What’s art got to do with it?

Dr Ria Dunkley discusses bringing creativity into the debate for building a sustainable future.

Arts events can be evocative means of creating dialogue on environmental and social issues. Over the past three weeks I’ve attended three such events, all addressing the role of the arts in building sustainable societies. Organisers and participants came from divergent backgrounds and disciplinary perspectives, each bringing unique frames of reference. Consequently, in each gathering, it was proposed that the arts could galvanise sustainable societies in remarkably different ways, while there were also, of course, people at each event who believed that this wasn’t the purpose of art at all.

The first event was held at Warwick Arts Centre, as part of the ‘Artists’ Plans for Sustainability’ exhibition. This roundtable discussion explored the notion of how artistic practice could build sustainable cities, in a very active sense. Artists Nils Norman, Ion Sorvin of N55 and Carolyn Deby demonstrated how material objects could help create resilience in the face of Twenty-first century challenges. Objects presented included movable dwellings, bicycles that ferried around portable gardens and bus shelters that doubled-up as allotments. This wasn’t arts for sustainability as much as a presentation of art as sustainability.

Arts for sustainability

Arts for sustainability

The next event, at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, specifically focused on ‘Future Climate Dialogues’. During the day, a series of academics and educators took to the stage to explain how art could be used to share information, influence emotional response and incite action on Climate Change. Presenters spoke of anthropomorphising bees, of the role of film in encouraging pro-environmental behaviours, and the use of artistic methods to engage wider audiences, for example, through presenting scientific data as information-graphics. A prominent narrative being that where traditional science communication was lacking, the arts might yet come to the rescue.

The final event was the first in a series of AHRC funded workshops, delivered by academics from Cardiff and Aberystwyth Universities. Creative self-expression led dialogue throughout the morning sessions. Artistic performances brought the natural world into the lecture theatre – as artists evoked senses of nature. The afternoon sessions saw the group unpick the meanings behind terminology through a ‘world café’ style discussion. Conversation centred around the terms ‘sustainability’, ‘homing’ and ‘aesthetics’, as people from different disciplines and practices recognised and attempted to reconcile differing ways of seeing.

These three events revealed the sheer diversity of approaches to arts-science and arts-social science collaborations, while also underlining the fact that art as a practice, makes a valid autonomous contribution to building a sustainable society.

Finally, as a non-artist but as someone who loves creative expression, I was particularly inspired by Ion Sorvin’s comments, during the Warwick Roundtable, on the open source movement and its potential to enhance every individual’s creative capacity in extraordinary ways. As Picasso said ‘every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once (s)he grows up’. Perhaps then rediscovering of our ability to work with our hands offers hope for the future yet.

Ria is a Research Assistant at the Sustainable Places Institute, where her research centres on cultural change for sustainability.

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Science is good but also bad and also I rode my skateboard to work today

On my way to work...

On my way to work…

The weather is looking up again, so I whipped out my old skateboard and rode into work today.  Along the way I hitched myself to the back of a lorry at one point because I was running late and needed some more revs.  Everyone was looking and pointing like “who is this new guy in town?”  But I just stayed cool because really it was no biggy for me.  Anyway, the lorry was sweet and everything because it got me to the office real quick, but it also shot out all these fumes into my face. That got me thinking about the hydra type nature of technology.  It’s good but it’s also bad, innit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to go all post-modern on you.  Science and technology got us to the moon, figured out a vaccine for polio, and brought that light sabre that introduced my brother to a whole world of hurt in my younger days.  But it also leads to some unintended consequences, on ecosystems, water supplies, human health sometimes.  So basically, science is good but it’s also bad sometimes, so we need some proper institutions to govern it.  Dunno what those are yet, though.


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A guest blog piece from a member of Team Seagrass, Jessica Paddock.

On Wednesday 21st March at a Food Studies Group session on ‘Biodiversity and food security: Developing a collaborative policy for seagrass conservation’, I presented some initial findings arising from a field trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean.  As well as setting the scene, this session gave other members of Team Seagrass an opportunity to discuss work plans for the main field trip – happening right now! – with other colleagues in neighbouring schools and research institutes.

