People’s Climate March London 2014

An estimated 40,000 people gathered on the streets of London to march on the Houses of Parliament demanding action, not words, from our politicians in the UK. This demonstration of people power is part of the worldwide ‘People’s Climate March’ in the buildup to a UN Climate Change Summit in New York City on September 23rd. All photographs copyrighted © 2014 Climate Change Cafe.

 

The industrialization of an Irish landscape to meet UK energy needs

A landscape fossilized,

Its stone wall patterings

Repeated before our eyes

In the stone walls of Mayo
Before I turn to go

Extract from ‘Belderg’ by Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

© 2013 Colin Cafferty

Belderrig harbour – a small fishing community near Glinsk

 

I’m an unabashed map junkie, have been for years, which means I have the rare ability to be entranced for hours on end by contour line patterns, dendritic river systems, obscure topographical symbols, and various other cartographic delights. When visiting my home in County Mayo in the West of Ireland two years ago, I resolved to finally forsake my position as armchair explorer in favour of actively exploring uncharted territory. My interest was piqued when I made the discovery that a considerable chunk of North Mayo was hazy at best when viewed as a satellite image on Google Maps. It appeared as if an imaginary line had been drawn straight through Belderrig (also spelt ‘Belderg’) with all points directly west shrouded in an inexplicable fog. That was when I discovered a newfound interest in the local landscape.

Belderrig is a small coastal community in the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region) where life revolves around a small harbour and the other bastions of rural Irish living – a pub, a shop, a church and a school. Back in the 1930s, the local schoolmaster, Patrick Caulfield, came across a large number of unusual stones in a regular formation and depth whilst cutting turf in a nearby bog. Years later, his son, the archaeologist Professor Seamus Caulfield, discovered evidence of an extensive Stone Age field system complete with dwellings and tombs several miles further to the east. This became known as ‘Céide Fields’ – the oldest known field system in the world with a history of more than five and a half thousand years. These ancient structures have been preserved in the bogland from a time that pre-dates the Pyramids of Egypt. Who knows what other cultural treasures lie hidden beneath the veneer of bog? But radical changes are gathering apace that could leave an indelible mark on this ancient landscape.

© Colin Cafferty 2012

Ancient farming landscape at Ceide Fields Visitors Centre in North Mayo

 

A journey of self-discovery

Last year, I embarked on a personal project to explore the visual impact of wind-farms on landscape in the UK through photography. I chose this topic not just because it happens to be a contentious one for many Britons but also because it was an issue I had to resolve in my own head once and for all. I travelled to East Anglia and Cumbria to document wind turbines, near to but outside of, sensitive landscapes such as the Norfolk Broads and the Lake District National Park. It’s a personal journey that has taken on an entirely new dimension since I decided to dig into my own metaphorical back yard in the West of Ireland. I resolved to take the plunge and confront my demons once and for all. I would find out whether a committed environmentalist and renewable energy enthusiast could simultaneously hide a closet NIMBY somewhere deep inside. Incidentally, I should point out that I’ve been living in London for the past nine years but you can see my point.

As so often is the case, energy and other natural resources are unfortunately mined in the most remote, unspoilt and sensitive of landscapes around the globe. With fewer people to object and largely out of sight of the media’s prying eyes, those few hardy (usually portrayed as stubborn) souls who make a stand are often left whispering in the wind. To my eyes, County Mayo is ‘frontier country’ on an Irish scale – similar to America’s Wild West in colonial times or Australia’s present day Outback. Most locals would probably laugh at me when I say this but I imagine they would also grudgingly accept that it has at least a modicum of truth.

Lying almost 300km to the west of Ireland’s capital is a landscape rich in gas, peat, wind, wave and biomass. The back-breaking work of harvesting peat by hand using the traditional slean or turf-spade (and by machine more recently) has been the mainstay of local communities to survive the long winter down through the centuries. In recent times, the discovery of the Corrib gas field just fifty miles offshore has attracted the energy giant Shell which is due to open its controversial gas processing facility and pipeline in 2014. But neither of these fossil fuel resources can hold a candle to the potential of renewable energy in the county. Mayo is recognized to have the best wind and wave resource of just about anywhere in Europe. The wind- and wave-battered Atlantic coast pounds the landscape for most of the year. And now planners on the County Council are pounding their fists on the boardroom table demanding a slice of the action, and all of the investment that goes along with it.

Paying lip service to landscape concerns

County Mayo was the first of the twenty six counties in the country to draft its own comprehensive Renewable Energy Strategy (RES). It has a forward-looking County Manager and an ambition to finally put Mayo on the map – to lift that veil of mist I mentioned before and put the wind to work, so to speak. The 88-page RES document includes a collection of interesting maps at the back (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?), one of which zones the land into Tier 1 (preferred wind farm sites) and Tier 2 (locations open for consideration). A separate 222-page Strategic Environmental Assessment report attempts to explain the rationale behind zoning the land in this way from an environmental perspective. From a landscape perspective, the county is broken down into sixteen different landscape types and then grouped into six Landscape Protection Policy Areas. But landscape is just one of many competing measures, such as biodiversity, water and cultural heritage, which are used to assess five alternative scenarios for future renewable energy development.

In summary, the report concludes that, “County Mayo’s eastern landscapes (Policy Area 4) are the most robust in the County and are least sensitive to change. All other landscapes are highly sensitive to change.” Unfortunately in terms of wind resource, the east of the county has far less potential than the north and west and so you would imagine a clash is on the cards. Not so though. The SEA report concludes that Scenario 4 is the most environmentally sustainable of the five scenarios for renewable energy development although they admit that “there is the potential for conflict with environmental protection objectives in respect of……cultural heritage and landscape.” The report goes on to say that Scenario 4 is “the best as it would take into consideration all types of landscapes identified in the Landscape Appraisal for County Mayo”. This indicates to the reader that the County Council mustn’t view a distinction between their own landscape policy areas after all if their over-riding concern is to consider all landscape types and imply they somehow have equal status. And so it would appear that although the Council has come up with a comprehensive strategy and rigorous set of indicators and policy areas, it is not prepared to apply its own methodology to objectively assess landscape concerns. What we get is an illusion of compromise and tacit support for the industrial-scale development of a largely untouched rural landscape to suit the ends of the policy-makers.

Why does it matter that we protect our landscape?

The Irish sense of identity is intricately bound with our landscape, our language, our literature and our long history of struggle. Take any one of these away and we are all the less Irish for it. Having said that, I did a pretty good job of not just ignoring, but actively shunning the rural tranquility of my home county as I was growing up. But those days passed over as I matured and gained some renewed perspective from afar. We need to recognize that landscapes change and evolve; typically over centuries and millennia when it comes to natural processes, or days and years with the tools of human endeavour. Another pressing concern is the effect that man-made climate change is having on landscape – eroding coastlines due to sea-level rise, flooding agricultural land, and in the case of Mayo, triggering bogslides (similar to landslides but it is the bog that slips downhill).

© 2013 Colin Cafferty

A vast blanket bog landscape near Belderrig in County Mayo

 

The great Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, visited Belderrig and wrote the opening lines to this poem as a thank-you letter to Patrick Caulfield in 1975. This prehistoric landscape continues to inspire poets, writers and artists although it is largely unknown to the outside world. The reputation that Ireland enjoys abroad precedes itself and is at least partly based upon the romantic notion that many foreigners (especially Americans of Irish heritage) have of our landscape, culture and traditions. What if I were to say to you that it is exceedingly rare in today’s Ireland to come across a landscape that doesn’t carry a significant man-made footprint? White-washed houses are a particularly dominant feature dotting the rural countryside and drawing the eye in from afar. But out west, there still lies a handful of wide open landscapes that have remained unchanged for millennia – mostly because the land was too poor, too hilly, and too wet to graft a living from. We should protect these last remaining pockets of our natural heritage, not for romantic or sentimental reasons but because once they are lost to development, there’s very little chance of turning back the clock. Our resilience to the harsh elements, our stubbornness in the face of adversity, our pressing need to have the craic and tell tall stories in the local pub – all of these qualities and much more come from a sense of identity that is shaped by the very same elements that have moulded the landscape over millennia.

An all-or-nothing approach to development

If we accept that development of any type necessitates changes to the landscape and that there is also a pressing need to pursue our renewable energy ambitions, then it just become a question of what development in which landscape, and to what extent. Mayo is recognized as having one of the best wind and wave resources in all of Europe. Yet, it lies far from the population centres that can draw down this power. In fact, according to the developers of the Mayo Atlantic Renewable Energy Export (MAREX) project, Mayo has such an abundance of raw power that sufficient demand does not exist on the entire island of Ireland. Together with an undeveloped electricity grid, this has become the basis of a proposal to develop the single largest energy infrastructure project ever undertaken in Ireland.

Organic Power intends to develop a massive 2GW (2,000MW) of wind power in North Mayo by 2018 if it can secure planning permission. That means sinking 450 wind turbines into the boggy landscape, constructing a 1.5GW hydro energy storage hub and laying down a 500-kilometre HVDC cable across the country and under the Irish Sea to feed into the much larger UK market. This project can only succeed at scale – there are all kinds of price pressures that dictate it’s all or nothing approach. Landscape is only a consideration in terms of whether the project can meet the lenient policy set by the County Council that is  open to interpretation and whether it can appease An Bord Pleanala (the Irish planning board) who are already under significant pressure to wave through what has been termed a ‘strategic infrastructure project’ for the country.

Not all landscapes are equal

Whilst the MAREX project continues to gather pace, a far more modest 23MW wind farm proposed by Killala Community Wind Farm Ltd less than 20 miles to the east of Belderrig has been unable to get off the ground for years due to visual impact concerns. This is in spite of the fact that the development would be owned by the local community and that it is located in the least sensitive landscape to development (Policy Area 4 – Landscape Appraisal of County Mayo).

MAREX is not the only wind farm mega-project in Ireland proposed to export wind energy to the UK. Element Power has an even more ambitious £8 billion ‘Greenwire’ proposal to develop 700 wind turbines and generate 3GW of electricity in The Bog of Allen – far removed from the west coast. Bord na Mona, the semi-state body responsible for the mechanized harvesting of peat, has left behind a wide-scale legacy of cutaway bog in the Midlands. Milled, harrowed, ridged and harvested by specialized machinery, the peat is then transported on specially constructed narrow-gauge railways for burning at one of only three remaining peat power stations – Edenderry, Lough Ree and West Offaly. This landscape may share a common resource with that of North Mayo but therein end any similarities. The Bog of Allen is largely an industrial landscape that has been, and continues to be, stripped of peat on a large scale. It has long been sacrificed in the name of development.

The wind may not blow as frequently or as strongly in the Midlands compared to the West but this is a landscape that is far better suited to large-scale development in terms of environmental impact and visual amenity. However, that is not to say that there isn’t room for any wind farm development in North Mayo. Bord na Mona and ESB (the semi-state power utility) received planning permission for a 112-turbine wind farm (originally 180 turbines) back in 2003 on cutaway bog at Oweninny, next to the former Bellacorrick peat-burning power station. In fact, Ireland’s first wind farm was constructed on the same bogland in 1992 and its twenty one turbines are turning in the wind to this day. The Oweninny development is more appropriate for the county than the MAREX project on several fronts. This area is cutaway bog, a scarred landscape as such, similar to but much smaller in scope than the Midlands. Wind turbines already exist in the vicinity and although the proposed development is sizeable, it’s still only a quarter of the MAREX project in terms of turbine numbers. And last but not least, this power is for Irish consumers, Ireland’s energy security and contributes to Ireland’s climate change targets.

Industrialization of a landscape

If the Organic Power project were to proceed alongside this development, the rural landscape of North Mayo would need to somehow absorb almost 600 wind turbines. This would represent the most significant industrialization of a rural landscape in Ireland due to the cumulative impact of such a massive undertaking. It would also be  the single largest onshore wind farm project anywhere in the world. North Mayo is home to one of the last significant tracts of blanket bog found anywhere in Europe. If we are to scale up our renewable energy ambitions by planting an equivalent number of wind turbines in the country, then we should do so on flat land already ‘strip-mined’ such as that found on the Bog of Allen. But there is a larger, more fundamental question here. Should the UK outsource it’s renewable energy needs to another country just because a Conservative government has no desire to rile its voter base in rural England? And where do carbon emissions and climate change targets fit in with all of this? It should be remembered that any power exported to the UK will not go towards Ireland’s 2020 targets to source 40% of electricity from renewable sources under the EU 2009 Renewable Energy Directive.

