Mapping New Ground? A seminar.

Field visit to Snowdonia  as part of the 'Walking Poets' project.

image by Kevin Greenfield

In the last post, Phil Prentice noted how culture defines everything: from the physical and social characteristics of a place to the intangible cultural practices, which make a place unique. The Cultural Eco Systems Services (CES) have sought to at least acknowledge, and in turn quantify culture in the context of spatial data.

It quantitatively values a number of additional ecosystems which includes the cultural ecosystem services, ‘which give rise to a range of material and non-material benefits to human well-being, but are frequently overlooked in decision making’. It defines cultural ecosystems services as ‘ the individual or shared human benefits to human well-being that arise from the interactions between environmental spaces (e.g. gardens, parks, beaches and landscapes) and cultural practices (e.g. gardening, walking, painting and watching wildlife)’. It goes on to say that culture is not a property of the ecosystem per se, but develops over time through interaction between people, their values and the environment in which they operate. The importance of context – spatial, temporal and socio-cultural is fundamental in the shaping of and articulation of values. Culture and Nature are largely inseparable. Perhaps more pertinently, it refers to the cultural value as in the ‘value to society’, which is passed through art, literature and the media.

The notion of ‘natural capital’ was first mooted by E.F Schumacher in his seminal book Small is Beautiful (1973). The term environmental services was used in 1970 in a Study of Critical Environmental Problems, which listed pollination, fisheries, climate regulation and flood control as critical systems to human dependence on the Earth’s ecosystems. The French philosopher Felix Guattari (1989) had also noted that a new market system, which places value on the ‘profitability in the social and aesthetic sense’ was needed [1]. The development of the eco-systems services as it is now commonly referred to has expanded to include social-economic and conservation objectives. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was a major assessment of the human impact on the environment, called for the United Nations then Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000 and published in 2005. The report found, unsurprisingly, that human actions are depleting the Earth’s natural capital which is putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. However, given appropriate policy changes it would be possible to implement action to reverse degradation, if the political will for this exists. The legacy of this report has been the trickle down effect of this shift in thinking to national level. As a result, the UK Government commissioned the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA) in 2007, and its initial findings were published in 2011. The ecosystems services states clearly that the natural capital contributes to the economic performance of the nation. However, more importantly it starts to nuance the benefits in broader terms rather than the narrow economic ones.

The UK NEA’s main effect is that any future decisions making will now have to assess the impact on ecosystems, not just imminently but far into the future. The Welsh Government enacted the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, which specifically makes public bodies think about the long term impact of their policies and fostering a more joint up approach. The mapping of the ecosystems services thus requires a holistic approach with a longitudinal view, and one in which cultural ecosystems should play an integral role. The cultural benefits of ecosystems are no less tangible and material than other types of benefit. Therefore a broad range of perspectives, methods and tools are required to access and appreciate the full range of cultural ecosystems services. In a follow up study on the Arts and Humanities Perspectives on Cultural Ecosystems Services (CES) (2014) led by Professor Peter Coates, the potential future contribution of participation and creative mapping was highlighted. The report references the artist Iain Biggs’ notion of on deep mapping. Biggs likens the technique of in depth surveying and immersive site-specific practices used by artists, as a ‘essaying of place’[2]. Guattari advocates a move away from the universal to the local; of allowing solutions to develop relevant to their own ecology. This is perhaps best summed up in the slogan ‘think local, act global, a phrase which find its roots in the thinking of Patrick Geddes. Guattari calls it the eco-logic and notes ‘that this new logic – and I wish to stress this point – has affinities with that of the artist’. Thus the rationale of examining the methodologies employed by artists, and particularly considering the mapping strategies deployed, might help to further the discourse of Cultural Ecosystems thinking.

The broader context of Eco Systems thinking can not be divorced from the discourse around the Anthropocene. The biologist Eugene Stoermer coined the term Anthropocene in a joint article with atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000. It defined and described how human activity, predominantly the global economic system, is now the prime driver of change in the Earth’s System. There is ongoing debate among scientists as to how and when to define this new era. The climatologist Will Steffen argues that, “of all the candidates for a start date for the Anthropocene, the beginning of the Great Acceleration[3] is by far the most convincing from an Earth System science perspective. It is only beyond the mid-20th century that there is clear evidence for fundamental shifts in the state and functioning of the Earth System that are beyond the range of variability of the Holocene, and driven by human activities and not by natural variability. The impact of human activity on the Earth has not only made significant changes on the planet evidenced in climatic changes, supported by geological findings such as sediments and ice but also in a steep decline in biodiversity (58%) in the last four decades, leading scientists to call it the Sixth Extinction[4]. The Western concept of growth as evidenced in the Great Acceleration, is being proven to be unsustainable for both planet and people. The Great Acceleration trends support the proposal that Earth has entered a new geological epoch. The Anthropocene is thus the new age of geological time in which human activity is considered such a powerful influence on the environment, climate and ecology of the planet that it will leave a long-term signature in the strata record. Geologists, Earth System scientists and others have keenly contested the onset and the definition of the Anthropocene, and the term itself has not yet been formalised by the International Commission on Stratigraphy. However, despite an exact consensus of its definition and timing, the Anthropocence has been widely used and recognised as a term with which to describe the effects of humans on the planet. It has made its way into a number of other scientific studies and the social sciences, humanities and the arts. The word “Anthropocene” itself entered the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014, fifteen years after it is generally agreed to have first been used and entered popular culture.