Office for a few weeks!

Office for a few weeks!

With a high dependence on imports, lack of fertile soil, and weak enforcement of the institutional arrangements governing the marine environment, TCI’s marine resources are increasingly under threat, with devastating consequences for local livelihoods.  Crucially, underpinning their food security – through their support of fisheries – are seagrasses that are being increasingly degraded by anthropogenic stressors.  This work seeks to evidence the link between seagrasses and food security with view to developing a collaborative policy for their conservation.  Defined as “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO, 2001) food security as a concept offers us the means through which to explore the multi-faceted social, cultural, ecological and political dimensions of ecosystem services.  Indeed, taking a food systems approach (Ericksen et al., 2010) we explore the ways in which the conservation of seagrasses contribute to food security through interdisciplinary social-ecological approach to research.  Here, we not only explore access to food, but consider the potential for communities to harness and maintain control over a food supply that works in their interests.

Having established the role of seagrasses in supporting fish communities underpinning local commerce and consumption, we work in tandem with local communities across three of the six inhabited islands to identify formal/informal distribution channels through which families and communities provision the home, the foods of social and cultural significance to local communities in pursuing their vision of an active and healthy life.  We also explore the means through which vulnerable people living in impoverished circumstances gain access to safe, sufficient and culturally appropriate and desirable food.  In this way, we are also exploring the direction and effects of power in the food system across TCI, with particular attention to policies shaping governance of the marine environment and its ecosystems services. Having an understanding of the relationships that connect and govern different aspects of the food system on TCI helps us explore how this system interacts with the dynamics of environmental change as well as the rights, expectations and aspirations of the people who live there.

The next field trip, happening right now, will see the team surveying local communities (fish and people!) and engaging with stakeholders to work towards resilient food futures on this small and vulnerable island economy.

Team Seagrass: Susan Baker, Leanne Cullen-Unsworth, Jessica Paddock, Richard Unsworth and Abid Mehmood.

See http://www.seagrass.org.uk for more information

To join the CPLan Food Studies Group visit: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/cplan/research/food-studies-group

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A duty to be sustainable?

I’m not a PhD student but I did sneak into the recent Tyndall Centre annual PhD Conference held in Cardiff. The session I attended was a debate asking the question ‘Do climate researchers have a responsibility to lead sustainable lives?’

On the panel were Dr Roberta Sonino, Dr Steve Meila and Dr Richard Cowell. They all agreed that their research, and that working in this field does have an impact on their behaviour, but to what extent? There was a lot of talk of tradeoffs, such as making decisions about food and travel. And trying to be aware of aware of unintended consequences eg – growing food for a local market where it’s not suitable can lead to unsustainable, intensive systems.

There are still many sceptics out there and it was thought that an academic layer needs to be added to these arguments; researchers have another type of duty here, to get involved in the debate. Some academics admit they are guilty of normalising their behaviour, especially when thinking about their travel to conferences around the world: ‘they were invited’ or ‘they needed to be there face to face’… ‘they have to build their international status’…. conference hypocrisy?

When it comes to authenticity Steve Meila spoke about his personal experiences, and a lovely account of his journey to becoming car free can be found here: http://stevemelia.co.uk/carfreejourney.htm

Summing up the conference there was a clear message that those in the room are the next generation of climate communicators. There was a plea to get involved, ‘if you see something you don’t agree with in the media and don’t say something, you are complicit’. And to ‘be brave, say something, do it once and you might like it, you might even make a career out of it!’

But we have to do more, drop the excuses, what ARE we waiting for? In fact this will be tested soon enough, as an organisation in Wales at least. A brand new piece of legislation is being drafted as I type. The Welsh Government is developing the Sustainable Development Bill for Wales, which will legislate to make sustainable development the central organising principle of public sector organisations in Wales. These organisations include, amongst others local authorities, NHS trusts, fire and rescue services, and further and higher education institutions and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. What will this mean for academics in Wales? The draft Bill will be out in autumn this year with more detail, watch this space!