Admittedly, the wind does not blow quite as strongly or as predictably in the Midlands compared to in Mayo. But that does not mean it is any less appropriate to develop. Let’s take it as a given that we cannot scale up renewable energy sufficiently unless it makes sound economic sense. Conventional accounting does not take into account the true value of land – only it’s development potential. If we were to price ecosystem services such as storing carbon, flood control, providing habitat and then add in the value of landscape in terms of tourism, recreation, health, education, history, culture, and spiritual needs, we would come up with a far different end figure. Suddenly it would become very expensive indeed to build a 450-turbine wind farm on the boglands of North Mayo.

Maps cannot chart the soul of a landscape

Back to those unusual stones that Patrick Caulfield found all those years ago at Belderrig barely one and a half miles from Glinsk mountaintop – location for the proposed MAREX hydro energy storage facility. Evidence for prehistoric tillage in the region was uncovered in the form of the first plough-marks – the earliest proven use of a plough anywhere in Europe. Or as Heaney far more eloquently put it –

To lift the lid of the peat

And find this pupil dreaming

Of neolithic wheat!
© 2013 Colin Cafferty

Rugged coastline near Glinsk on an unusually calm July day

 

A second wave of occupation occurred in the Bronze Age in order to mine the rich vein of copper ore in the cliff face one mile to the north-west. This would be right next to the proposed reservoir and pumped hydro storage at Glinsk. The land around here hasn’t changed much in all those intervening years. What other buried treasures potentially lie beneath the ancient peat?

I believe in the need to scale up renewable energy more than ever – in part as a force to protect sensitive landscapes by helping to reduce carbon emissions and the resulting physical impacts of man-made climate change. I am as committed as ever to the siting of wind farms in the most appropriate landscapes. But we must not relent to the pressure to push wind farms into ever more remote and sensitive landscapes so that they too are branded by the Hand of Man. By implication, wind farms and human settlement will somehow need to co-exist in greater harmony. Local communities can be engaged and a respectful distance for noise and shadow flicker can be achieved.

I don’t get the chance to visit North Mayo as much as I’d like these days. It’s not quite in my back yard anymore but I still feel a strong tug westward as I sit typing in London. I’m still a committed renewable energy enthusiast and environmentalist. Whether I’m a NIMBY or not, I’ll let you be the judge of that.

The landscape of North Mayo remains as mysterious as it ever was to me. Buried treasures under the ancient peat. A bleak, boggy, beautiful wilderness. Perhaps it was never meant to be mapped out in detail or spied on from afar by some satellite orbiting the earth? It can only be known by taking a lungful of sharp salty Atlantic air, feeling the spring of heather and the squelch of bog underfoot, and above all, gazing upon the clouds scuttling across the vastness of an untouched landscape lost in time.

Colin Cafferty is a documentary photographer and blogger on sustainability, energy and environmental issues who is currently based in London. He grew up in North Mayo and regularly visits the area. This story is part of a series that explore energy and landscape in the resource rich county of Mayo. Next article to feature – an in-depth interview with Organic Power.

Can poetry inspire us to protect Ireland’s bogland?

Seamus Heaney, has joined the ranks of Irish literary greats, as he was finally laid to rest on this September day near the place of his birth in County Derry, Northern Ireland. Perhaps to join his Bog Queen preserved for eternity in both peat and words –

“I lay waiting / between turf-face and demesne wall, / between heathery levels / and glass-toothed stone” (Taken from ‘The Bog Queen’).

The former Nobel Laureate is returning to the very land that he so powerfully portrayed through his poetry. It is certainly not difficult for an Irishman to identify with Heaney’s treatment of the bog as a means to make sense of events unfolding around him, and as a prompt for a subtle yet powerful form of social commentary. Ireland’s bogland has long been exploited for turf as a fuel to warm homes through the long winter. Its rich and evocative imagery has also been employed in the service of one of the greatest poets of modern times. Indeed the very sound of ‘the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat’ has a power that transports the reader to a boggy land. Now that same peat is fuelling the resentment of rural folk who never gained in the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years of prosperity, and yet are still expected to shoulder the burden of austerity.

Ballycroy National Park, County Mayo © 2013 Colin Cafferty

A bank of turf cut by traditional methods

 

So why is the protection of Ireland’s bogland so important?

An estimated 16% of the surface area of Ireland is under peat. The Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC) estimates that only 8% of our raised bogs have any remaining conservation value. The industrialization of peat extraction (not to be confused with more sustainable cutting methods) from the 1950’s by Bord na Mona laid waste to large swathes of bogland that are clearly visible in satellite images, such as those shown on Google Maps. Many bogs are so badly damaged that continued turf-cutting on a small-scale is no longer an issue. However this makes the few remaining areas that are relatively intact all the more valuable.

Ireland has a significant proportion of the few surviving remnants of raised bog within Europe. 139 raised bogs have been designated for protection in 53 Special Areas of Conservation  (SACs) under the EU Habitats Directive and 75 Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs) under the Wildlife Act of 2000. Although the turf-cutters are being offered alternative sites or monetary compensation, the EU Directive still serves to stoke consternation amongst otherwise fuel-impoverished households. The currently protected sites represent only 20% of the original raised bog in the country. “In Mayo, there’s been almost 100% compliance and generally on the ground people are happy to either take compensation or go with the option for relocation”, Sue Callaghan, District Conservation Officer in Mayo for the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) noted in a recent interview with Climate Change Cafe. But this is certainly not the case in other parts of the country such as Galway and Roscommon. And the vast majority of bog in my home county of Mayo is blanket bog meaning that this land is currently not protected in the same way. The small island of Ireland possesses a staggering 8% of the world’s blanket bog and is the most important country in Europe for this type of habitat. This underlines the need to protect not only our intact raised bogs but also the blanket bogs along Ireland’s Atlantic coast.

The NPWS website describes the loss of Ireland’s bogs as “an irreplaceable loss to global biodiversity”. Apart from providing unique habitat to many species of native flora and fauna, bogland also contributes a range of valuable ecosystem services that are taken for granted by most of us. Excess CO2 from the atmosphere is removed and locked within the peat in the ground which helps to combat manmade climate change. Bogland also provides clean water and reduces flooding due to  its capacity to absorb, hold and slowly release water. From the point of view of the turf-cutter, the bog is a vital source of fuel for heating and cooking in many rural households through the long winter months.

Turf wars – what’s it all about?

Ostensibly, the ‘turf-war’ is a case of standing up for the right to harvest the land as your father and forefathers have done before you.  Heaney draws upon the land as central to understanding the nation as a whole, and in particular its people. He pays homage to his father and to the tradition of harvesting the turf in the poem ‘Digging’

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods / Over his shoulder, going down and down / For the good turf. Digging.

But the ban on turf-cutting in certain parts of rural Ireland has become a means to vent anger and frustration at a far wider sense of marginalization and betrayal. It is a rallying point for any number of people disenfranchised and distrustful of big government and who do not feel fairly consulted or adequately represented. Memories of the struggle for the land lasts long in the minds of rural Irish communities. This goes back to the late 19th Century (and long before), when the Irish Land League was formed in Castlebar, County Mayo by Charles Steward Parnell and Michael Davitt amongst others.  The Land League campaigned for an end to landlordism and the unfair eviction of tenants by rallying around the Three ‘F’s (Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale). As recently as one week ago, the Irish Independent reported the cutting of turf on a protected site in County Kerry in defiance of the ban (Turf protestors take another cut at EU ban). It’s also worth pointing out that the stance taken by the Irish media has largely been sympathetic to their cause.

Groups such as ‘Support the Turf-cutters’ and the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association are unsurprisingly using social media as a means to galvanize support. Their success relies upon making this a highly emotive issue, of creating a sense of injustice and outrage that forces people to take sides. Even Heaney struggles with a sense of indignation and a need to speak out against clannish or sectarian behaviour albeit in a different context –

Who would connive /
in civilized outrage
/ yet understand the exact /
and tribal, intimate revenge (Taken from ‘Punishment’)

All the resentment against the excesses of corrupt politicians, bankers and developers is perfectly understandable and largely justified but should not be rolled into an issue that has very little to do with these same forces. A more balanced, calm and rational approach will serve everyone’s interests far better in the long run. Heaney used the bogland and the ancient bog bodies preserved in its peat as way of promoting peace and understanding amongst the religious strife permeating Northern Ireland. He describes the unearthing of a bog man as a gentle act –

Those dark juices working / Him to a saint’s kept body / Trove of the turf-cutters’ / Honeycombed workings (Taken from ‘The Tollund Man’)

Let us, the turf-cutters and people of Ireland take note. It is a privilege and not a right to mine the land for our own sustenance.

Is there not a case to protect our landscape?

Although Heaney’s bogland poems did not employ words primarily in the service of protecting and conserving natural landscape, his rhyme and reason has undoubtedly influenced the political landscape of Northern Ireland. Heaney seeks inspiration from the bog to cut through the many layers of history and complexity that underline the so-called ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, which he grew up around. He describes savagery in the death, rediscovery and redemption of an ancient people preserved for millennia in the water-logged bogland –

The plait of my hair / a slimy birth-cord / of bog, had been cut / and I rose from the dark (Taken from ‘The Bog Queen’)

He excavates the truth from the deep peat –

Every layer they strip /
Seems camped on before (Taken from ‘Bogland’)

to expose both violence,

The chin is a visor / raised above the vent / of his slashed throat (Taken from ‘The Grauballe Man’)

and an undeniable anguish,

As if he had been poured 
in tar, he lies 
on a pillow of turf 
and seems to weep 

the black river of himself (Taken from ‘The Grauballe Man’).

The great poet mines the land for words, harvesting it for symbols that can be used to construct a narrative around the Troubles in his native country.

As a photographer, I try to use another form of art to convey the beauty of the landscape through visual imagery in the face of increasing pressures to exploit the land. Heaney doesn’t preoccupy himself with any such nostalgia for the land in his bogland poems although there are moments when his respect clearly shines through –

The ground itself is kind, black butter / Melting and opening underfoot / Missing its last definition / By millions of years (Taken from ‘Bogland’)

And his words can be poignant when he chooses –

We have no prairies / To slice a big sun at evening /
Everywhere the eye concedes to /
Encrouching horizon / Is wooed into the Cyclops’ eye/
Of a tarn. (Taken from ‘Bogland’)

As I read these words, I imagine a wide bogscape, framed by mountains and lake but also surrounded by manmade elements that trespass on the wild landscape, imposing themselves.

A need to focus on the real debate

Ireland signed up to the EU Habitats Directive in 1999 but managed to get a 10-year deferral as a special case, meaning that the legislation only became law between 2009 and 2013 (depending on the bogs’ location). The turf-cutters were told that they would be offered alternative sites or equivalent compensation in exchange for giving up the right to cut on protected bog. This sounds like a reasonable offer but the government minister at the time (Sile de Valera) did not consult the people affected and this has understandably bred anger and resentment to this day. The turf-cutters feel victimized, whether justified or not. They read about corrupt property developers and greedy bankers who are escaping justice and all the while the ordinary man on the street is being punished by increasing taxes, property and water rates, and unemployment. And so the kernel of the whole debate has moved a long way from its core objective, which is to protect the rich cultural, environmental and natural heritage that Ireland enjoys.

Furthermore, there has been a failure of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), who monitor and enforce the EU Directive and Wildlife Act, to live up to their roles and responsibilities. The IPCC commented that “they [NPWS] have shown very little leadership in the peatland areas affected which has given the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association lots of space to scaremonger the individual turf cutters involved.” This was confirmed by Ms. Callaghan who admitted that, “certainly there should be more communication by NPWS with people on the ground and that was a mistake that was made in the past. I think that’s recognized by everybody. And unfortunately with NPWS, there’s lack of staff resources, lack of so many resources that hasn’t made it possible”. I also got a sense of defeatism and powerlessness when asking how she would explain to a landowner that we need to protect certain bogland. “It’s a difficult one and I wouldn’t even hesitate or wouldn’t contemplate trying to persuade somebody whose land is designated…”, came the unexpected reply.

