Changing landscapes, changing lives: how can narrative and biographical perspectives improve landscape decision making?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: History


Over the last 30 years, landscape has become a key concept in arts & humanities research. We now realize that landscapes are neither purely natural nor entirely human constructs but emerge as a result of a complex, ongoing interplay between ecological and cultural processes. Yet there remain significant gaps in our understanding. These are partly due to differences of methodology and approach between the humanities and sciences. Humanities scholars focus on cultural influences whilst scientists work mainly with an ecosystems framework. There are also divergences within the arts & humanities between theory-driven research traditions, such as phenomenology, and the empiricism of landscape historians. These divergent scholarly traditions do not always map easily onto the experiences and concerns of stakeholders (such as conservationists and those seeking to improve access to the landscape for disadvantaged and underrepresented groups), or the needs of policy makers.

Overcoming these difficulties is a complex challenge that scholars have been seeking to address for some time, through the work of the Landscape Research Group and previous AHRC initiatives such as the Landscape and Environment Strategic Programme (2005-10), in which the PI participated. The proposed Network seeks to contribute to this ongoing effort by bringing together scholars interested in biographical and narrative approaches to understanding landscape. This approach has flourished in recent years in cultural history, human geography, rural sociology and literary, life-writing and cultural studies. It has drawn attention from scholars such as environmental psychologists, anthropologists and social ecologists, and environmental scientists. Biographical and narrative methods offer promising opportunities for academic convergence and stakeholder engagement, both in relation to public-facing conservation and education organisations like the National Trust, the New Forest National Park Authority and the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) and for campaigning organisations aiming to protect and improve access to the countryside such as National Parks England and CPRE.

The proposed network has three key aims: (1) to explore the interdisciplinary potential of biographical and narrative perspectives on landscape and hence (2) to promote dialogue between scholars working on landscape across the arts and humanities, and social/natural scientists and between scholars and landscape stakeholders with a view to (3) developing research-based concepts, paradigms and models that can inform better landscape decision making.

The proposal sits within the AHRC's Strategic Priorities Fund Landscape Decisions: Towards a New Framework for Using Land Assets. Within the overall remit of biographical and narrative approaches, it seeks to use five symposia, featuring leading landscape studies scholars from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds and non-academic stakeholders from conservation, public engagement and campaigning organisations to review on-going research and identify potential new agendas and research methods. Towards the end of the Network's schedule, plans will be made to hold an international conference at MERL to showcase the work generated by the symposia and to open up further avenues of enquiry, debate and collaboration.

The Network will establish a website featuring summaries of research papers, reports of the symposia, a discussion forum and links to related resources. A blog will be created. An article on how biographical and narrative approaches can contribute to landscape decision making will be published in a refereed journal and a collection of papers from the symposia will be published. The PI and CI will also edit a journal special issue on biographical and narrative understandings of landscape and celebrated photographer and network participant Ingrid Pollard will create an intervention/exhibition around the network's themes at MERL.

Planned Impact

The proposed Network feeds into many of UKRI's and AHRC's core themes and impact criteria, not only the SPF Landscape Decisions Programme but, looking ahead, to the development of a new national framework for landscape decision making.

Fundamentally, the aim of the Network is to improve our understanding of landscapes and why they matter to people, and hence to contribute to better decision making about landscapes and land assets. A very wide range of organisations and individuals therefore stand to gain in the long run from the Network: central and local government, especially in relation to planning and land use strategy; landowners and land managers; organisations concerned with conservation of landscapes and associated ecosystems, such as wildlife trusts and other owners of nature reserves; campaigners seeking to protect vulnerable landscapes, and, above all, local communities and people potentially affected by landscape change, i.e. virtually all of us. In a real and vital sense, future generations will benefit from better landscape decision making because they will inherit better landscapes from us.
More specifically, the Network will benefit the stakeholders participating in it: DEFRA (through its Systems Research Programme), the National Trust, CPRE, National Parks England, the New Forest National Park Authority, Bristol City Council (represented on the Network through their footpaths officer, Eddie Procter) and landscape artist Ingrid Pollard. They will have a better understanding of what people value about landscape, changes and continuities in this, and of how thinking about landscape narratives and the biographical intersection between lives and landscapes may be able to help us make better landscape decisions.

The project will further benefit stakeholders by integrating their perspectives better into the design, development and outcomes of academic research. It will provide policy makers and implementers with better tools to assess the projected effects of landscape and land assets decisions.

One of the major aims of the Network is to help us think about how landscapes can become more diverse and inclusive (a particular focus of the 'Whose Landscapes?' symposium). We are exceptionally fortunate to have the opportunity to engage with a major visual artists like Ingrid Pollard, whose intervention/exhibition at MERL in association with the Network is certain to draw many visitors, who will benefit from the new ideas, perspectives and connections Pollard will make through the Network. Other marginalized groups will benefit too because a prominent theme for the Network is how we can empower groups and individuals whose voices have often been ignored (like children) or whose needs have not in the past been given adequate consideration (such as the elderly and the disabled) in relation to landscape policy and decisions.

By the final symposium, we expect to be in a position to make practical proposals (and even perhaps develop specific decision-making tools) with respect to how biographical and narrative perspectives can be embedded in landscape and land asset decision making. However, it would be premature to attempt to anticipate these proposals and decision-making tools - we are not yet in a position to do so, and that is why we need a Network of this kind.

While the Network will, in order to maximize the potential for high-quality discussion and knowledge exchange and for budgetary reasons, limit attendance at the symposia to Network participants, our website will make audio recordings of our discussions freely available to the public, while our blog will be dynamic, outwards-facing and interactive - we are fortunate that Eddie Procter, who created the much-read Landscapism blog, has agreed to join the Network.


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