimately combined).
Exploitation Route 1) Incorporation of the understanding of arts/codesign applications within the Sheffield Lakeland Partnership
2) Support for Local Nature Recovery Strategies and Nature Connections initiatives aimed at understanding and influencing local communities engagement with green spaces and ecosystems, including Green Social Prescribing initiatives and well-being through nature connection.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Environment,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The potential for partnership working across arts, social and natural sciences and the close relationship brought by collaboration with non-academic partners through the Sheffield Lakeland Landscape Partnership has stimulated moves to develop a 'Landscape Laboratory' project, involving Yorkshire Water, Sheffield Hallam University and Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust. In our previous reporting in March 2022, the intention is to align Yorkshire Water management planning and investment in part of the Upper Don catchment to specifically support long-term research into landscape management outcomes and impacts on environment, social and economic indicators. As of March 2023, the Landscape Laboratory is being adopted as a core workstream within a 10-year 'Sheffield Lakeland Partnership' which will be a formal collaboration between Sheffield Hallam, Yorkshire Water, Sheffield City Council, Environment Agency, and other local organisations led by the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust. This partnership will be inaugurated in June 2023 and will coordinate support for local and regional initiatives such as the Local Nature Recovery Strategy, the River Don Catchment Management Plan ('Connected By Water' strategy, South Yorkshire Combined Mayoral Authority).
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal

Description Liaison with Environment Agency Catchment Manager for the Don River Catchment, in development of plans for a revised Sheffield City Region catchment management plan during 2021. Knowledge transfer in terms of advising methods and opportunities for integrating arts-based methods in the planning process.
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a guidance/advisory committee
Description Fully funded PhD / Graduate Teaching Associate scholarship to Krystle Morley, supervised by Dr Jonathan Bridge, Prof Harriet Tarlo and Dr Kevin Spence. 'Radical Water Futures for the Upper Don'.
Amount £80,000 (GBP)
Organisation Sheffield Hallam University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2021 
End 02/2024
Description How a blended finance approach can be created to deliver for the private company, the environmental land management scheme and biodiversity net gain
Amount £97,870 (GBP)
Funding ID Defra T&T 3333 
Organisation Department For Environment, Food And Rural Affairs (DEFRA) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2021 
End 03/2023
Description Pennine Artists - Landscape Conversations 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact During Covid, we had the opportunity to develop an online activity with a local artists group, Pennine Artists. They had produced an exhibition of artworks on the Upper Don catchment which is the focus of the HydroSpheres network project. We were interested in understanding the potential of a piece of artwork to act as a 'mediator' between people with different perspectives/values of landscape. We organised online Zoom sessions where two participants (an artist and an observer drawn from the HydroSpheres research network) spent around an hour having a conversation based around a single one of the artworks.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Support for 'C-19 Reflections' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust organised an activity among their membership and supporter network during the first Covid lockdown. They asked for volunteers to produce a simple artwork expressing their feelings about lockdown and their access to / exclusion from the countryside and nature. The project leader (Bridge) supported the design of the exercise. Around 15 responses were received, and permission was given for the works produced to be incorporated in the project materials and evaluated as part of the project outputs.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020