The present day government is mindful of the huge sacrifices it has imposed on the Irish people in these times of austerity and doesn’t want to fan the flames any further by tackling a highly emotive issue that is being portrayed by a few as some kind of ‘Last Stand at the Alamo’. The entire debate has to be reframed so that a small minority of turf-cutters cannot hijack the wider issue by portraying this as simply a struggle for land rights. There is a pressing need to untwine cultural heritage from natural heritage, to understand that both can co-exist. For its part, the Irish government needs to consider a more generous compensation scheme for turf-cutters and a far more inclusive approach that is less authoritarian and more mindful of rural communities. It needs to show respect for their concerns about threats to loss of tradition and livelihood, not by standing back and failing to enforce its own legal duties but by making a strong case for the moral obligation to respect the natural heritage that we have inherited. The law should be enforced not because the EU told us that we have to do this. We should be compelled out of a sense of responsibility to the land that our forefathers fought to reclaim in British colonial times.

Final thoughts

We are not only turf-cutters and farmers and landowners; we are an Irish people who are defined by a common language, history and tradition. But I feel that our sense of Irishness goes far beyond this. Our very identity is tied up in the land, in the wild landscape along the Atlantic Coast and the patchwork of emerald fields and rust-coloured peatlands found the length and breath of the country. We are the land and the land is us. If we lose the distinctive character of the Irish landscape, its habitats and native species, then we lose ourselves to misdirected anger; we forsake our sense of respect for the land, and for ourselves.

Heaney was no turf-cutter and neither am I. And yet the rich descriptive language of his bogland poems have immortalized this very Irish landscape. His words use the bogland as a metaphor to make sense of the troubles and strife in our land. Who of us truly desires to destroy our natural heritage and landscape, and in the process lose the sense of ourselves? Instead, let us continue to draw upon the bog for inspiration to convey our sense of who we are and our struggle to exist in peace and harmony with our neighbours.

Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it (Last words taken from ‘Bogland’).

Useful links

http://www.npws.ie/peatlandsturf-cutting/

http://www.npws.ie/publications/euconservationstatus/NPWS_2007_Conservation_Status_Report.pdf

http://iwt.ie/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/turf-cutting-explained.pdf

Conservation in Ballycroy National Park in the West of Ireland

This is an extract of an interview with Sue Callaghan in the spectacular Ballycroy National Park at the end of July 2013 to talk about protection of biodiversity, habitat and landscape in County Mayo. Ballycroy is one of only six National Parks in Ireland and is home to one of the last intact active blanket bog systems anywhere in Western Europe. This article is part of a series exploring Energy and Landscape in Mayo.

Could you start off by telling me what your role is as District Conservation Officer?

I would cover the majority of County Mayo. I’m the District Conservation Officer for the Lagduff District. Our job within the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is very varied. I would be involved in the management of Ballycroy National Park, which covers approximately 11,000 hectares. This includes the Owenduff/Nephin Beg mountain range and blanket bog system, which are all very important habitats and landscapes. NPWS also has responsibility for Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs). The wider wildlife/countryside issues we would be responsible for whether that be anything to do with bats in people’s attics to deer. We also monitor the Wildlife Act and enforce the Wildlife Act that has to do with the hunting season. We’re involved in environmental education specifically here in the National Park. So the job is very varied but very enjoyable.

Is there a typical day or typical week even? What would you spend most of your time doing? How much time is office-based and how much time is outside?

It’s seasonal, very much seasonal. We have rangers and guides and general operatives – their work would be very much seasonal based – rangers wildlife survey work and I would help in that work. They would also be assessing different applications for consent within Special Areas of Conservation. I would be processing those applications for them, approving them. Summer tends to be the busiest time for the National Park itself because the Visitors Centre is open. The National Park (NP) itself is open all year round. The ranger’s work is very much based on survey work and law enforcement work.

I understand you worked in Wicklow National Park for 3 years as an education officer. How does your experience in Wicklow compare with your time in Mayo?

It’s very different primarily because of the numbers. This Visitors Centre opened in 2009 so the education programme here is very much in its infancy. The resource there [Wicklow] was different, the habitats there were very different. In Wicklow, there’s a huge catchment area with Dublin so there’s large numbers coming through and you also have that ‘honeypot effect’ with Glendalough where the education centre was based. There was a road and path system in place…so it was easily used…it was a great resource to have at our doorstep. Whereas here, it’s a little bit different, we don’t have the numbers firstly so we have to attract people in, we have to be more proactive with advertising. The resource in the Centre itself is brilliant. There’s a great interpretive centre downstairs, we have a café, there’s an education room and then outside the Visitor’s Centre site, there’s a 2-kilometre walking trail, pond-dipping area, and we’ve a lovely little meadow outside.

In the National Park (NP), some of the land is quite fragmented so we have a coastal section but you would have to drive to that and the main body of the NP itself is separate to the Visitor’s Centre site

It is quite fragmented.  Are there any efforts to join up these different parts?

The main conservation part of the NP, the valuable conservation part of the site is in one large tract of land, which is approximately 11,000 hectares and that’s the Owenduff/Nephin range and the blanket bog there with the Owenduff and Tarshaughan rivers running through and draining them. There’s commonage areas in between that the NP would have shares in. As far as pure conservation, that’s easily managed, but then as a NP we also have responsibility for interpretation, recreation and providing a spiritual resource for people…that’s what the Visitors Centre is here for. The larger part of the NP is inaccessible apart from the Bangor Trail. We are developing that [Bangor Trail]. And then there’s the Nephin Wilderness project in the Letterkeen area that’s also being developed so that would provide access on the southern section of the National Park. Then north of Mulranny, we’ve put in a car park and we’re building a boardwalk this year through the bog and back along the coastline. It’s beautiful there and it’s very accessible.

We’re going to be providing guided walks in some other parts of the NP where we are going to minibus people in. That’s a very sustainable way rather than providing car parking where people drive in. We’ll be organizing guided walks. Guiding a walk is the best way of interpreting a walk in my opinion. These are all things that are in train and that we hope to develop in the next few weeks actually.

One of the highlights of the US for me is visiting the National Parks there and I was lucky to visit the Southwest last year to see the likes of Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon. It’s good that you have this loop walk here that anyone can do because it’s boarded and easily accessible. But for me, a Visitor’s Centre should be directly connected to the bulk of the NP. Is there potential to do that?

No, no. Well not unless people sold us all their land and there was an endless supply of money to do that. But no, there’s large areas of commonage and privately owned properties between here and the bulk of the NP so no, that’s not going to happen.

But what would be the main obstacle to making that happen? Would it be finance or would it be consent from landowners to sign over their land?

If land is made available to the park, we have considered it in the past and we have purchased land. That would have been in the golden times I suppose. But at the moment, there isn’t a huge amount of money available for land purchase so if we were to do so there would have to be very important, strategic elements to it not just to have the comfort of owning the main body of land between the NP and here. We can still develop the NP without owning all of the land in between, by developing certain access points in the main part of the NP, whether that be via bicycle here from the Visitors Centre or you’re ‘minibussed’ in.

I’m interested in the Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs) because they seem to be quite extensive in the county (fifteen or so). What level of protection is afforded to NHAs?

It’s quite confusing. There’s PNHAs which are proposed NHAs and these go back a number of years to the ‘80s and ‘90s and they were the basis for many of the areas designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) if their quality was good. There’s nothing legislatively in place for PNHAs. The only thing that protects them is policy by the local authority. So they’re recognized as sites of ecological interest in the County Development Plan and the Forest Service would recognize them. Then there’s also NHAs, which are blanket bog sites, that were formally designated and they have a statutory instrument attached to them for each site. They are strongly protected under legislation.

What role do you see photography playing in raising awareness of the wild landscape that we have in Mayo? I’m specifically thinking of Ansel Adams, not that I’m trying to emulate him. He’s one of the most influential landscape photographer who was based in the U.S. quite some time ago and was instrumental in the expansion of some of the NPs on the west coast, for example, Yosemite. And it was through photography that he was able to achieve that. Do you think that here in Mayo that we’re communicating the value of landscape and biodiversity sufficiently through the likes of photography?

I think it’s one of the most powerful ways of interpreting landscape. The Visitor’s centre here is very visual and not very wordy because of the physical separation with the NP so we wanted to convey the beauty of the NP just through photography. So it is an extremely powerful medium.

How actively do you use photography to promote for example Special Areas of Conservation?

Not enough, definitely not enough. Our websites at the moment need to be improved…ideally we would update those photo galleries. It’s not just landscape photography…landscape is capturing the landscape at one particular moment… it can convey a mood I suppose. It’s also important to focus in on the miniscule, for focusing in on the minute detail in the landscape, whether it be a dragonfly nymph on the water…you can find beauty everywhere.

Special Areas of Conservation in Mayo

Special Areas of Conservation in Mayo

 

How can we go about valuing landscape and biodiversity in a more holistic way? I read in the Biodiversity Action Plan for Mayo that ecosystem services are worth €2.1 billion across the country. Most people just think of the development potential and that’s dependent on the price of the land. But what about ecosystem services and visual amenity?

Ecosystem services is a bit of a buzzword. I’m not really sure. Things that would spring to mind are things like carbon sinks – blanket bogs habitats are very important for that. Also water; flood plains and the bog are important for controlling floods, cleaning the water. How you put a value on them I don’t know. Then there’s the landscape value, well that’s immeasurable really. I don’t know how you would put a value on it. But if you’re drawing people into this area for that reason to appreciate the landscape and to appreciate the biodiversity, I suppose you quantify it by visitor numbers? I don’t know. Then do you offset that by carbon usage? At the moment, it’s very crude how we assess it. We assess it by visitor numbers that come into the NP.

Who would be the responsible body in Mayo and the Western Region for promoting evaluation of ecosystem services?

I suppose the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) maybe? They would be looking at air quality and water quality…

Do you think that information could be useful to the NPWS?

Yes, but in a wider abstract way. If you’re improving the environment, then you’re inevitably improving biodiversity and habitat quality…

It’s a bit like climate change. You mentioned the word ‘abstract’. It’s hard to put a value on these things but once you do, it does become much more tangible. Are you seeing any impacts on the land in Mayo or offshore due to climate change and do you have a climate change adaptation strategy?

We don’t as far as I know, I don’t even know what one is to be honest. There are changes happening especially with birds, for example little egrets. They’re a white bird like a heron except smaller and they’re the birds you would see in the Mediterranean and mainland Europe and now they’re here, breeding in Ireland. We see them in Clew Bay in the winter. So they’re moving northwards. And there’s the Greater Horseshoe Bat that’s just been recorded in Wexford, the Greater Spotted Woodpecker which is here. It could be perhaps an indicator for how climate change is affecting the world. Humans can adapt quickly but certain species can’t and have to move with their food range, suitable breeding places.

In North Mayo, there’s a lot of landscape that is unknown. How can we increase tourism in the county and how is the NPWS contributing to that?

NPWS are contributing by the development of the National Park, whether that be through advertising or providing facilities such as improved walkways and cycle routes. We also work with the rural social scheme and the County Council in developing a lot of the loop walks. Also interpretation panels with texts and guiding walks. In the wider countryside, we’re assisting existing community groups to interpret their local biodiversity value.

So how do you attract people to Ballycroy? In a way it’s remote and it’s away from the population centres such as Westport and Galway. So how do you get people up here?

It’s difficult and it doesn’t have a honeypot attraction. And as we discussed earlier, it’s removed from the main body of the NP so it is difficult. That’s why it’s important to improve our facilities. We need to improve our web advertising and things like this, interviewing through the media. We’re trying to improve the visuals and graphic design. Again it’s in its infancy and none of us are marketing or advertising experts and we don’t have consultants on hand to help us so its very much about feeling our way on how to do it.

The Visitors Centre looks great and I only hope that more people come here. Maybe you can create this ‘honeypot effect’ that you talk about, create a visitor attraction whatever it might be apart from the Visitors Centre which in its own right is an attraction. Thank you for your time.

Useful links –

Ballycroy National Park website

National Parks and Wildlife Service website

Ansel Adams website

Ireland’s ambitions to become a world leader in wave energy

“We’re fond of saying in the sector that we’re 90% under water…only 10% of Ireland’s territory is land. I’ve worked it out as 40 or 50 acres for every man, woman and child in Ireland”. I’ve accidentally stumbled upon one of James Ryan’s favourite topics as we travel in his car on the remote Mullet Peninsula along Ireland’s far western coast.  “What are we doing with it? Absolutely zilch. Two percent of our economy is based on the sea and that takes into account marine transport, which is the bulk of it really,” he adds in mild exasperation. But changes are afoot. Ryan is Managing Director of Aquavision Ltd, a local company that provides services in marine project development. He also represents the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), a semi-state body promoting the development of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures across the country.