It is from within this context that I organised the Mapping New Ground? Seminar on how artists are engaging with the Anthropocene through practice, theory and policy (30th May 2017). Professor Peter Coates will be joining Prof Harriet Hawkins and Dave Pritchard to discuss Eco Systems thinking and particularly the cultural and artists response, and the methodologies employed within this context. It will consider how artists are both engaging with the broader theme of the Anthropocene and how this might/could/will intersect with the discourse on Eco Systems thinking. The event’s programme can be viewed here. (Due to limited numbers , priority will be given to staff and students from the CDT (Centre for Doctoral Training) from the AHCR Northumbria-Sunderland Consortium). My particular interest, will be the mapping methodologies employed by artists but furthermore how those methodologies might relate to, or engage with the Cultural Ecosystems Services.

I will be reporting back on the seminar in due course.




[1] Guattari, Felix (1989) The Three Ecologies, New Formations, Number 8, Summer 1989, translated from the French by Chris Turner, p145

[2] Biggs, Iain ‘Deep mapping as an ‘essaying’ of place, blog post with notes from an illustrated talk given at Bartlett School of Architecture, 9th July 2010 [accessed 4 September 2016]

[3] The Great Acceleration in turn pays homage to the to the economic historian Karl Polanyi’s phrase the ‘Great Transformation’ (1944). Polanyi put forward a holistic understanding of modern society, which contends that society, the market place and the nation state are irrevocably intertwined. He argued that after the Great Transformation, the commodification of labour and industrialisation and the rise of the nation-state allowed the market economy to develop and thrive at the expense of society. He also noted that the market economy is unsustainable because it is fatally destructive to human nature and the natural world.

Polanyi, Karl The Great Transformation (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1944)

[2] Steffen, Will – Broadgate, Wendy – Deutsch, Lisa – Gaffney, Owen – Ludwig, Cornelia. 2015 The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review. Vol 2(1) 81-98


[4] The eponymous Pulitzer winning book by the journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, collated scientific research which brings to the fore the accelerated rate of species decline and very, very (sic) elevated extinction rates, leading scientists to call it the next Great Extinction.

Drake, Nadia (2015) “Will Humans Survive the Sixth Great Extinction?” Nature, 23 June 2015

[accessed 14 December 2016]




Can Planners and Artists work together?

‘Can planners and artists work together’, was the provocative title of the Cross Party Group on Culture (CPG) when it met at the Scottish Parliament yesterday, Tuesday 14th March 2017.  The resounding answer was ‘yes’.


‘Culture defines everything’ noted Phil Prentice, Chief Officer of Scotland’s Town Partnership: it defines what story a town has to tell. Culture defines the physical and social characteristics of a place. It reminded me of the Cultural Eco Systems Services , which sought to at least acknowledge – and quantify – the role culture plays in defining a ‘place’. It was also however noted, that quantifying culture in spatial data, is difficult to do. How can a ‘culture’ thus be defined? Artists could/should therefore be key assets in defining what that culture is, or could be?

The case study of the Stove in Dumfries, by ‘orchestrator’ Matt Baker,  demonstrated how long term commitment to a place, can lead to culture change. Baker’s arts practice spans over twenty years, working on strategic arts projects in Inverness and Glasgow before founding and developing the Stove initiative. The House on the High Street  film (2016) by artist John Wallace, commissioned by the Stove, highlighted the significant vacancy rate of the High Street in the town of Dumfries (73 empty shops currently). The film has served as a rallying call for the local community to challenge the status-quo and in turn has led to a significant regeneration project. More importantly, it highlighted and made visible the power structures at play and the role money plays in dictating how our towns operate. A large proportion of  Dumfries’ housing stock is owned by pension funds, whose sole interest is bringing in the highest financial return.  By keeping the rents artificially high,  it increases their yield value but with devastating effect on the local high street. The timely launch of the divestment + reinvest campaign last week which calls for the the divestment of £1.7 billion of Scottish pension funds from the fossil fuel industry, makes the case that investment in those assets which are actively engaging in the prevention of the building of a sustainable future, is counter intuitive. This logic thus also applies to pension funds investing in highs street properties, where financial returns for external parties trump the interests of the local community, and economy. When those links are made clear and the money connections made obvious, it empowers local communities ‘to do something about it’. The MSP Kevin Stewart, who currently leads on the future of the Scottish Planning System argued that in Scotland, the significant ‘sea change’ in how communities can, and are now enabled more than ever before to deliver services. Legislation such as the Land Reform Act 2016 (how, why and who uses the land in Scotland), the Community Empowerment Act (2015) which enables communities to request Asset Transfers, to for example compulsory purchase those empty high street shops, thus becomes a possibility.

