Rewilding on the Urban Fringe – A Proposal

Image – Edge of old peat cutting Walton Moss, Cumbria, UK.

A Proposal for working with art-making outdoors as a mode of discovery and discourse to support the process and practice of rewilding.


(I attended this excellent event A Natural Capital Lab on an urban fringe: challenges and possibilities on Jan 21st and made this proposal to work with art. To date no response to the proposal, but on reflection, I should have asked if there were any rewilding in the urban fringe projects currently running, or asked if anybody wanted to start one.)


My interest in rewilding on the urban fringe is prompted partly by my childhood living on the urban fringe in Derby, by my work in outdoor education which included two urban outdoor programmes and by my personal arts practice. I trained as a Drama and Movement Therapist, and guided by the principles of the arts therapies, most of my art making involves exploring and expressing my personal experience of the outdoors. I work with the outdoors as art and art as research.

This posting on my blog is presented as an invitation to conversation and collaboration. Art making as a mode of inquiry has many and deep connections to rewilding, particularly on the urban fringe.

I think there is scope for art making outdoors to be of use to the principles and practice of rewilding in the following ways.

  1. Art making has an affinity with the rewilding process and has the scope to facilitate personal insight into rewilding, in practice, in situ practically and intellectually.
  2. Art making can be used as a kind of performative research to explore and express personal experience as an adjunct and complement to quantitative and qualitative research.
  3. Art making, when undertaken guided by the principles of the art therapies, can promote a sense of attachment to place which can be mutually beneficial to the health of both the persons and places involved.
  4. Given mutual agreement, art made through outdoors as art activities, can serve as a catalyst for discussion, illustration and promotion of said activities and the persons and places involved.

Like the idea and practice of ‘Art’ the idea and practice of ‘Rewilding’ can be contentious. Both have some aspects which are not contentious. A fine art oil painting of a landscape is undeniably art, as the scientific data which is used in ecological sciences is undeniably an accurate account of the plants and animals in a community. But strong disagreements exist as to whether certain things can be classed as art, in the same way that strong disagreements exist about both the scope and value of rewilding.

In Practice as Research – Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. Edited by Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt, Professor Estelle Barrett, talking about art making as research in postgrad research says that art as research is subjective, situational, emergent and multidisciplinary. In the same book Professor Brad Haseman describes art based research as performative research.

My proposal is that guided by ideas and practices from arts education and the arts therapies, particularly when art is used as a form of enquiry or research, art as research acts as a useful mode of enquiry in situations that are subjective, situational, emergent and multidisciplinary. Core scientific data may still prevail in certain areas in which objectivity of material phenomena is required, but art making as enquiry is useful when we want to explore personal experience and subjective phenomena.

For example photography could be useful in work in which we are inviting people to explore and express where they think ‘wilderness’ begins and ends. This is even more so in the urban fringe. In a photo series called Northern Territories I explored the point where human managed space ended and wilder, less managed space started. In Local Internet, prompted by the work of James Bridle I explored the way that the idea of ‘The Cloud’ was still around us as a very concrete phenomena and totally crossed the boundary between online and offline spaces.

Art as research is very situational and personal but these ideas could be useful if used in other settings to help persons involved in rewilding produce images to prompt discussion about where they would draw a line between human and wild spaces.

In the arts therapies, in art making, and in art as inquiry the process is very important. One may have an intention for art making, but the final outcome, the art made is uncertain. This is similar to rewilding. In Urban Wilderness in Central Europe – Rewilding at the Urban Fringe, the authors Matthias Diemer, Martin Held, and Sabine Hofmeister say of rewilding ‘..for some ecosystems there are no clear conceptions of the composition or appearance of the future wilderness state.’1 Rewilding, like art, is a creative act. Working with art outdoors could be a way to help people understand that with rewilding, like adtr making, the outcome may not always be certain.

Just saying what art is, like saying what rewilding is is difficult because creative acts are, by their nature, difficult if not impossible to accurately predict. In pure scientific research, the capacity to predict an outcome and test it, is central. This is a source of vital information about some things that can be measured and predicted. Arts as research does not challenge this or contradict this. But with rewilding, predicting the path of secondary succession towards a state of preservation of a fixed final climax state is not always possible.

The artist John Cage talks about the creative act thus “When you start working, everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”2 In rewilding, in the end, even we leave in faith that the place can take care of making wilderness for itself. Rewilding may have a human hand at inception, the first brush strokes, but human hand leaves in the end. Nature is creative.

Frans Schepers and Paul Jepson say of working with rewilding as opposed to fixed conservation approaches ‘This conservation approach, which has been compared to restoring a painting that then needs curating, is at odds with the process-oriented ethos of rewilding and the uncertain ecological and conservation dynamics this entails… Rewilding is seen as a process rather than a state…3 ‘ The rewilding act is not that of restoring an old painting, it is the creation of a new painting.

We could see that as a mode of enquiry art making outdoors can help people look at what is wilderness and where it starts and ends, particularly in the urban fringe, it can help people experience rewilding as process and as an unpredictable creative act and provide access to understanding wildness through performative experiences, alongside quantitative and qualitative data.