Atlantic Marine Energy Test Site

We’re on our way to visit the closest point on land to the proposed Atlantic Marine Energy Test Site (AMETS) off the coast of Annagh Head, where the waves regularly reach 15 to 16 metres in height further offshore. Earlier in his office at Aras Inis Gluaire in Belmullet, he pointed out the test sites indicated by post-it notes on a large map of the area. “In the 100-metre depth zone, we have one site that is about 6 or 7 miles out to sea and then we have an intermediate test site at the 50-metre depth. We’re now also looking at the possibility of a near shore test site”. AMETS is the most ambitious initiative to date to position Ireland as a heavyweight contender for the development of marine energy globally. The purpose of this 10MW facility is to provide a full-scale open ocean test and demonstration facilities for private companies that are developing wave energy conversion technology. This will allow Ireland to challenge Scotland’s European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) based in the Orkney Islands on the basis that the Irish site is the most energy intensive of all. The walls of his office are lined with illustrations of various wave energy convertors with names like ‘Wave Bob’ and ‘Pelamis’ and ‘Aquamarine’, the owners of which are eagerly waiting to test the survivability and reliability of their technologies in the harsh Atlantic conditions. “At the moment we already have a quarter-scale test site in Galway Bay…we also have tank testing facilities down in UCC [University College Cork],” he explains. But AMETS is a potential game-changer for Ireland. According to a recent study by the SEAI, the Irish ocean energy industry could support 17,000 to 52,000 jobs and contribute €4-10 billion to the economy by 2030.

Visual impact

We finally arrive at the western tip of Annagh Head and take a short stroll to a rocky promontory where sheep are grazing nearby. The sea conditions are unusually flat on this July day and so there’s no dramatic footage of breaking waves to support SEAI claims of the best wave resource in all of Europe. Ryan singles out a buoy situated within the intermediate test site zone. I trained my camera lens at maximum focal length (200mm) to enlarge the structure that can only just be seen with the naked eye. “That buoy is 6 metres high”, he tells me. It becomes clear to me from looking at the illustrations of wave energy convertors in his office and the distance I could now observe, that visual impact was unlikely to be a pressing concern. Despite the absence of any dwellings in the vicinity, a local farmer still happened to seek us out on our brief stopover. The conversation was amicable but it was clear that local people want to know what’s going on in their patch and can understandably be mistrustful of outsiders (even those of us who come from the county).

Engaging communities

“We were aware from what had happened with the Corrib gas project [a controversial processing plant and pipeline under construction by Shell nearby] that there may have been another way of doing things at the early stages. So we were determined that noone was going to be surprised by any of our developments, they were going to know well in advance. As one fella said to me, ‘Jesus you’ve been talking about this for a very long time. Would you ever just go ahead and build the shagging things?’” The SEAI submitted its foreshore lease application and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government in December 2011, which was followed by an 8-week public consultation. Now they are playing the waiting game until the Minister decides whether to provide the green light. Ryan is somewhat critical of government bureaucracy and “inertia in the regulatory side of things”.  One of the reasons that Scotland is so far ahead of Ireland in developing marine energy to date is that, “they have developed the concept of the one-stop-shop where the developer just goes to particular government office in Scotland…and a decision is provided within 6 or 12 months of application”.

Changing policy

But the Managing Director of Aquavision admits that things are now changing in Ireland. “I actually hosted Enda Kenny here before he became Taoiseach [Prime Minister of Ireland] and he was genuinely, completed energized, pardon the pun, by the concept [of wave energy]. It’s difficult in these times where you’re cutting back investment in hospitals, in public health…and yet we’re going to invest €20 million in a project that isn’t going to bring any real return for 10-15 years”. Herein lies the crux of the problem with the development of marine renewable energy; venture capitalists and traditional investors typically expect a payback within 5 years. Ryan believes that there is a real need for intervention at State level in order to take on risk that private entities are unwilling to, especially over the longer term. In his own words, “The way there’s State involvement in the Space programme, it should be the same with regards to marine energy”.

Future for wave power

So how far away are we from developing wave energy to the point where it can start to have a real impact on energy security and carbon emissions? Often when I’ve talked to local people in Ireland and the UK who are opposed to wind energy, the Great White Hope mentioned on many occasions is that we should be harnessing the power of the ocean instead of building wind farms. “I think wave power has a long way to go in the development of the technology. It could be the late 2030s before we see any scale in wave farms,” he relays to me soberly. “I‘ve been involved with the sector itself for the last 7 years…now most people acknowledge we’re not going to meet any targets [for wave energy] that we’ve set for 2020 or 2030.” To put this in context, the 10MW AMETS project, one of the largest of its kind anywhere, has a potential output equivalent to just two or three modern wind turbines. By implication, wind farms are clearly going to need to play a vital role in our attempts to mitigate climate change in the short to medium term (and perhaps longer).

At this point, we’ve arrived at our second destination, the point where the two 10kV marine cables come ashore at Belderra Strand to feed into the grid. Again, it’s a lovely stretch of coast, largely deserted except for a few nearby bungalows. He points to a flattish hill to indicate where the substation will be positioned. The photomontages I saw earlier in his office show a berm or ridge around the single-storied structure to minimize visual impact. “There’s not going to be pylons so they’re going to be the same sort of poles that are here already. There’s just going to be a few more of them,” he tells me referring to plans to develop the electricity grid.

Implications for Climate Change

As we drive back to his office in Belmullet, I enquire about his views on where climate change stands in the bigger scheme of things. “For me personally, it’s huge. For me, its like the astronomers have spotted an asteroid coming towards the earth and they’ve told everyone, it’s coming in 10 or 15 years time and we’re doing nothing about it. And that effectively is what climate change is. I tend to be skeptical by nature. I’ve a good training in skepticism. But climate change is happening and it’s being caused by the activities of Man.”

Ryan believes that there is a potential dividend for the community in that it adds to the profile of the region in terms of being a real player in developing renewable energy technology. “The concept we have is that if we get this facility set up, there’ll be lots of links with colleges, research facilities. If we look at what has happened in the Orkneys when they developed there. Hundreds of jobs generated from all the spin off”. Battered by wind, wave and squally showers, North Mayo is a region scarred by emigration and unemployment, not just in recent times, but across entire centuries. Now a chance exists to harness the brute force of Nature, of turning climate into an ally that will help benefit local communities and appease the effects of man-made climate change.

This is the second in a series of stories that explores energy and landscape in Mayo – a rural county in the West of Ireland where I grew up. View the first story here – Could wind replace bog as a more sustainable energy resource in Mayo?

Useful links –

SEAI ocean energy webpage

Aquavision website

AMETS foreshore lease application

Cycling the green way through rural West of Ireland

 

Cycling the Greenway between Mulranny and Achill in the West of Ireland

 

“My most difficult days would be Mondays and Tuesdays. You’ve got the litter after the weekends if the weather is fine…and sheep coming down from mountain areas if walkers leave gates open” he later adds. Such are the challenges for John O’Donnell, caretaker of the Great Western Greenway, the longest off-road cycling trail in Ireland. Largely following 42km of disused railway between Westport and Achill Sound in County Mayo, the route passes through pleasant rural countryside, devoid of the hectic crush of modern living and freely accessible to all but the most unfit. “The most enjoyable aspect of the job would be meeting people and surveying them” O’Donnell confides.  Weather aside, it’s hard to imagine a more rewarding job.

Arthur J Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1887–1891 (and later Prime Minister of the UK), authorized the construction of a network of narrow gauge railways in rural Ireland at the end of the 19th century. Development of road traffic sealed the fate of the line, bringing an end to the railroad a mere 42 years later in 1937. Known by the nickname “Bloody Balfour” for his enforcement of the Perpetual Crimes Act aimed at suppressing the land rights of Irish, Balfour’s legacy has since been subverted by local landowners who gifted their modest plots of countryside for the establishment of the Great Western Greenway. O’Donnell makes a point of letting me know that the Greenway would not have happened, “only for the goodwill and the buy in with the local authority and the landowners. 80 to 90 percent of them [landowners] don’t benefit from the Greenway directly”.  Nevertheless there are wider benefits for the surrounding community with an additional forty to fifty full-time staff employed by hotels, cafes, and restaurants in the area. “You’ve got six or seven bike hire companies between Westport and Achill and they’re all employing 3-4 people,” he also adds.

The trail surface itself consists of compacted gravel and follows a largely flat route between Mulranny and Achill, just one of three sections in my home county that I recently had the pleasure of visiting. The ever-changeable West of Ireland weather meant several stops along the way to swap T-shirt and shorts for anorak and pull-ups; it’s all par for the course and adds to rather than detracts from the overall experience. Leaving Mulranny, the cyclist coasts downhill through welcoming woodland and a sea of ferns before the countryside opens up to reveal an inlet of the Atlantic with bogland and mountain strung out on either side.

I happened upon Mr. O’Donnell at a well-known viewing point – the Blue Bridge – as I stopped to take in the exhilarating scenery on my return journey. “So who typically comes to the West of Ireland to cycle the Greenway?” I enquired, once pleasantries had been exchanged. “The majority of our visitors would be Irish nationals. After that, in the last year, it would be the USA and parts of Europe…mostly Germans and French…and Austrians. The UK market wouldn’t be as strong as the first year…I’ve noticed a big drop in UK visitors this year”. I was struck by the number of young families cycling along the route and said as much. “You can use the tag-alongs [a small canvas-covered trailer] if the children are quite small. Its very safe for families to cycle along as it’s 97% off road”. In fact the only section that still forces cyclists and motorists to share a main road will soon be segregated. “We have secured the funding (€360,000) and hopefully that’s going to happen in the second part of the year or early next year”, John assures me.

But it’s not just tourists who walk and cycle the trail. “There’s a lot of people using it to go to work…when the weather is favourable” he cautiously adds. “Children in the schools in Westport right through to Achill, on a Wednesday in April, May and June, they have a cycle-to-school day and a walk-to-school day”. An impressive 550 visitors a day use some or all of the Greenway on average in the high season, although this can drop to below 100 per day in the dead of winter. I relayed to Mr. O’Donnell that I had met an older man by the name of Patrick J Sweeney further back on the trail as he loaded turf into a high trailer for the long winter ahead. “Oh, that’s my father-in-law. We were talking about you at dinner!” We both shared a laugh at the small world rural living affords.

The Greenway website does not make any explicit mention of eco-tourism (nor did our conversation) but this must surely be a prime attraction and key opportunity to open up new markets. The land in the West of Ireland may be boggy, hilly and largely suited for little more than grazing sheep but the landscape has a value that deserves far greater recognition and investment by the State and local government. At a local level, plans are afoot to develop a cycle rest area and hub called the Great Western Activity Centre, if funding can be found to renovate the old railway station in Mulranny. More pressing concerns are installing toilets, water-points and shelters from the often-inclement weather. “We don’t have any funding at the moment. Based on the surveys that I’m gathering for the last two years that will strengthen the case for funding”, he says optimistically. Other counties are looking to Mayo for inspiration to redeploy their own sections of abandoned railroad. “We’re getting delegations here from various county councils in the country. We’ve recently just had West Cork; they’ve got a lot of disused railways. The biggest issue challenging any other county council to actually go ahead with this is the occupation [sic] of landownership”.

Exactly twelve months previously, I was fortunate to visit New York City and stroll along another stretch of disused railway infrastructure – The High Line. It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting locations, each with their own unique sense of drama. The elevated views framed by towering skyscrapers and warehouses were now to be replaced by vast cloud-scudded skies and generous vistas confined only by the heather-covered mountains. The livestock freight train running through the Meatpacking District of busy Manhattan and the tourist express train chugging through rural West of Ireland have a shared sense of history. Both have  embraced change to find an exciting new meaning in life. Reborn, repurposed and above all relevant to a more sustainable way of living in the modern world.

View a slideshow of my recent trip here – Green infrastructure

Visit the Great Western Greenway website for route maps and more information

Mr O’Donnell would like to point out that Southwest Mayo Development provide much needed support to Mayo County Council in maintaining the Greenway through activities such as strimming and weed control.

