By Vera Köpsel, Cormac Walsh and Catherine Leyshon
Climate change is likely to alter the appearance of many rural and coastal landscapes, for example through extreme weather, river flooding or cliff erosion . A prominent example of such impacts, often connected to climate change, was the 2013/14 winter floods in the southwest of England . Inasmuch as the climate is changing, so are our responses to its impacts as we try to both adapt to new conditions and reduce future change through mitigation.
A suitable example for researching the connections between perceptions of landscape and place, and adaptation to climate change, is Cornwall in southwest England. Many of the region’s famous landscapes are under special designations such as the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) or the properties of the National Trust. As a peninsula stretching into the Atlantic Ocean, moreover, Cornwall is already experiencing an increase in extreme weather events, storminess, as well as river and sea flooding.
Cornwall’s coastal and rural areas are valued places of everyday life and cultural heritage. They are filled with personal attachments but coastal and rural areas are sometimes valued very differently by different groups within a society. This includes the staff of organisations responsible for managing these iconic landscapes (e.g. the National Trust, Natural England, the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and Cornwall Council) who bring different priorities and perspectives to their work. These subjective perceptions of places remain largely under-researched when it comes to understanding the dynamics that shape climate change adaptation processes. In our new paper, published in The Geographical Journal, we explored the different perceptions of Cornwall’s landscapes held by local landscape managers who are faced with dealing with the impacts of our changing climate. We asked how these perceptions influence their climate adaptation approaches.
The theoretical approach of our study was that of constructivist landscape research, a concept rooted deeply in human geography and focusing on subjective and collective perceptions of landscapes. By conducting qualitative interviews with local staff of organizations such as the National Trust, the AONB Partnership, Natural England and Cornwall Council, we uncovered four different narratives – in other words, storylines – about what Cornwall’s landscapes are, how they are affected by climate change, and how one should adapt to these changes. These four narratives conceptualise the Cornish landscapes as:
- the region’s basis for economic growth
- an intermediate result of an ongoing human-environment relationship
- a mosaic of wildlife and habitats;
- and a space for production, e.g. of agricultural goods.
By identifying these different narratives, we show that although superficially often understood as one and the same thing, the concept of landscape means very different things to different actors concerned with its management. These varying understandings of the landscapes have direct implications for how they should be managed in the context of a changing climate: from preserving the status quo and rejecting any built interventions through a focus on community-led action, to a call for hard engineering – different constructions of landscapes result in potentially conﬂicting demands for adaptation measures in Cornwall. Understanding which landscape perceptions underlie such differing approaches to adaptation becomes especially important when the adaptation activities of one group negatively impact on what another group values about a landscape.
Leaving unarticulated the taken-for-granted constructions that landscape management actors have of their local landscapes holds great potential for misunderstandings and can present an obstacle to sustainable climate adaptation. As climate change adaptation is a societal challenge which demands the transdisciplinary cooperation of many different organizations and actors on the local level, our research makes an important contribution to furthering constructive dialogue about how to adapt landscapes and places to the impacts of a changing climate. With ever greater emphasis on multi-agency working to achieve climate change adaptation in landscape management, it is important that future research investigates the diverse perceptions people have of the places they manage, to secure effective action at the local level.
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Köpsel, V., Walsh, C. and Leyshon, C. 2016 Landscape narratives in practice: implications for climate change adaptation. Geogr J. doi:10.1111/geoj.12203
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