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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Article: Using collages & surveys to understand public opinion about managing agricultural lands

Updated: Jan 14

Screenshot of article - displays two collages created by cutting out images of cows, chickens, pigs, trees, buildings, fields, and wind turbines.
Screenshot of article

I was fascinated and delighted to join a group of researchers who used art (collages made by community members) to better understand what citizens in the United Kingdom want agricultural landscapes to look like post-Brexit. The published article clarifies that Brits want to look at bucolic landscapes, but perceive renewable energy infrastructure as more environmentally friendly than livestock on the landscape.

I initially joined the research team to bring an arts perspective to the writing of the manuscript. As I dug in, I came to see the research approach as broadly useful. Here are a few excerpts from a UW press release about the study that effectively sum up my take:

I see it having a lot of relevance for us in Wyoming and North America broadly, as it uses a mixed-methods approach to better understand what citizens actually want to see on the landscape. We are deep into these kinds of discussions in Wyoming right now, so these kinds of public consultation studies can be valuable for us, too.

This study is a powerful example of the relevance and, I would even argue, necessity of using cross-disciplinary approaches to understand public opinion. We used both a survey and a collage process, which provided a more robust understanding than if we had used either approach alone. Given UW President Ed Seidel’s interest in interdisciplinary work, this study is a valuable example of how that can be operationalized in ways that mutually benefit research efforts and public policy.

We found that facilitated, arts-based methods can be useful for visualizing public expectations and preferences. That’s not exactly a surprising result, but there also isn’t a lot of quantified evidence that this approach is useful in the context we studied. Finding that out is both helpful for methods/efforts in public consultation, and it’s also a valuable contribution to our understanding of how arts-based methods can be used to enhance more quantitative research methods.

While political decision-making on farmland in the Mountain West does not quite have the same urgency as the current situation in the U.K., our region is experiencing two intersecting influences that make the process used in the U.K. study relevant here. First, farmers, public lands users, policymakers and researchers are all acutely aware that local ecosystems are changing rapidly. At the same time, federal land management and community consultation policies and approaches are shifting in step with the current administration’s priorities.

For both of these reasons, our study can provide a potential model for how researchers, agencies and communities could work to understand what their stakeholders want to see in the landscapes of Wyoming and the Mountain West.


Full citation: Rust, N.A., L. Rehackova, F. Naab, A. Abrams, C. Hughes, B.G. Merkle, B.Clark, and S. Tindale. 2021. What does the UK public want farmland to look like? Land Use Policy 106: 105445.

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