Climate Change and the River Thames

© Colin Cafferty 2013

Dr Becky Briant, climate change programme director at Birkbeck, University of London

 

Lifeblood of London

London is defined by its relationship to the physical landscape although it can sometimes be hard to see the wood for the trees in this urban jungle. Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf – none of these would form an iconic backdrop to the city without the mighty Thames flowing timelessly by. And so it was entirely fitting that Dr. Becky Briant, Programme Director for the MSc degree course in Climate Change Management at Birkbeck, decided to devote an entire lecture on the challenges to the future of the river and her citizens under climate change.

Effects of climate change on the river

“We are living in what some analysts describe as a carbon military industrial complex”, she says rather ominously. Dr. Briant makes liberal use of graphs to support her case including various emissions scenarios that model the predicted outcome in terms of changes to weather patterns. “The evidence is pretty strong that we are causing the changes we’re seeing”. We’re currently on track for a 4°C rise in global temperatures by the end of the century. “There’s a certain amount of climate change that’s going to happen no matter what we do”, Dr. Briant adds.

So what lies in store for us? We can expect wetter winters where peak flow in the river could increase by 40% by 2080. Between 3-24 billion litres of freshwater already flows over Teddington Weir, the upper limit of the tidal Thames. London is particularly vulnerable to flooding due to impermeable surfaces, whether that be concrete or the clay-rich impermeable soil beneath our feet. We can also expect drier summers and more intense rainfall events, which will in turn affect water quality in the river. And then there is the whole issue of surface water on our many paved streets that the Drain London Forum is seeking to address in a sustainable way.

So what does the future hold in store for the Thames?

London is fortunate to have a vital piece of infrastructure in place that can protect the city from tidal flooding, the Thames Barrier. The lifetime of this key flood defence is predicted to expire in the 2070’s due to sea-level rise at which point a new barrier further downstream at Long Reach (or Tilbury) has been proposed. But already the barrier is having to be closed more frequently due to tidal surges. Lest we forget, 307 people died in the UK due to the floods in 1953, which prompted the construction of the barrier in the first place.

Professor Gerald Roberts, Head of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, remarked at the lecture’s end that he was “particularly struck by the image of London with so many rivers running through it”.  So next time, you’re out and about, keep an eye open for all those small creeks, tributaries and hidden rivers that feed the mighty Thames and remember that they could yet rise up in response to climate change. And so hopefully will we, the citizens of this great city, to take action before the cost is too great.

Useful links –

UK Climate Projections from DEFRA

Thames Estuary 2100 Plan

London Draft Climate Change Adaptation Strategy

The Challenges Facing Community Wind in the UK

Community ownership of renewable energy is still an alien concept to most people in the UK. Media reports are invariably negative whenever the two words ‘community’ and ‘wind’ appear in the same sentence. And yet, there are a small number of individuals who are determined to show that it doesn’t need to be this way. Jack Heslop*, site manager of Baywind Energy Cooperative, is one such individual. Baywind was established by a group of concerned locals in Cumbria, Northwest England back in 1996. I spoke with Mr. Heslop in his car as we sought shelter on the windswept Harlock Hill, one of two sites owned by Baywind. “There are 1,300 people invested in this scheme. Empty field, wind turbines, 15-17 year ago, people thought we were crazy. Wind turbines, what’s all that about? But these people put their money into it because they believed…because they knew climate change was coming. Even then”. The concept has since expanded under the umbrella of Energy4All, a not-for-profit social enterprise created by Baywind in 2002, which now represents seven renewable energy coops throughout the UK from its nearby base in Barrow-on-Furness. Even if you aren’t passionate about saving the planet, it still makes sense to invest in community energy. Baywind’s model has proven that it can make a steady return over the years – around 10% for the last financial year alone. “That’s because we’ve got a good wind farm manager, you see, that keeps the wind turbines going”, he says laughing to himself.

Site manager at Harlock Hill community wind farm

Site manager at Harlock Hill community wind farm

 

Baywind are currently in the process of repowering their site at Harlock Hill replacing the five wind turbines with a similar number of larger, more efficient models. This will quadruple the maximum output to 11.5 MW, enough to power 6,400 households. But they are facing hurdles every step of the way. “This site falls between two authorities. One half is South Lakelands and the other half is Barrow. We were turned down by South Lakeland because of the visual [impact]”. When I met with Mr. Heslop in May 2013, Barrow Council had yet to vote but they have since approved the application. This paves the way for Baywind’s partner, Infinergy, to appeal the planning decision of South Lakeland Council. “If this wind farm goes ahead there’ll be £35,000 going in to the local community to do what they like with it. We’ll have nothing to do with the way it’s given out”. He later adds, “Personally I’d rather see the money go into a fuel poverty fund to help people pay their bills”.

Fuel poverty is indeed a very real issue in these harsh economic times but too often the blame is laid at the door of the wind industry. “I do believe that all energy gets subsidized, doesn’t it?” he questions hesitantly. “Over the years, no one worried about where their electricity came from. They don’t see it. But all of a sudden…I need to have a windfarm next to me or a generating station of any sort next to me. It makes them think”. This attitude towards energy is strikingly similar to many people’s outlook towards food, and in particular, meat. Consumers want to be able to pick up a freshly cut steak in a local supermarket and not worry about where it came from, if the animals were reared in a humane way. They put all of their misplaced trust in the retailer and the supply chain, until the next scandal comes along, that is.

One of the most unexpected impressions that struck me during my visit to Cumbria is just what a hilly landscape it is. Sometimes I found that I simply couldn’t find the wind turbine (or the access road) that I had caught a glimpse of earlier, especially when I really wanted to find it. You’ve heard of the elusive storm chasers in the US? Well, welcome to the unlikely world of the wind chaser. So what about concerns over the visual impact on landscape in Cumbria? “You’ve got to protect the landscape, but come on, what’s natural around here?” he says inquiringly. “It’s all evolved over the years. It’s not natural. It’s been mined [referring to the nearby slate quarry], there used to be a forest on it. Everything changes. This is a working landscape. Telephone towers over there, two of them either side of us”, pointing through the car window.

Recent proposals by the UK government to give local councils greater powers to reject wind developments in their jurisdictions whilst also requiring greater contributions to community benefit funds will not empower a fair representation of local communities. No doubt, local communities need to see more direct benefits from wind, and any other infrastructure developments (road, rail, power stations) for that matter. But some perceive the community fund to be a bribe and it rarely appeases the vocal minority who are fearful (whether justified or not) of local house prices being negatively impacted. Up to 20% of Denmark’s energy needs are currently met by wind, of which 80% is met by 2,100 community-owned wind farms. These are communities that have a real stake and a long-term return through the shared ownership of wind farms in their locality.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. “One of the nicest things I do on this wind farm… we’ve had every school in the area come here”, he announces proudly. “We’ve had planners, we’ve had bankers, we’ve had coach-loads from Japan, Italy and Australia. They’ve all come here because it’s a community owned wind farm and I’ve never had one person that didn’t like it”. So what about the future for community-owned energy? “I think it’s always going to be challenging. It’s just that risk money…if you don’t get your planning, you lose your money”, he replied shaking his head. If it’s already taken two or three years since first applying to replace five community-owned turbines that have already stood in a field for 15 years, what hope is there for any new developments?

This article is part of a series exploring wind power in the landscape. Tilting at windmills is an ongoing photo project that has so far travelled to East Anglia and Cumbria in England. Colin Cafferty is a documentary photographer based in London who focuses on energy, sustainability and environmental issues.

Useful links –

http://www.baywind.co.uk/

http://www.energy4all.co.uk

http://www.climatechangecafe.com

*All views expressed by Mr. Heslop in this article are his own and do not represent the official stance of Baywind Energy Cooperative or Energy4All in any way.

Cleaner Air, Healthier Schools, Happier Children

Pupils at Tiverton Primary School proudly show their findings on air quality

Pupils at Tiverton Primary School proudly show their findings on air quality

More than 1,100 London schools, from nurseries to secondary schools, are near roads carrying 10,000 or more vehicles a day, which could be responsible for up to 30% of all new cases of asthma in children. How can we make the streets safer and more pleasant places for our children? Last Friday (May 17), I had the pleasure of accompanying London Sustainability Exchange (LSX) to Tiverton Primary School in North London as part of their “Bubble Day” outreach project on air quality. Bubble Day encouraged children to travel to school by sustainable means within a 1 km ‘bubble’ from the school, and allowed children to measure their own local air pollution using citizen science techniques. It was very encouraging to see how many students raised their hand to say they had come to school on foot or by public transport. Only two out of a class of thirty said that they arrived by car! On a separate note, it was also heartening to see how the kids in such a multi-ethnic and diverse school got on so well with each other.

Casting my mind back to when I was in primary school, I can remember going on Nature walks to the forest on the edge of my town in the west of Ireland. I have fond memories of collecting frogspawn and leaves, identifying birds and trees. We were reconnecting and learning a new-found respect for Nature but it wasn’t such a big deal when you lived in a small town surrounded by fields on all sides. The sea air that swept in from the Atlantic was sweet and pure; our lungs were fit and healthy. Inner city London is an altogether different world where education on air quality carries far greater significance and where children often don’t have a choice about whether their air is safe to breathe or not.

The staff at LSX were well organized under Ali Lin and delivered a thoughtful and effective programme of events that were equally fun and educational. The day’s activities included learning about how distribution of moths and lichen can indicate good or poor air quality; ‘seeing’ pollution using Ozone strips and sticky tape analysis, monitoring and mapping local travel methods to and from school, and making badges to share with others the importance of clean air in the local area. Travel surveys found that currently only 3% of pupils cycle to school, yet 60% wished they could. Additionally 95% of lichens observed by pupils are only found in polluted areas.

Young citizen scientists collecting data on the streets

Young citizen scientists collecting data on the streets

My own experience of citizen science has been an overwhelmingly positive one. I spent one week in Wytham Woods near Oxford in 2010 with the environmental NGO Earth Watch when I was employed at HSBC. Time was spent collecting data on moths (I didn’t realize there were so many different species) and measuring tree growth in the fragmented woodlands nearby. Not only did I learn a great deal about climate change impacts on native species, but it also brought people together from many different backgrounds and countries and all in a fun environment. Because the programme continued over several years assisted by many dozens of citizen scientists, more data was collected than could ever have been achieved by a team of dedicated researchers.

Air pollution is a hot topic for London. The Mayor of London has faced down several threats of fines from EU regulators due to air pollution along major transport arteries in the city. The Congestion Zone charge has probably had the single biggest effect on driving down air pollution in London. Hybrid buses, that use a combination of an electric battery and diesel engines on certain routes, are also to be commended. However, there needs to be more incentives for people to use sustainable transport. The roll out of a network of electric car charging points has been too slow so far. Green infrastructure needs to be developed further – not just to provide green spaces for health and leisure but also to increase biodiversity and improve air quality. Green walls absorb particulate matter (PM10s) from the air and act as a natural filter that can improve quality of life for asthma sufferers and the like. Urban sustainability is one of the ongoing photo projects I’m working on and I hope to raise awareness of initiatives such as urban farming and green infrastructure through photography. We need to engage school children on such issues and I believe that photography is a powerful way of achieving this. With camera in hand, your sense of sight is sharpened many-fold and you find yourself wanting to share your vision of the world with others.

Green wall outside Edgware Road tube station

Green wall outside Edgware Road tube station

Improving air quality and reducing CO2 emissions go hand in hand. The threat to remove climate change from the curriculum is very real. Under new education guidelines by Michael Gove, UK Secretary of State for Education, climate change will be dropped from the National Curriculum for students under 14 (Michael Gove: Don’t scrap climate change education). There is also a chronic shortage of scientists and engineers that are needed to make the UK a world leader in technological innovation for the green sector. No doubt that lack of investment in our education system is one reason for this. Our schools need to form more partnerships with the private sector and in particular with NGOs such as LSX. We need interactive and fun activities both in and out of the classroom.  We owe it to our future generation if not to ourselves.

What can you do?

The Bubble Day activities are part of the LSX Cleaner Air for Manor House Schools project, part of a wider project called PACT, Prepare, Adapt, Connect and Thrive. Over the next three years, this project aims to promote simple and practical lifestyle changes, which prepare the Manor House community for challenges associated with climate change. PACT is also looking for local people interested in volunteering as PACT Champions. This is a great way to learn new skills and to learn about climate change. For volunteer opportunities, please contact Trish Disbrey at Volunteer Centre Hackney on 0207 2414443 or at Trish@vchackney.org

Rural | Urban – An exhibition review on sustainability

Rural Urban exhibition at Somerset House, London in May 2013

Rural Urban exhibition at Somerset House, London in May 2013

Somerset House is currently leading the way in London as a venue for exhibiting photography at the highest level. Bright rooms with quaint fireplaces and views through large windows onto playful water-fountains make for a pleasant viewer experience. The latest installment “Rural | Urban” follows hot on the heels of the Sony World Photography Awards to explore the relationship and tensions between rural and urban environments. A truly pan-world issue in our globalized society that affects just about everyone, it deserves greater attention on the world stage and a sensitive treatment of the challenges we all face.

