Understanding wetlands as curated spaces: emergent findings from the WetlandLIFE project

Research output: Other contribution


Understanding the importance of wetlands for human health and wellbeing has been a central focus within the WetlandLIFE project (www.wetlandLIFE.og) – a multi-partner, inter-disciplinary project which is part of the Valuing Nature research programme in the UK (www.valuing-nature.net). One of the project’s aims is to explore how more people can be supported to access and enjoy wetlands, to help them both appreciate these spaces as diverse ecosystems and to highlight the connectivity between human activity and, in its widest sense, environmental change. The project is now in its final year and all the research teams are analysing their data sets. Within the UK wetland expansion is being promoted for a wide range of reasons: in support of flood risk mitigation strategies; to improve air and water quality; in support of biodiversity corridors and diverse landscape mosaics; and to augment rural and urban local economies (www.wetlandvision.org) through the incomes generated through environmental tourism.

Sustainability is an inherent aspect of these considerations around wetlands. How we contextualise wetlands as a resource, both for their innate biophysical properties and their intrinsic value as spaces for supporting livelihoods in the global South and increasingly as leisure spaces in the global North, has direct implications for their visibility in policy arenas. Amplifying the critical contribution of these landscapes to human flourishing has never been more important. In support of this, a crucial element of WetlandLIFE’s work has been to explore the historical and contemporary perceptions of these spaces to undertsandand how these changes over time have enabled alternative valuations and uses of these blue-green landscapes.

Rehabilitating the image of wetlands has been a crucial aspect of this engagement. From malaria ridden swamps, and foreboding marshes and moors through to the ‘edgelands’ (Mayby 1974; Farley and Symmons Roberts 2011) of neither the urban or the bucolic rural, in European literature, at least, wetlands have been firmly placed in the realm of the ‘uncanny’. Not just unwelcoming but something more – unproductive, unwanted, unnecessary. These barren spaces unfit for humans, animals or agriculture have, until mid-last century, been viewed as unsustainable non-spaces, only fit for the mass engineering endeavours of drainage and dredging to repurpose them as productive landscape.

Clearly times and attitudes have changed, and as reflected in our project work these landscapes are now increasingly valued for their importance in a whole range of ways. This has been reflected in contemporary cultural representations, as nature writing and popular science has enabled a new and growing audience to see the fundamental importance of letting some spaces just ‘be’, in all their natural glory.

The work has alerted us to other considerations concerning landscapes over time. Wetlands have been used by humans in many different ways over time. Some have always been wetlands, but many have been reclaimed from coastal plains or constructed to replace other landscape forms or use. Certainly within England, which has been the geographical focus of the WetlandLIFE project, expanding urban spaces to create constructed wetlands from former brownfield sites or old industrial estates, or to replace unsustainable rural practices such as peat digging or aggregate removal, has generated curated ‘wildernesses’ in places of economic decay. Whilst this has enabled the development of wetland sites that attract visitors for the green-blue aesthetic qualities of these spaces, what has been often designed out are references to these former anthropocentric technical practices. In many places it’s as if the economic heritage of the site troubles its current form as wetland; and if deemed uncomfortable is erased completely. Caitlin Desilvey’s (2017) recent work has touched on this sensitive issue of legacy and how we wish to represent the present past to our future generations.

This is a fundamental consideration when we engage with sustainable futures practices and reflect upon what the legacy of our current ‘Sustainable Development’ approaches might be. Recognising the importance of past economic and industrial practices, both negatively and positively, needs to sit somewhat uncomfortably with our modern aspiration to live in accommodation with Earth’s systems. Providing visual cues of what went on in these wetland spaces before their reconfigurement is critical in order to remind us of what the global North is responsible for, what humanity has gained and lost, and what more we could lose without more entrenched responses in support of sustainability.

Within the WetlandLIFE project art has played a pivotal part not just in communicating our ideas and findings, but also in helping us as academics and practitioners within the team to reflect on our own relationships with wetlands. Curation of wetlands then doesn’t rest just with those responsible for the design, implementation and ongoing management of these spaces, but also with the academic community and the ways in which our own approaches subtly ‘curate’ perspectives of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ practise on these sites. A wider and more heterogeneous engagement with wetlands is needed. Opening out interpretations by enabling visitors to be curious within these spaces, by bringing back in the recent past through physical representations of foregone activities, could be one such method. Using examples from WetlandLIFE’s work that might mean creating one of the Bedford power station’s cooling towers remade with in-situ wetlands materials such as willow or reed on its former location; lining a drainage bank with antique hods in the Somerset Levels in reference to former peat extraction; creating a sculpture out of used artillery to recall the aircraft training sites in World War two at the Lincolnshire Alkborough Flats wetlands. Embracing heritage openly within these wetland spaces could, finally, provide them with the voice denied to them for so long.
Original languageEnglish
TypeContribution to International Sustainable Development Research Society members newsletter
Media of outputPrinted and online
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 16 Dec 2018


  • wetlands
  • wellbeing
  • post-industrial
  • sustainability
  • legacy


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