Unlocking Landscapes Network: History, Culture and Sensory Diversity in Landscape Use and Decision Making

Caption: Interpretation board in the Canadian Botanical Gardens encouraging visitors to engage with the gardens through scent (2019)

We live, breathe and move in and through landscape, from our neighbourhood parks to more iconic settings of the coast and countryside. Decisions made about the management of these landscapes are often based on narrow assumptions about how such settings are perceived, experienced and valued. By bringing these assumptions to light, our ‘Unlocking Landscapes’ network will develop a deeper understanding of why varied landscapes matter and for who.

Led by Clare Hickman of Newcastle University (PI) and Sarah Bell of the University of Exeter (Co-I) and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (under the Research Networking Highlight Notice for Changing Landscapes: ‘Towards a new Decision Making Framework for UK Landscapes and Land Assets’ call), this network will be shaped by a project steering group, including colleagues from Exeter and Bristol Universities, Historic England, the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, the Sensory Trust, Sense, and Natural Inclusion. By bringing together academics, practitioners and policy makers, ‘Unlocking Landscapes’ will bridge traditional policy silos. We aim to complement management and decision-making approaches that foreground biodiversity with a focus on human diversity. Through the network, we will consider the complex ways in which landscapes become meaningful to diverse individuals and groups through their senses, personal memories and shared histories.

With a particular focus on management decisions pertaining to health and wellbeing, we adopt a broad interpretation of landscape, recognising that moments of health and wellbeing can unfold through the smallest scales of landscape encounter (for example, within city allotment plots, urban public parks and hospital gardens) to more expansive encounters with country parks, national parks, heritage coastlines and historic estates.

Supported by a series of networking activities over two years, which will involve a wide range of participants from within and beyond academia, we will demonstrate how arts and humanities research can offer valuable insights into four key questions of particular relevance to landscape policy and practice:

  • How is landscape sensed and made sense of by different individuals and groups?
  • What are the cultural historical underpinnings of landscape experience?
  • What are the tensions between personal and collective landscape meanings
  • How can we learn from human diversity to facilitate genuine landscape inclusion that moves beyond basic access provision?
Caption: Walking through Delamere Forest, Cheshire (2018)

The Unlocking Landscapes Network will create space for productive and timely arts and humanities-led discussions with policy-makers and practitioners involved in diverse landscape use and management. Over the course of two years, we will organise four workshops, create a ‘living’ exhibition, feed into relevant policy meetings and participate in a series of public engagement events.

Caption: Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire, with a quote from Nietzsche on a small board to encourage engagement with movement in the landscape: ‘All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking’.

Our findings will be shared across the academic community through co-authored journal articles and collaborative conference sessions, and more broadly through an online network hub, themed policy briefings and the production of an ethnographic film, shared as part of the living exhibition.

The network launches in January 2020, so do get in touch if keen to find out more as it develops!