The very words “rural-urban” force you to rethink the whole debate and I find myself wanting to make a conscious effort to never utter (or type for that matter) the rather backward phrase “urban-rural” again. It also follows a certain logic – the migration of people, resources, and talent – that is happening around the world. The tagline to the exhibition, “In search of balance”, is equally as revealing as the title. I’m not so sure if the exhibition fulfilled this promise or even fully committed to exploring it. Much is talked of sustainability today but not many people are aware of the full meaning of the concept. “In search of balance” is a much easier notion to communicate and identify with. Perhaps too much focus was given to portraying obvious imbalances and tensions although I recognize that much of the debate is skewed in this way. However, I think that by portraying harmony and equilibrium more effectively, it can reinforce all the more those examples that lack such qualities.

The installation of such a large exhibition to be shown to the public for just four days is somewhat baffling. This may be the inaugural exhibition where the sponsors are testing the waters but nonetheless, it deserved to open with a bang and not a whimper. After all, this exhibition has a strong message to impart to the public and so needs to ensure that it reaches as wide an audience as possible. It may be that other larger follow-up exhibitions are planned but I think that the sponsors missed an opportunity to make a real impact from the outset. It didn’t appear to me that budget was a major concern based on the printing, framing and “landscaping” of the exhibition and although Somerset House is a prestigious and well-visited venue, I feel that it would have made sense to hold elsewhere if a longer tenure could have been secured. Logistics aside, perhaps it shows a certain lack of confidence from the sponsors. It is worth noting that Syngenta, a global Swiss agrochemical company, has a somewhat controversial public image to protect due to debate over use of its pesticides and biotechnology research. I have no intention of making this review political as there are others who will no doubt step into the breach and so for now, I will just say dear readers, that I am simply glad photographers have another outlet in which to show their work and achieve recognition.

The work of both the professional commission and open competition winners was outstanding (with the possible exception of Andre Francois, whose work did nothing for me). Holly Lynton is particularly deserving of worthy mention. Her images stood out in similar way to Jan Brykcynski of Poland in that they communicated the uneasy relationship between Man and Nature, the Rural and the Urban, on a more personal level. Somewhat more debatable was the quality and curation of themed images. The conventional approach of organizing pictures around a theme is rather clichéd I feel in this day and age, although I understand the need to achieve cohesion both within and across the exhibition. Even if the ultimate aim is to raise awareness of specific issues, there are surely cleverer ways of doing this. Urban sprawl, migration, infrastructure, greener cities, food production and deforestation were all represented, some more than others. Anna Beeke’s “Mimic”, a water tank trying to blend in with its surroundings and Arjen Schmitz’s “Hong Kong” that perhaps encapsulated the rural-urban divide best of all, were personal highlights for me. On the other hand, certain images such as the Didcot B power station at night were intentionally oversaturated to enhance the rural-urban effect but did no favours for the photographer’s work.

Several glaring omissions were evident if we stick with the theme-oriented approach. Renewable energy infrastructure, most often located in rural environments to provide for urban populations, and the fate of the planet’s oceans and waterways which cover the majority of the earth’s surface, both deserved a place. Likewise, the farming community was under represented and the greener cities theme could have been expanded to address this. In fact, communities in general were notable for their absence. Even the people-centric theme of “Migration” portrayed the solitary individual struggling to eke out an existence without paying homage to the new communities that they have formed and those that they have left behind. I, for one, would like to explore the rural-urban divide along such lines and have already started a project with this aim. Dalston vs. Dalston takes a look at two very different communities that share the same name – one in the tranquil surroundings of Cumbria next to the scenic Lake District in England, the other in my gritty inner city neighbourhood of East London.

Migration

Migration

Of particular commendation was the inclusion of living installations in some of the rooms. The open refrigerator with capsicum plant was perhaps a little too over-the-top but the grass-lined wall and indoor garden with surrounding bench did add a touch of rural to the urban environment. I feel that this approach could have been explored further to not only create a sense of tranquility and harmony but also to portray the unease and tension between the rural and the urban. This should not take away from the photography but I believe it could enhance the overall visitor experience and allow them to interpret the images on another level. Rural | Urban is worth comparing with another recent exhibition in London exploring a similar theme in order to give some perspective. The Environmental Photographer of the Year (EPOTY) award at the Royal Geographical Society in April was rather disappointing. Aside from an obvious lack of budget that did no justice to the photographers’ work, there was also a notable lack of imagination in the overall curation of the exhibition. Images were invariably too small and too uniform in size with no ebb and flow of energy thus removing any impact and leaving the viewer with a very flat experience. Perspex frames dehumanized the images and left me feeling rather cold not just towards the images but also towards the issues they were trying to portray. Another niggle for me was the obvious overlap – must we see yet another image from Bangladesh, another over-packed train? And some selections were frankly baffling and totally misplaced in this exhibition (e.g. Beach pleasure by Andrzej Bochenski). As a first attempt, Rural | Urban has done rather well but should strive for far more.

Adding a touch of rural to the urban

Adding a touch of rural to the urban

Perhaps the biggest photography prize in the field of sustainability and the environment is the Prix Pictet, which showed at the Saatchi Gallery in London last Autumn (read my review here). This is where the big guns come out to claim the richest prizes and perhaps Syngenta are looking to challenge this title at some point. Even if not, theirs is a welcome addition to this under-represented and globally significant topic in the annual awards calendar. It is also heartening to see that photography has a greater outlet for environmental documentary and artistic expression today. However, it’s important that such work gets out of the galleries and onto the streets to make it more accessible to the general public. Outdoor shows such as the Hard Rain exhibition at St Martins in the Field next to Trafalgar Square in Central London come to mind. I would also like to see more events organized around such exhibitions and not just the predictable public speaking by established photographers. Again, the aim should be to make photography more accessible and to raise awareness of the issues being portrayed to a much wider cross-section of society. In the case of Somerset House, they could use their extensive frontage onto the Thames visible from the Southbank and a large square that already draws crowds in the winter with its ice rink, to lure people into the galleries. Photography has an opportunity to lead the way in how it engages with its audiences over other more established art forms such as painting or sculpture.

Will society continue to become increasingly more urbanized after mid-century? Or perhaps the next evolution in the rural-urban debate will be the breakdown of borders on the way to becoming “rurban”? Whatever the result, I certainly hope photography will be there to inform, enlighten and inspire all the way.

View images from the exhibition here

Exploring the visual impact of wind farms on landscape

Harvesting wind in Somerton, Norfolk

Harvesting wind in Somerton, Norfolk

East Anglia lies at the heart of a heated debate on the expansion of onshore wind farms across England. The battle to secure or defeat planning applications for new wind turbines is in the balance, as the following two stories illustrate. In May 2012, a High Court judge ruled that it is “not correct to assert that the UK national policy promoting the use of renewable resources negates the local landscape policies or must be given ‘primacy’ over them”. The small community of Hemsby, Norfolk had defended the countryside against the unwelcome “invasion” of four 105-metre high turbines. This judgment provided the inspiration for my decision to choose Norfolk and East Anglia as the starting point for a photography project that explores the visual impact of wind power on the landscape. Fast-forward to January 2013 and take a short drive through the pleasant Norfolk countryside to the communities of Bagthorpe and Stanhoe. An application to erect 11 turbines on two wind farms reached the High Court again. But this time the same judge, Mrs. Justice Lang, rejected claims that the turbines would spoil views from nearby Bloodgate Hill Fort (it should be mentioned that no structure or ruins actually exist here).

A multitude of reasons are put forth for opposing wind farms but the truth behind many claims is simply that some people don’t like the look of them (Why there’s only one honest objection to wind farms). Ill-informed or misleading attempts to discredit technology, cost, subsidies and efficiency are often used to disguise the true reason for opposition. Having said that, visual impacts of wind farms on landscape are certainly a legitimate concern and deserve to be debated in an open and transparent way. After all, does landscape not inspire us, inform our sense of identity, nurture our soul, and underpin our quality of life?

Now time for some number crunching to dispel myths and inaccuracies on the size of the wind industry. The UK Wind Energy Database (UKWED) is the most comprehensive source of data on wind power in the country. It currently lists 370 wind farms containing more than 4,300 wind turbines across the whole of the UK (both onshore and offshore). These generate around seven gigawatts of power and save almost seven million tonnes of CO2 that would otherwise be generated by fossil fuels. The East of England, which includes East Anglia, has 24 operational wind farms with 253 turbines, 87 of which are onshore (an average onshore wind farm contains just four turbines). A further 110 turbines (77 onshore) are currently under construction and another 84 turbines (83 onshore) already have planning consent. In all, we are looking at a potential 247 wind turbines onshore spread across the second largest region of England. Too many for some people, but to put this in perspective, the single largest onshore wind farm in Scotland (Whitelee) has 140 turbines with construction of a further 75 turbines due to be completed next month. That said, visual impact on landscape is not a simple numbers game.

So where do the leading organizations that champion the English landscape stand on the visual impact of wind farms? Before we go any further, it should be noted that all the organizations mentioned in this article have taken an official position that recognizes the need for positive action on climate change. Leading the charge is the environmental charity, Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), which claims to be “standing up for the countryside for over 80 years”.  The acclaimed author Bill Bryson, is currently President of the CPRE and happens to live in Wramplingham in rural Norfolk. A recent newspaper article in the Telegraph quotes him as saying that, “the wave of planning applications for wind turbines across the country risks unacceptable damage to the landscape; to localism and people’s confidence in the planning system; and, ultimately, to the battle against climate change”. Ironically, the English countryside is already losing the war against climate change due to extreme weather events, such as flooding, with 2012 officially classed as the wettest year in England on record. More on localism and confidence in the planning system later.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) leads the UK as a whole in terms of publically available guidance with a well-written and comprehensive document, “Siting and Designing wind-farms in the landscape”. Their process of assessing landscape and visual impacts is rigorous and easy to follow. English Heritage appears to play a much more limited role than it’s Scottish counterpart with respect to landscape, focusing solely on the historic environment and cultural heritage. The last report available on their website to address the issue is dated from 2005 (Wind Energy and the Historic Environment). Similarly, the Landscape Institute (LI) has not updated its guidance since the publication of “Guidelines for Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment” in 2002, although it has posted a number of responses to reports from other organizations such as the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Incidentally, the LI is an educational charity and chartered body for landscape architects that champions the protection, conservation and enhancement of the natural and built environment.

Stepping into the void is Natural England, the public body with statutory responsibility for protecting and improving England’s natural environment. Their 2010 report “Making space for renewable energy: assessing onshore wind energy development” calls on the Government to allow local planning authorities and the Planning Inspectorate to put greater emphasis on local plans when making decisions. In theory, a county council should have a deeper understanding of local landscape and the residents that are part of it but local politics is far more complex than that. Just how can the UK meet its own carbon reduction targets under the Climate Change Act unless it adopts a strategic approach at national level that recognizes wind farms have to be built somewhere? I recognise that some people firmly believe onshore wind farms should not be built at all but offshore is still too expensive, and no other renewable energy source currently exists that is scalable and relatively affordable today. Unfortunately, local communities are largely not the beneficiaries of wind power (apart from landowners) and until public policy is changed, local communities and councils will continue to be naturally predisposed to oppose wind farm development.

Let’s take a look at the process behind making a decision on the landscape impacts of wind farms. A Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment (LVIA) is a standard process of examining the landscape and visual effects of a development. This is most often performed by a Chartered Landscape Architect in a structured and consistent way using professional judgment. An LVIA is usually required for every wind farm proposal regardless of whether a larger Environmental Impact Assessment is carried out. Visual tools such as photographs, photomontages and Zone of Theoretical Visibility (ZTV) maps are used to present the information clearly and concisely for all to understand. The local planning authority then makes a decision to reject or approve planning consent based on all of the evidence gathered (economic, technical, environmental). A disappointed applicant has the right to appeal to the Secretary of State, where a Planning Inspector is normally appointed to review the application. A further level of appeal is possible in the High Court.