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Team seagrass in the Turks and Caicos Islands

Biodiversity and Food Security: Developing Collaborative Policy for Seagrass Conservation

In January this year a team of researchers from the Sustainable Places Research Institute began fieldwork in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), a British overseas territory in the Caribbean region. The project is funded by the Darwin Initiative and aims to support the development of collaborative policy for seagrass conservation.


The first field trip saw three members of the team (Jessica, Richard and Leanne in the photo above) visit TCI for two weeks to make introductions, set up research agreements with local stakeholders and scope sites for further fieldwork. There were meetings, swim tests, snorkelling, and a little rum punch was tested (it would be rude not to). A social scientist also faced her fear of fish and snorkelled with hundreds of them! All in the name of seagrass!

Seagrasses are a group of around 60 species of flowering plants that live submerged in shallow marine and estuarine environments. They are found on all of the worlds continents except Antarctica and cover around 0.1-0.2 per cent of the global ocean. In many places they cover large areas of the seafloor where they are often referred to as seagrass beds or seagrass meadows.

Seagrass meadows are valuable habitats that provide important ecological and economic services. The problem for seagrass is that not many people know what it is or how important it is. Seagrass is arguably less charismatic than a coral reef (if you like that sort of thing) for example and so less likely to attract the attention of donor funders. But seagrass meadows provide critical habitat for diverse groups of other marine organisms, including more than 360 species of fish, and are an important source of food for numerous charismatic animals including turtles, dugongs and seahorses. As foundation species, conservation of seagrass will protect ecosystem functioning and marine biodiversity, thus supporting fisheries, coastal defence and other ecosystem services. Sadly, like other marine habitats throughout the Caribbean Overseas Territories and elsewhere, seagrass meadows are increasingly degraded, decreasing their resilience to stressors.

This work will help raise the profile of seagrass meadows by evidencing the links between seagrass supported biodiversity and food security. The food security link comes from the vital and productive food fisheries that seagrass meadows support. The research team includes scientists from across the social and natural science disciplines working to demonstrate seagrass meadows as a coupled social-ecological system and the research engages with local scientists, stakeholders and regulators in TCI.

The case study will improve understanding of how best to promote sustainable practices in the context of local social, cultural, and economic conditions and practices, and research will identify how and in what ways different stakeholder interests can be brought together for more effective management of seagrass meadows.

The next trip is in May (so watch this space!) and will include, further ecological scoping exercises (and mapping some seagrass meadows in TCI) and gathering of qualitative, social data via community engagement activities, key informant interviews and focus groups to identify stakeholder interests/attitudes to seagrass and potential tensions between conservation and economic, including tourism, interests.

Find out more here: http://www.seagrass.org.uk/

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A response to Vladimir Cooper

My comrade responded to my heartfelt eulogy with some rather crude propoganda. Below I address the key elements of his agitprop:

“These are the tangible parts of non-fungibility, search costs and market friction; three things which are assumed either to be irrelevant, or not to exist at all, in the dominant economic discourse of today.”

This would make sense if economics began and ended with what you learnt in first year, where you are introduced to highly idealised models of economic activity. But if you’d actually conversed with an economist, you’d know that almost all of these problems have a solution in modern macro. It’s a bit like criticising physicists because they taught you to ignore friction in year one. Because hey, friction is out there!

“It should be pointed out that while the former USSR collapsed (an easy straw man target) the economies of Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – all seen as considerably further to the Left than our own have retained their AAA credit ratings”

1) The USSR wasn’t a straw man when the good Baroness was around. The reason we don’t worry about it now is because of her and Ronnie’s efforts (ably assisted by David Hasselhoff).

2) Sweden et al. are market economies, with largely private ownership of capital (albeit with high redistributive income tax). We would do well to follow their business-friendly policies.

“Reducing environmental concerns to a dollar figure”

Oh the horror! We’re trying to incorporate environmental concerns within market mechanisms!

“The ever climbing equity markets hide the fact that in real terms, we are consuming irreplaceable resources.”