My experience of working with the outdoors as art and art as research has included both formal research and exploration of more personal experience. The use of art making as a form of enquiry is, I think, of most use as an adjunct to more formal quantitative and qualitative approaches. I think it invites a mode of working which, when guided by principles form the arts therapies and arts education can offer a degree of rigour of process. The arts generally have a long history of providing an outlet for expression and discourse.

All work is localised to the setting, the place in which the art making is taking place, and the artform and content subject to enquiry. Any work is, like the actual form the rewilding takes, open to a creative and thus unpredictable outcome. Nature, like art, can speak for itself. But two examples of how to work with the arts are presented which may illustrate the process in two specific settings. One is presented below, the other will follow and is part of a project I am doing in the Solway Firth.

On arrival at my current home, a neighbour told us about a flood which came down a ridge behind our houses and entered a friends kitchen. It seemed inconceivable at the time. There was no watercourse within a quarter of a mile of our houses. But during lockdown I went looking for evidence of the story. To my surprise I found a cloistered and culverted stream ran right where she said. It was invisible except for the occasional sound of water form under two large concrete slabs behind a garage and a vague path of dampness on a football pitch after heavy rain. On some maps a series of disconnected water features were shown, but on others they were entirely absent.

After a few days of rain, I went out with a camera to film the path of the water on the football pitch, when a dog walker called me over and we got talking. He confirmed the story. The flood happens 17 years ago and ruined his dads car when it entered the families garage. The then open stream was filled in by the council as a result of the flood. I found the path of the stream, mostly hidden but above the surface in three places in over it’s 2 kilometer course. I walked this with a GPS tracker to make a performance of it’s whole journey down to the River Irthing from a spring behind our houses. I discovered that this spring was on a feature that was was part of ‘Brampton Kame Belt’ ‘..one the largest glaciofluvial complexes within the UK.’ I liked the idea of a mythical stream existing only when it rained and wrote a story about this like it was a Norse Myth. I become very attached to to this elusive, nameless stream, like it is the local secret only locals know about.

I know that the ridge the flood water came from was left by the bed of a river that flowed over the melting glaciers that disappeared 10k years ago. I know that on rainy days I can follow the wet path in the football pitch that marks the now filled in path of a stream, or find a spot under willow tree behind my house that produces the unseen but clearly audible sound of rushing water. I used story writing and performance to connect with the stream in a more personal imaginal way. I developed an empirical and personal connection.

This empirical and personal connection together acted to bring a feeling of attachment. In childcare, attachment is defined as ‘the maintenance of proximity’, and is an important source of security for care-giver and child. Because art making outdoors connects me to place with both empirical data and personal experience I feel now feel more attached to this stream and thus to the place I reside. So whilst with regards to rewilding, empirical, ecological data is vital, a personal attachment to place may be something that could be mutually beneficial to place and person. Understanding place through both empirical data and personal experience could be an interesting way to help people involved with rewilding form attachments to place.

Many rewilding schemes exist in the UK. Many will be supported by volunteers. Volunteering is a great way to connect with and form attachment to place. Participants involved in rewilding schemes will be familiar with many ecological, data driven modes of understanding. Having done a BSc in Human Ecology I can see this is vital. But as an arts therapist and art maker I can see that art making, or at least an approach to enquiry rooted in art making has had many benefits for me.

Any form of engagement with place and particularly physical or embodied engagement forms attachment. My experience is that this attachment has helped me through lockdown. My art based enquiry has maintained my mental health. But what the arts involvement has done has taught me to be is open in my approach to the place I live. Open in the way I understand what is going on.

For rewilding, and particularly rewilding in the urban fringe, a mode of engagement with process, a mode of understanding rewilding in it’s contentious and unpredictable nature that is open could be advantageous.

A Proposal

Therefore I make a proposal for conversation and possible collaboration in exploring art making as a mode of enquiry, understanding and attachment to place, in support of rewilding in the urban fringe.

I live in North Cumbria and would love to work with people nearby in England or Scotland on an actual site, ideally in the urban fringe.

Beyond lockdown, I would also be interested in connecting with individuals who may be interested in working with the outdoors as art, to simply experiment and explore ideas and possibly form a means by which we could support each other in personal arts, health, educational, ecological or environmental practice.

Art making makes art. Be it visual art, music making, poetry, performance art, pottery, sculpture, whatever. Sharing and showing art made is valuable as a way of inviting discussion, illustration and promotion of place, process, project and person. Showing and sharing art made is the art as research equivalent of the scientific peer review. I evokes discourse. But personal witnessing of art making is central to the arts therapies. We cannot all be artists but we can all make art. For some people showing what they made is a terrifying proposal. But in some way personal witnessing is like wilderness. To be true wilderness, it may be that it is unseen by any eyes but the eyes of the people, plants and animals that live there. In the arts therapies, art made is seen by nobody but the therapist and the person or persons in therapy. What is shared is shared with consent.

If anyone is interested in a sharing a journey of exploration and discovery, a journey of uncertain outcome, like adventure, like rewilding, like art, please visit my blog at movingspace.blog and get in touch.


  1. Urban Wilderness in Central EuropeRewilding at the Urban Fringeby Matthias Diemer, Martin Held, and Sabine Hofmeister.  
  2. john cage / score without parts  
  3. Rewilding in the European Context  

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