Natural England assesses landscape and visual impact by taking statutory protected sites, landscape character and historic and culture heritage into account. Landscape character is the result of the unique combination of elements that makes one place different from another including geology and ecology, culture and history, aesthetics and perception. A Landscape Character Assessment (LCA) tries to objectify judgments but there will always be subjectivity when dealing with aesthetics and perception. The sense of relative remoteness, tranquility, artistic, literary and historic associations are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify as they vary from person to person. Nevertheless, the CPRE has attempted to quantify “tranquility” by producing a colour-coded map largely according to the urban/rural divide and plotting wind farms alongside.

CPRE published a dedicated report with recommendations in April 2012, “Generating light on landscape impacts: How to accommodate onshore wind while protecting the countryside”. Their website expresses a vision where green energy is in harmony with the landscape; increasingly in small-scale networks which benefit local communities and minimize damage to the environment. However, small-scale networks are potentially more damaging to the landscape and make less efficient use of infrastructure, as more grid connections, access roads, substations and pylons need to be constructed. Additionally, extra caution is needed due to the greater cumulative effect on the landscape. SNH offers useful guidance on this topic suggesting that new wind farms should take into account existing ones, avoid dominating existing focal points or distinctive skylines and complement the landscape character in terms of positioning, extent and density. This ties in closely with the capacity of the landscape to absorb man-made structures such as wind turbines. Perhaps fewer and larger wind farms located in the most appropriate landscapes could be a better solution overall? Or well-dispsersed if on a small-scale that benefits local communities?

CPRE has expressed its concern that wind farms “are increasingly being directed towards more remote, tranquil areas”. The Lake District in Cumbria stands out as one protected region that has a cluster of wind farms lying close to the northwest edge of the Park. One reason for this is public opposition by local residents to proposals for wind turbines near inhabited areas. The UK has precious few wilderness areas confined largely to remote parts of Scotland and a handful of large National Parks. Such landscapes are most sensitive to any human footprint no matter whether a whitewashed bungalow, an electricity pylon or even a wind turbine. England currently has no legal separation distance between housing and wind turbines, although an independent study on noise limits suggest a minimum distance of 350 metres. In Scotland, which is much less densely populated than England, the recommended distance is 2km and this figure drops to 500m in Wales. If England were to follow Scotland’s lead (some councils such as Lincolnshire are already pushing for this), then it would force wind farms into ever more rural and remote landscapes thus destroying the unique visual amenity that these few remaining landscapes provide. A concerted campaign of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) means that onshore wind turbines are either pushed into (or close to) uninhabited and protected landscapes, or they are not built at all.

We need to recognize that since the UK has the highest population density of any large country in Europe, rural communities and wind farm developers have a greater likelihood of coming into conflict as they compete for access to limited land resource. This article does not intend to debate the potential solutions to this conflict although it would appear that there is a need to increase community engagement in renewable energy. Two-thirds of turbines are owned by individuals and local communities in Germany where acceptance of wind farms is unsurprisingly far greater than in the UK (only 10% of wind farms are community owned here). A change in government policy to incentivize community ownership could be one way of encouraging people to view wind farms differently. Nevertheless concerns about the visual impact of wind turbines  on landscape character are real and should be respected. The current process for assessing such impacts may not be perfect but at least it has been formalized and is open to influence by the main stakeholders already mentioned. Sensitive landscapes such as National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest should continue to be rigorously protected when reviewing wind farm applications. But it is in the bordering areas and in the open countryside where the greatest risk of conflict lies.  One thing is for sure; the debate is far from over.

 

Can Obama deliver on climate change in his second term in office?

 

Navajo coal-burning power plant near the entrance to Antelope Canyon in Arizona

Navajo coal-burning power plant near the entrance to Antelope Canyon in Arizona

President Obama’s inauguration speech yesterday gave some well-needed hope to the environmental movement by signaling that he is prepared to take action on climate change during his second term in office. It’s fair to say that many commentators and the wider public were caught on the hop. Obama’s silence on the issue during re-election campaigning has been noteworthy. And yet he devoted an entire paragraph (13 lines) to climate change in yesterday’s speech compared to just a single line in his first term inaugural speech 4 years ago. Back then he pledged, “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” This sentence appears poetic, almost biblical as if he was prophesizing a future that could only be achieved by divine intervention. It also seems rather distant and disconnected from reality.

This time round, he spells out the consequences of inaction. On the squandered employment opportunities by failing to invest in renewable technology, he exhorts that, “We must claim its promise”. Indeed such inaction on the part of the US is allowing other nations such as Germany, South Korea and China to steal a march. Despite some pragmatism, his speech still carries religious undertones as he talks about “how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God”. In this regard, it appears that he is attempting to reach out to Republicans by reframing the debate on climate change as a duty to God and country to protect “our national treasure, our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow capped peaks”. However, if someone refuses to believe that man-made climate change is even real, then this new narrative is something of a dead-end. Instead, we could be listening to Obama’s own personal convictions. Obama knows only too well that just four years remain to make history and to be remembered not just for the colour of his skin but also for the legacy he leaves behind. As a family man with two young daughters, there is little doubt that they are a driving force and inspiration that reinforces his personal conviction to tackle climate change. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”. Fine words indeed but is he actually able to deliver on them?


The President of the United States may be billed as the most powerful man in the world but if Obama really does possess superpowers, then the Republican Party is surely his kryptonite.  The GOP controls the House of Representatives and has vowed to frustrate any attempts to pass legislation that harms the fossil fuel industry and other backers of the party. Even some within his own party have yet to be convinced of the need for action on climate change. A Cap-and-Trade bill proposed during his first term was defeated even at a time when the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress.  Perhaps this was for the better, as European attempts to control carbon emissions using the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) have failed miserably so far. The current price of carbon is trading at a measly five euros with carbon allowances flooding the markets. Hardly a meaningful incentive for power plants and heavy industry to curb their carbon emissions.


It would appear that Obama is ready to take a new tack on climate change this time round. The American political system has become so polarized in recent years that attempts at seeking consensus are futile. So rather than trying to take such a radical measure as creating a carbon market in the US, the President is likely to take a more measured approach that allows him to make full use of his executive powers that do not require congressional approval. Rather than aiming high and making little or no progress, he will most likely set his sights lower at a more modest but achievable set of targets. No doubt he and his advisors know only too well the limits of their power after four years in office. This approach obviously has a very real downside in that tinkering at the edges will not achieve the change necessary to reduce carbon emissions in time. Options already on the table are the regulation of carbon as a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Air Act and a tightening of energy efficiency measures such as the automotive fuel-efficiency standards, which are due to increase to more than 54 miles per gallon by 2025. One way of exploiting his executive decree and thereby circumventing Congress would be to veto the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposed to deliver oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the heartlands of America. Pressure exerted by Canadian conservatives and US states with oil refineries is likely to be intense. Tar sands have a much greater carbon footprint than even the dirtiest of fossil fuels (coal) and extraction methods scar huge swathes of virgin landscape, polluting rivers in the process. Energy security will most likely be cited as justification to support the project in a similar vein to fracking, which has also exploded onto the scene in recent years.


Obama will need to pick his battles carefully and so tighter regulation of fracking may be an alternative battleground to make a stand on climate change. The Washington Post proposes that EPA powers could be extended to regulate methane leaks from the burgeoning fracking industry. Fracking is a process whereby a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into fissures in shale rock to force natural gas up to the surface. Fracking technology has been one of the saving graces for the American economy in recent years, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in the barren plains of North Dakota where lights from the local fracking industry are now visible from space. Methane is 24 times more polluting than carbon dioxide when it comes to climate change. Any methane that escapes is therefore likely to undo much of the benefit associated with burning natural gas that is “cleaner” than coal.  Equally any attempt to impose additional costs on “frackers” that could make the industry less competitive are likely to result in stalemate. The EPA already has the authority to regulate CO2 thanks to a 2007 Supreme Court decision. However, this only applies to future power plants and not the existing ones, which are responsible for a whopping 40% of the nation’s carbon emissions. Any action to clamp down on power utilities and the fossil fuel industry will no doubt be vigorously contested in the courts. As an outsider, I’m always amazed by the apparent injustice of the American legal system in the hands of obscenely well-paid lawyers who can defeat legislation on some obscure technicality.


One concern is about how many concessions the EPA will be forced to make as it seeks to implement the Clean Air Act. The New York Times reported last week that the Navajo Generating station in Arizona secured a further 5-year extension from the EPA meaning that it now doesn’t have to implement controls on nitrogen oxides until 2023. I was fortunate to visit the US Southwest last March and as I approached the spectacular Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona, I was greeted by the sight of three towering chimney stacks belching smoke high into the blue skies above pristine red-rock country. The 2,200MW plant provides electricity for customers in California, Nevada and Arizona and provides valuable employment for many Native Americans belonging to the Navajo Nation. But the owners will need to invest in the region of $1 billion to install new catalytic reduction technology to render nitrogen oxides harmless. Are they any more likely to be able to afford the costly upgrade in 10 years time than they are today? And will they be able to afford to meet new and separate requirements on reducing carbon dioxide emissions? Here is a clear example of the true cost associated with fossil fuels, which are largely externalized. Nitrogen oxides not only have health impacts but also contribute to much of the haze that hangs over the Grand Canyon, obscuring breath-taking views. Similarly carbon emissions are directly responsible for the far greater (and as yet unknown) costs of adapting to future climate change and responding to the impacts of extreme weather today.

For now we can only cling to the US President’s every word in hope and attempt to read deeper meaning into those solitary 13 lines of his inaugural speech. We will need to wait until the State of the Union address in February to get a better indication of what real and meaningful action Obama plans to take and whether he is serious about creating a legacy for himself on this issue. In 2009, the President pledged to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. Many experts think this is far too little, too late from the world’s second largest polluter. Right now, there’s probably more than a few concerned environmentalists who would settle for second prize.

Chasing Ice proves that seeing really is believing

SA Agulhas passes through Tower Bridge in London on Dec 6, 2012 bound for an Antarctica expedition. “Seeing is Believing” is a a charity for avoidable blindness.

Chasing Ice – the very title appears to be a contradiction in terms. Ice is frozen water, frozen implies not moving, stuck in time and place. So how can you chase something that doesn’t move? This is the basic premise that veteran photographer James Balog and 28-year old film director, Jeff Orlowski set out to answer in the critically acclaimed documentary of the year, which previewed last night at the Curzon Soho in London. In the process, they have provided the most dramatic visual evidence of climate change in action captured to date.

Chasing Ice triumphs over audiences by virtue of its truly stunning cinematography. An iceberg equivalent in size to all of Lower Manhattan (except twice as tall as its tallest buildings) breaks away from Greenland’s Ilulissat glacier in the greatest such event ever captured on camera. The calving ice twists and turns in the water, rolling over to expose its underbelly, reminiscent of a whale breaching in the open ocean. Putting on a ballet performance to the sound of classical music, although there was no soundtrack, only the deep rumble of unimaginable natural forces, which deserved to have the volume cranked up to full. Edward Burlynsky’s images of industrial landscapes elicit the same uneasy response – a hypnotic attraction to the beauty in a scene of destruction and devastation. I found this unique footage to be eerily reminiscent of the 2011 tsunami in Japan in terms of the sheer scale of destruction, the similar displacement of huge volumes of seawater, and the unique footage captured. Although the impact on human populations is far more subtle, sea level rise due to climate change is a slow burner that could potentially displace more than 100 million people by the end of the century.

Undoubtedly, the greatest single success is Balog’s time-lapse photography, without which the movie would be meaningless. Time-lapse is a technique that speeds up a sequence of imperceptibly slow movements to give the impression of a continuous moving picture edited from footage captured over days, months and even years. Balog’s photo project, known as the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), comprises cameras set up in 27 remote sites from Greenland to Alaska that allow us to bear witness to the ice advancing ever so slightly in the depths of winter only to retreat in spectacular fashion. It’s hard to fathom how a technique that has been around for over a century has only now been applied to the movement of ice. Even other nature documentaries such as “The Private Life of Plants”, a series narrated by David Attenborough, used time-lapse as far back as 1995 when the connection between climate change and melting ice was already widely recognized. Nevertheless all credit to Balog for getting a team together to finally bring the project to life.