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” (Quote from Ted Kaczynski)

[Editor’s note: The anonymous author of this post does not, and did not ever, actually exist; his name has been deleted from the history books, or would be if it were ever present in them, which it was not, particularly not since his one way trip to the institution where we did not send him to learn how to behave himself or die in the attempt; the outcome of which you really could not imagine]

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I wouldn’t go saying that in Cardiff if I were you

For readers of this blog who may not be used to Brian’s provocative writing (which doesn’t represent the views of the institute any more than mine does, etc etc) – here’s another view.

The current wave of debate about Thatcher provides a chance to reflect that liberty, justice, capitalism and free markets don’t always go hand in hand.  Sure, liberty and socialism have their incompatibilities too (Hayak aptly pointed these out) but the aftermath of Thatcher’s policies themselves illustrate the counter point:  nearly thirty years after the mines began to close, the South Wales Valleys remain one of the most deprived areas in Britain.  How can this be?  The unemployed families, the boarded up rows of houses only thirty miles from Cardiff – these are the tangible parts of non-fungibility, search costs and market friction; three things which are assumed either to be irrelevant, or not to exist at all, in the dominant economic discourse of today.  While the world will be better off without coal, we have without question completely failed to take care of the people affected by closing the mines (a decision which was never motivated by environmental concerns in the first place).

The outdated Right misses both of these subtleties, among others; though the Left, to be fair, would do well to read Hayek.  It should be pointed out that while the former USSR collapsed (an easy straw man target) the economies of Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – all seen as considerably further to the Left than our own – have retained their AAA credit ratings, while Cameron still thinks the best way to get ours back by is by booting out yet more people from their jobs.

Environmental quality, meanwhile, is only now starting to be valued by today’s growth economies – and then only by some of them – and probably not enough, nor in the right way.  Reducing environmental concerns to a dollar figure is all very well for things we have the technology to measure, but if there is no environment, we should remember there will be no dollars at all.  The ever climbing equity markets hide the fact that in real terms, we are consuming irreplaceable resources.

Taking joy in anybody’s death is somewhat sick, but show each of the revellers on the streets a decent job and they’d soon drop the cheap wine in favour of worthier poisons.

Crispin Cooper

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God bless you Iron Lady, and thank you for your public service

In the first of our new point-counterpoint series, a contributor presents a powerful defense of Thatcher’s legacy.

It might not be fashionable to say this, but Thatcher almost single handedly rescued Britain from the depths of despair and decline in the 70s and returned it to its rightful place on the world stage. She believed in simple things like liberty, justice, capitalism, and free markets, and put these ideas to work in ways that advanced human dignity and welfare. And not just in Britain – along with the great Ronald Reagan, Thatcher was instrumental in the demise of the criminal Soviet Empire.

It confuses me no end when fellow sustainability scientists talk of her reign and ideology as somehow damaging to the natural environment. Take a look at the state of the environment in Russia. It’s appalling. Sure, the West also did its fair share of environmental harm, as it developed technologically, extracted resources, and built up industries. But at least capitalism generated the wealth needed to clean up its own mess.

And what of those people dancing in the streets at the news of Thatcher’s death, grasping bottles of cheap fizzy wine in their sweaty palms? I wonder if they would be better advised to seek gainful employment, rather than bringing shame on our great nation.

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Enriching, collaborative, international

Dr. Alison Blay-Palmer, Associate Professor, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario, Canada, visited Cardiff last year, here is a bit about what she got up to while she was here.

My connection with the Sustainable Places Research Institute (PLACE) at Cardiff University goes back to 2003 when I first met Kevin Morgan as part of a Canadian project he provided expert advice on as an international advisor.  Since then I have worked with many other world recognized scholars including PLACE Director Terry Marsden.

As a Visiting Scholar with PLACE, I had the opportunity to experience firsthand the benefits of this vibrant institution, and I had the chance to participate in some lively debates, workshops and conferences.  The caliber of people who ‘drop by’ to consult with researchers linked to PLACE makes it a very rich collaborative milieu.  In some ways, the most rewarding experiences came from informal chats over coffee, tea (and the odd pint!).

