“Treating a forest merely as a collection of trees ignores its contextual relevance to people” (Stankey and Shindler, 2006)
We have spent the past month looking at vegetation in the context of ‘amenity landscapes’. This blog post finds us currently in Bilpin – in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, NSW – conducting interviews with residents to try and understand the interplay between amenity values and bushfire preparedness. This relates both to vegetation in and around residents’ properties and in the surrounding landscape. This fieldwork is part of the ‘Co-existing with Fire: Managing Risk and Amenity’ project funded by the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre. A key aspect of this project is to develop mobile and spatial interview methods.
Mapping amenity with digital mapping tools
“There was hardly any trees here [points to map]…it was heavily eroded…and we did massive plantings, we planted thousands…I mean this was all cleared [draws on map], in fact, even in there was cleared. It was just all bare.” (interview quote)
Each interview is focused on interactive mapping exercises. Instead of conventional paper maps, residents view an aerial image of their property on an iPad and mark out features with either their finger or a stylus. We are using the Sketchbook Pro App to record their markings, allowing us to assign verbal responses to each question to an individual layer, much like a traditional GIS system arranges an information display.
A mental mapping exercise first records activities that people do on their block of land, from planting and weeding to bush walks and motorbike riding. The interview then drifts into mapping a new spatial layer of features of particular value on the property – a view they enjoy, a bank of trees that shade the house or a dam for watching local wildlife. Concerns about where bushfire risk exists in the landscape is then explored and recorded as another spatial layer in the map.
All conversations are interlaced with the idea of trade-offs (see Eriksen and Gill, 2010): some of which are amenable to fire preparedness, others that are not. For example, clearing patches of vegetation for bushfire risk mitigation and the associated loss of animal habitat; planting trees to create privacy, wind breaks or noise barriers, which adds fuel for potential future bushfires; removing weeds or lopping trees and shrubs to open up a view, etc. The mapping exercises allow us to visualise the spatial extent of these overlaying trade-offs by simply turning the layers on and off.
In order to extend “bird’s eye” discussions of residents’ activities, values and concerns – we conduct two further activities that give a better understanding of these same factors in a vertical sense. A quick photo ranking exercise showing five different scenarios of vegetation arrangements in the landscape provide a better understanding of what people value or like in a vertical profile of vegetation e.g. leaf litter, shrubs, grass turf, tall trees, dense canopy and so forth. Finally, a walking interview with GPS, camera and voice recorder lets us see examples of these values, concerns and activities in context as the participants takes us on a tour of their properties. We are fortunate to have been shown amazing views, fleeting glimpses of wildlife, regenerated woodlands and majestic stands of forest.
Wither the pen and paper interview?
On one hand, we are happy to be using GPS and tablet computers. They help us record and analyse spatial aspects of amenity and risk in our interviews. But the downside is the electricity-dependent rolling circus we have dubbed the ‘mobile Human Geography lab’: multiple laptops, backup iPads, voice recorders, smart-phones and GPS devices necessary to ensure each interview is a success and to back up the resulting data.
Each day of interviews necessitates hours of extra work downloading and setting up the next day’s interviews – the extent of which we did not envisage before heading ‘into the field’. The required support devices, knowledge, set up and downloading time were not well enough thought out during our planning stage and have caused quite a few headaches. We are in the “zone” now, but many a night has gone by leaving us questioning why we have taken on so much technology and dreaming of simpler interview times.
The next study area is Bowen Mountain, a peaceful mountaintop suburb set in the midst of the World Heritage listed Blue Mountains National Park.