Ice is by its very nature cold, inhospitable and unforgiving. It was always going to be a massive challenge to illicit an emotional reaction from the public towards what are essentially massive blocks of ice sliding into the water. There were no cuddly polar bears or dancing penguins on show, neither were there Inuit fishing communities nor Sami reindeer herders. As a consequence, this heaped pressure on Balog’s personal story to deliver with emotional impact whilst at the same time not detracting from the main narrative of the melting ice. A task that is equally as tricky as hiking across a crevasse-strewn ice field and one in which I’m not convinced this movie succeeded in living up to. The determination of Balog to overcome technical glitches, his repeated knee operations and spurning of medical advice, the glimpses of family life, somehow didn’t come together to instill one coherent emotional response in the viewer. It could be argued that since this is a movie about chasing ice and climate change, we should not be distracted by a personal story. But in my opinion, both should blend seamlessly with each element reinforcing the other in order for the movie to succeed as a whole.

Chasing Ice is the 28 year old director’s first foray into a full-length feature and I can’t help but wonder why the task wasn’t left to a more seasoned veteran. Whilst the cinematography is breathtaking, the editing was found rather wanting. The clever use of scale to help the audience comprehend the epic nature of the ice-scapes shown on the screen and the before/after shots were certainly commendable. However, scientific facts and figures felt imposed on the viewer and there was a lack of inventiveness in sharing climate change data through the more cutting edge infographics and animation that audiences have come to expect today. Similarly, footage of Balog’s lecture tour didn’t manage to create the buzz of excitement that should have left cinema audiences wanting to replicate for themselves once they left the theatre. Climate change is not a light topic and despite the stunning imagery and my deep admiration for Balog, it was hard not to feel somewhat dejected about the future of the ice and our Planet as a whole.

It is important to draw a distinction between what this movie is trying to achieve and its role in the broader debate on the need for action on climate change. To my mind, the greatest success of this movie is to clearly show climate change in action. Seeing is believing after all. Climate change is often described as an abstract issue that people find difficult to identify with. The main pollutant (CO2) is invisible, the timescales involved are difficult to appreciate in our fast-paced world, and competing factors make the direct link between cause and effect difficult to prove. Chasing Ice has come as close as it is possible to overcoming such obstacles. Balog has provided us with the proverbial smoking gun on climate change that hundreds of the world’s greatest scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have sought long and hard to find. Rigorous peer-reviewed scientific data is an absolute necessity but translating that message into one that can be understood by Joe Bloggs on the street requires visual proof that we can all relate to easily.  Many people will identify with James Balog’s steely determination (myself amongst them) to pursue and expose the truth about the rate of change to the great icescapes of the world. But as far as I’m concerned, Chasing Ice is not about to inspire the wider public to change their behaviour and actions to follow a more environmentally sustainable path – even though this is what we need. Behavioural change is notoriously difficult and I cannot think of a single other documentary movie that has had a global far-reaching impact on a social or environmental issue of the same scale as climate change. So my advice is not to expect or demand such a thing from this movie if you don’t want to be left disappointed.

Chasing Ice will no doubt be used by NGOs such as Greenpeace in future campaigns against oil exploration in the High Arctic. Balog and his Earth Vision Trust (EVT), which aims to provide the visual evidence that inspires a billion people to change their view of our impact on the natural environment, should deservedly achieve a higher profile. Crucially, EVT hopes to screen Chasing Ice to one million high school and college students – those who will make future decisions on, and will live with the consequences of climate change. One of the greatest challenges for the movie will be to move out of the art-house cinemas and into the mainstream theatres. The launch of a documentary on climate change is certainly timely with the Arctic summer ice shrinking to its lowest extent ever in 2012 and the threat of oil exploration in the Arctic greater than ever. American audiences are also likely to be more sympathetic to the storyline in light of the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Sandy and the extreme drought afflicting many states last summer. However, I would question the wisdom of a release date (currently showing in many US theatres and about to show in the UK) in the build up to the holiday season, when competition is fierce from Christmas features and Hollywood blockbusters such as Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. Although perhaps this movie can reach a wider audience in the New Year on the basis that it succeeds in the smaller theatres now.

I believe that it will be Balog’s wider legacy that will have greatest impact in the longer term and that the Chasing Ice documentary is just one part of this. The best-case scenario to result from the movie is that it raises climate change back up the political agenda in the US. It should also be remembered that man-made climate change is still disputed by a surprisingly large proportion of the American populace. Civilian society, campaigners, and sympathetic lobbyists can use its visual evidence to shame politicians into taking action on climate change, such as by strengthening environmental legislation. A political solution is not the only approach nor is it necessarily the most effective, but perhaps it is the most realistic outcome that can be achieved by this documentary. Scientists have been criticized in the past for not communicating their story in a convincing fashion to the general public. Vested interests such as Big Oil have succeeded in spinning the argument and running rings around conventional scientific opinion in the minds of the public. We need more communicators of Balog’s ilk to sway public opinion towards believing in a cause and taking real action on climate change. Success is measured in terms of who tells not just the best story but also the most believable one. Photography is a powerful weapon in the hands of a skillful and visionary individual in search of the truth. James Balog is one such man.

Useful links –

http://chasingice.co.uk

http://www.jamesbalog.com

http://extremeicesurvey.org

Using wetlands to protect New York City from future flooding disasters

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge part of the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge part of the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York

For those looking for solitude and a slice of beach-life within the confines of New York City, Breezy Point is without doubt an attractive proposition. Located near the tip of the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, it faces onto the Atlantic Ocean on two sides with the Rockaway Point Boulevard as the only access route, unless you have a boat that is. The wooden bungalows follow a tightly packed street grid shaped like a wedge and with no natural firebreaks. Both factors contributed to be the most devastating fire in New York City for 150 years when more than 111 properties were destroyed in a single night exactly one month today (October 29, 2012).

Sandwiched between Fort Tilden and Jacob Riis Park to the North-east and Breezy Point Tip to the South-west, the largely summertime settlement of Breezy Point interrupts what would otherwise be a 4.5 mile long stretch of relatively undeveloped parkland, beach and strangely enough a parking lot for 5,000 cars. Lax planning laws and subsidized insurance premiums that neglected to price the true risk from flooding and other disasters allowed the birth of a new middle-class community at Breezy Point in the 1960s. A cooperative was formed with its own private security force and no fewer than 3 volunteer fire departments, which ironically were of little use when Hurricane Sandy struck land. Today it is home to the 2nd highest concentration of Irish-Americans in the US comprising 60.3% of the local population. Sandy has not only burned their homes to a cinder but has also potentially ripped apart an entire community. As an Irishman in exile myself, I could also have been easily lured to the shores of what is affectionately referred to as the Irish Riviera or “Cois Farraige” (Gaelic for “by the seaside”).

Breezy Point is the more affordable alternative to the well-healed communities further along the Atlantic coast in places like the Hamptons on Long Island. However, this is likely to change due to stricter planning requirements in newly mapped flood hazard zones making it affordable only for the rich. Insurance premiums are likely to increase by 20% per year according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with the National Flood Insurance Programme already mired in debt to the tune of $18 billion in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Building urban resilience is not just about investing in the right kinds of infrastructure but also about building sustainable communities that can afford to support themselves now and into the future, based on the true cost of potential natural disasters due to climate change.

One alternative, albeit a controversial one, is the notion that the entire neighbourhood of Breezy Point should be allowed to revert to Nature as part of a strategic withdrawal. Replacing residential and commercial land uses with spaces safe to be flooded is a technique called “managed retreat”. Brooklyn Bridge Park is one good example. However, this is unlikely to appeal to the fighting spirit of those who are instilled with the belief that it is unpatriotic to submit to an enemy. A recent headline in USA Today exclaimed “Breezy Point: Drowned, burned, but unbowed”. Breezy Point is largely a community of retirees with a population that triples during the summer months. Relocation with compensation could be possible but that is unlikely to pay for the break up of an entire community and a lost paradise. This only serves to underline the importance of getting planning laws in order so that homes such as those at Breezy Point are never built in the first place. President Obama has pledged to rebuild storm-torn neighbourhoods in Queens and Staten Island – but is this really the best way forward?

I was fortunate to visit New York for the month of July when I fought hard not to succumb to the seductive lights of Manhattan and instead took a path less travelled in search of urban nature lying within the city boundaries. Two of the sites I happened to visit, Jamaica Bay and Great Kills Park, reopened to the public only recently. These are part of a network of eleven parks that comprise the Gateway National Recreation Area visited by 10 million people annually and managed by the National Park Service. Fort Tilden, Jacob Riis Park and Breezy Point Tip on the Rockaway Peninsula are other outposts of this network. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Brooklyn is just a stone’s throw from the busy skies of JFK International Airport – an unlikely location for a birdlife haven in the US North-east. I took a stroll around the park in the searing summer heat through extensive salt marshes, spotting white egrets, Canadian geese and an abundance of horseshoe crabs along the way. The freshwater West Pond I walked along has since been breached by the sea in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, leaving local wildlife in a precarious position. I entered the visitor’s centre, which is housed in an energy efficient Gold LEED certified building, and asked one of the rangers about climate change adaptation in the park. He described how the island marshes in Jamaica Bay are disappearing due to sea-level rise and erosion. Now he has a whole new set of problems to address as the impacts of climate change are felt on an entirely new scale.

But although New York’s wetlands have taken a battering by Sandy, they are actually a key defence for the protection of the city’s citizens against future flooding disasters. Wetlands provide natural flood control by temporarily holding and absorbing floodwater, reducing the energy of storm surges and helping to control erosion of the shoreline. They also provide critical habitat for fish and birdlife, as well as unique opportunities for recreation and education within the confines of a bustling metropolis. They even sequester some of the CO2 in the atmosphere that causes climate change and the resultant predisposition to severe weather. In 2009, PlaNYC published a report entitled “New York City Wetlands: Regulatory Gaps and Other Threats”. Although the NYC Park System includes more than 10,000 aces of undeveloped forest, tidal and freshwater wetlands, the city has only 1% of its historic freshwater wetlands and 10% of its historic tidal wetlands. The Wetlands Transfer Task Force (WTTF) found that the extent of smaller wetlands, which are outside the protection of the State and Federal Law, is unknown. Detailed mapping of these small wetlands is a critical next step using satellite imagery and aerial photography.  Another key step they proposed was to identify areas where natural expansion of tidal wetlands is likely and possible. Leading New York architectural firm, Architecture Research Office (ARO), who proposed enhancing soft infrastructure along New York’s waterfront, lends further weight to this argument. Impacts to New Orleans and other communities along the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina were in part due to development decisions that reduced wetlands and the natural protections from storm surge that they provide.

Soft infrastructure comprises initiatives such as the restoring and building of wetlands, porous pavements and offshore natural reefs as opposed to hard infrastructure, which includes building levees, dykes and sea-walls. For instance, ARO propose creating a “soft edge” around Lower Manhattan where the borders between land and water are blurred by an artificial wetland. The terms “hard” and “soft” can also be extended to personalities – confrontation versus collaboration – the US Army Corps of Engineers on one side facing a coalition of landscape architects, ecologists and creative-thinkers. Governor Andrew M Cuomo recently declared his support for building a seawall to protect New Yorkers, whereas Mayor Michael R Bloomberg is predisposed towards investment in soft infrastructure. But the cost of building storm surge gates at key-points such as the Verrazano Narrows and the Arthur Kill could cost a staggering $23 billion. Building a seawall is an all-or-nothing approach – potentially lulling people into a false sense of security until they are one day breached. Sea level rise due to climate change is based on a set of predictions based on different scenarios that err of the side of caution. What if the scientists have underestimated the extent of melting polar ice and sea levels rise even further than predicted? Building new wetlands and restoring existing ones, which are allowed to flood and cushion residential areas and offices, is potentially a far more affordable approach.

Returning to the 500-acre Breezy Point, it is perhaps more obvious than ever that this small community, which is surrounded on two sides by the Gateway National Recreation Area, is no longer sustainable in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Maybe it is time to not only extend the Gateway National Recreation Area on Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, but to also consider expanding the network of soft infrastructure for flood defense across all New York boroughs? Hurricane Sandy may have hit Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn and Great Kills Park on Staten Island hard but they are reopening and will recover with time. Nature has a way of healing itself.

Useful Links –

USA Today –  Breezy Point: Drowned, burned, but unbowed

Architecture Research Office – Soft waterfront infrastructure

PlaNYC – New York City Wetlands report

Gateway National Recreation Area website