Prentice asked; when did artists ever need permission? Artists just do.. Thus the role of artist as visionary, as one who does things, is a potent one. But Baker for one would be horrified of being thought of as his role as that of ‘genius’ – as someone with exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability – but instead describes himself not as an artist, but an orchestrator*. Without an orchestra there is no music; without community there is no art driven regeneration. Baker conceded that this is ‘the era of communities’ and as Kate Wimpress from North Edinburgh Arts  noted, socio-spatial issues are ‘the new plastics’. Thus a reconsideration of the role of the artist, beyond that of the aesthetic and the decorative (the after thought), but one is which the artist operates as leader , as an enabler, in the role of community engagement. The role of instrumentalism was raised, as was the issue of artist as an often unpaid member of a team driving regeneration, unlike perhaps those of a politician, planner, or developer whose professional and thus paid remit it might be. This raises important and key issues. But these are maybe points to be unpicked in a separate discussion.

Wimpress noted that the process which involves artists in the planning process from the outset, takes not necessarily money (as noted above, perhaps contested), but more importantly ‘timing and language’: allowing the process of dialogue and thinking time to unfold, takes time and considering the language in which this dialogue takes place is paramount to creating understanding. Investing in time and space to allow this process to develop in a meaningful way, she argues, avoids costly mistakes in the future, quoting Derek Bok ‘if you think learning is expensive, try ignorance’. It is a process which empowers and which she contends, leads to ‘civic innovation’. The anthropologists Tim Ingold and Elizabeth Hallam (2007) had argued that the process of improvisation – rather than innovation, and its bias towards technological solutions – should be considered a key characteristic of innovation. They differentiate between improvisation as ‘process orientated and innovation as ‘product focussed’. The digital tools offered up by the Understanding Scottish Places for example, offers brilliant tools for communities to truly understand their town through the mapping of objective data, and compare it with other, similar towns. I would argue that although such tools are a means of empowering communities, it still needs someone to steer that process. Thus we ought to consider that the process of improvisation offered up by Hallam and Ingold, as demonstrated by Winpress and Baker, is what artists are comfortable doing. The critic Lucy Lippard noted in the Lure of the Local (1997) that “for all the art that is about place, very little is of place; made by artists within their own places or with the people who live in the scrutinized place, connecting with the history and environment”. The role of the artists in mapping the places in which they operate, and making visible power structures, connecting communities and empowering has been demonstrated as powerful tool for change. Managing change, as Petra Biberbach from PAS noted, is what planning is all about.  But the process of ‘not knowing’, as referred to by Peter McCaughey, is one which does not sit comfortably within planning. Managing change, as Petra Biberbach from PAS noted, is what planning is all about.  But the process of ‘not knowing’, as referred to by Peter McCaughey, is one which does not sit comfortably within planning. Perhaps then, she argued we should reconsider what Patrick Geddes taught us? As the architect Malcolm Fraser noted: “The great Town Planner had trained and taught as a Botanist! Here was someone who understood that the urban world was an ecosystem..”

As the art consultant Robert Livingston pointed out in the meeting, there is the risk of ‘déjà entendu’ and the risk of reinventing the wheel. The work and international influence of Geddes was referenced by several speakers as was the work of  David Harding whose employment as the Glenrothes town artist (1968-78) was made possible by the Chief Architect and Planning Officer at the time and who in turn was influenced by John Latham’s Artist Placement (1975) at the Scottish Office Development Agency. Thus the understanding of precedents, good practice and successful role models, such as the Stove, will help for this way of thinking to be potentially rolled out and tried in other, different towns.

Perhaps more importantly, now is the time to ensure that place making is an integral part of planning and to get it enshrined in a meaningful way in the planning review. And that should include a role for creative thinking to be embedded in the process of planning and allow for the ‘not knowing’.

Inge Panneels

You can respond to the Planning Review online until 4th April 2017.

You can find out more about this, and other CPG On Culture meetings, on http://www.CPGon or follow #CPGculture

*(a glint of recognition there, as someone described my art practice many years ago as ‘an orchestrator of things’)