It was a great opportunity to develop my links with colleagues at Cardiff and beyond.  I was also able to expand my network for the proposed FLEdGE (Food: Locally Embedded, Globally Engaged) Partnership that builds on our on-going Nourishing Ontario project.

This research partnership has been evolving since 2007, over the course of several projects.  The latest project builds on two years of collaborative work that developed an inventory of community food initiatives in Ontario, and explored their efforts and effects in multiple ways.

We are exploring research synergies, comparative and collaborative opportunities around sustainable food systems governance, scaling up, land tenure issues and community resilience.  Through case study and Participatory Action research we will be able to identify opportunities for communities as they figure out how to do things more sustainably.  Equally important are the links that were initiated with people in civil society, private enterprise and government.

Interdisciplinaryity is a force at PLACE where social sciences, natural sciences, law, medicine and art intersect in meaningful ways.  Building on the multiple strengths of Cardiff University, PLACE offers a link to the deep knowledge resources of university researchers, connections to Welsh, UK and EU governments, and connections to practitioner communities through the community engaged scholarship undertaken by those associated with the institute.

The connections continue as we participate and share our work online, through conference calls, and best of all through face-to-face meetings. Another member of the FLEdGE team Mary Beckie, Associate Professor in Government Studies in the Extension Faculty at the University of Alberta, will be visiting PLACE in the fall of 2013.


More about Alison:  Alison is Associate Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies where she does research on resilient food systems and sustainable communities.  Her books, ‘Imagining sustainable food systems: Theory and practice’ and ‘Food fears: From industrial to sustainable food systems’ explore pressures and opportunities related to food system sustainability.  Her most recent journal papers are published in Local Environment, the International Journal of Planning Studies, Economic Geography, Environment and Planning A and C, and the Canadian Journal of Regional Science.






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How does where you live and how you live, link to how healthy you are?

Dr Yi Gong discusses her research linking public health and urban planning

The historical connection between public health and urban planning dates back to the sanitary movement to prevent outbreaks of infectious disease, such as cholera and tuberculosis, in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

However, through much of the 20th century, the two areas have drifted apart, with different outlooks and goals.  Public health focused on biological mechanisms of illness and disease, while planning focused on economic development.

In the 21st century we are beginning to realise that this separation has had negative consequences for our health, for example, contributing to modern public health crises such as obesity, depression and asthma.

How places are designed and built is one of the major determinants of the health of individuals and whole populations, and of health inequalities.  Well designed, connected places allow for more walking and cycling, which is directly related to higher levels of physical activity, and less traffic, air and noise pollution.  While this may seem obvious, our understanding of the detail is still limited.

My research is trying to understand the relationships between place, behaviour and health.  The puzzle is how to maximise health benefits when areas of trade off need to be considered.

For example, having shops and green space within walking distance is one way to help tackle the obesity epidemic.  However, while sprawling suburban cul-de-sacs do not always provide this access, this design can protect the neighbourhood residents from traffic and can encourage social interactions and strengthen the sense of belonging, which will positively influence mental health and wellbeing.

The second dilemma is that the design of a place may have health benefits for some people, but not everyone.

As an example of my recent work, living in a greener neighbourhood was found to be related to more frequent participation in physical activities among older adults in Caerphilly, but only among those with limited physical ability in walking or mobility.

Assuming that this relationship was due to the fact people are more likely to walk, exercise and do gardening in a greener environment, neighbourhood green space provision here may have an important role in supporting and maintaining active ageing for those with limited mobility.

The goal of my research then is to be able to produce robust research evidence that informs planners how best to maximise health benefits when designing and modifying the environment.

To achieve this, public health and planning needs to be reconnected.  Putting health at the centre of planning strategies and policy means that the modification of the place we are living in is not at the cost of our health.

The re-convergence between urban planning and public health is at an early stage and much more needs to be done.

Dr Yi Gong is a research fellow at Cardiff University and is currently investigating the influence of the environment we are living in on our health. To contact Dr Gong, email GongY2@cardiff.ac.uk

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