What do the arts bring to environmental governance?

I started out on this research journey thinking that ‘connectivity’ would be a key motif for understanding what the arts could bring to environmental governance. It turns out that connectivity is critical to more levels of the enquiry than I had anticipated. From connecting people to their physical environments, to bridging the philosophical divide between humanity and nature, and to connecting disciplines through inter- and trans-disciplinary collaborative endeavours, it appears that much can be gained by relinquishing old patterns of separation, reductionism, and isolated, disciplinary specialisations. The arts present a fantastic medium through which these old patterns can be challenged in favour of a reconnected approach to environmental management.

Participatory, community and public arts engagements that hold relevance to environmental governance occur throughout a broad range of research disciplines, from ecological economics through to arts education for sustainable development. Despite a diversity of research approaches, several crosscutting themes emerge that provide compelling justifications for the inclusion of the arts in environmental decision-making. Three of the main themes are place, knowledge, and culture.


Arts engagements can foster greater connectivity to place through building personal, emotional, and embodied relationships between people and their environments. The Mystic River mural project in Somerville, Massachusetts, provides a clear example of rebuilding relationships between community and environment. The mural project transforms a freeway retaining wall into an artistic exploration of the Mystic River’s ecology, history, and social and environmental importance. Each summer the mural project brings together local youth under the guidance of artist David Fichter, along with local historians and naturalists, to create new panels for the mural. The mural project serves a multiplicity of functions, from educational to capacity building, and from “the invisible harmony created among project participants” (Song and Gammel, 2011, p. 268) to the rebuilding of connectivity between the local community and the river ecology.

Other place-based arts projects include land-based events such as Noosa’s Floating Land festival, where artworks, situated in the environment, draw attention, interest and engagement to what may otherwise be overlooked ecosystems. Combining arts experiences, such as photography or drawing, with walking tours is another way for building connectivity with place, with Stroud’s Walking the Land projects providing an example of how the arts can be used in this context.

Inviting reflection and curiosity with land art in Oma Forest, Spain, by Agustín Ibarrola. Image by Simoncio – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6695775


“Art is familiar to most people as a source of entertainment, illustration, decoration. It is less familiar as a knowledge system and source of creative options that take equal place with other forms of systems theory and modeling.” Aviva Rahmani – (Ingram, 2012, pp. 31-32)

Aviva Rahmani’s pertinent words outline the value of the arts as knowledge negotiators. Notably, the process of arts engagement is as important as the products created.  Crafting, for example, requires manual skills and knowledge of materials to create artistic products. The process of crafting opens one up to experiential, learning-by-doing, or apprenticeship-style knowledge development that requires deeper understanding and engagement with materials and, by extension, the environments from which materials are derived. This tactile and engaged ‘way of knowing’ contrasts strongly with conventional ideas of knowledge transmission, which often views knowledge as a detached system of rational proofs to be transmitted via written texts.

Challenging the assumptions that underpin our everyday decision-making is a fundamental benefit of arts engagements. Modern decision-making is often based upon scientific, technical and rational approaches that persist in treating humans as separate from nature and persist in favouring anthropocentric priorities. Music and visual arts, by contrast, are both open to individual searches for meaning, allowing for deliberative and reflective engagement that does not require the quick acquisition of a “right” answer to problems posed. It is here, through other ‘ways of knowing’ that intuitive, affective, emotional and serendipitous discoveries can emerge to bring diversity to our approaches to environmental problems.

This also points to the willingness in the arts to engage with uncertainty and complexity. By not immediately sanitising uncertainty, by converting it into a quantified, future ‘risk’, arts processes willingly wade into uncertain spaces to engage, experiment and reroute pathways as necessary.


“By developing an ecology of imperfect, complimentary solutions, rather than striving to perfect a single one which might work in some indefinite future, we not only spread the risk, but open up possibilities to unexpected and previously unimagined outcomes.” Nik Gaffney – (Wilson, 2011, p. 14).

Culture represents a social and policy space in which arts engagements can be generated, fostered and promoted. Importantly, while these engagements may be fostered locally, they can be reinforced by connectivity and rapport with positive actions in other localities. As Nik Gaffney notes, above, the development of interconnected yet diverse processes for addressing environmental problems can create a resilient network of solutions, with each solution tailored to the specifics of local cultures and places.

The governance role in this situation is not to dictate or designate the usage of cultural spaces, but to find and make spaces available in which communities can connect and express their values.

Further connections

Across these three themes the arts present a range of contributions to the realm of environmental governance. There is scope, however, to explore additional themes such as complexity, uncertainty, and inter– and transdisciplinarity, and the ways in which arts engagements can extend our approaches to these ideas. The emergent field of environmental humanities also presents an opportunity to foster further investigations. The field’s affinity for sensitive methodological enquiries, through an eschewal of reductionist, rational decision-making frames in favour of richly cultural, philosophical, and nature-embedded views of humanity, makes it well-suited to exploring the roles that the arts can undertake in environmental governance.


Ingram, M. (2012). Sculpting Solutions: Art–Science Collaborations in Sustainability. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 54(4), 24-34.

Song, Y. I. K., & Gammel, J. A. (2011). Ecological mural as community reconnection. International Journal of Art & Design Education, 30(2), 266-278.

Wilson, C. (Ed.) (2011). Arts. Environment. Sustainability. How can culture make a difference? Singapore: The Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF).

Cover image by SimoncioOwn work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6696085

One Comment Add yours

  1. A great read James. I am sure COFA, UNSW would appreciate that you’re thinking about the importance of the arts in environmental education and governance on main campus! ^^

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