Can landscape architects aid wind development?

Richard Foote

How important is a landscape architect to wind energy development? Richard Foote accompanies RSK Environment on a confidential project in the UK to find out.

Across Europe and the world, countries are embracing wind power to great effect. Wind is now responsible for 19% of stationary electricity production in Denmark, 11% in Spain (at one point in March this year this figure temporarily stood at 40%), and 7% in Germany.

But bringing a wind energy development on line is always likely to remain a highly-complex process. Much of this is down to the wind turbine's appearance and function. Wind turbines can be prominent landscape features, with some standing over 120m tall and remaining visible from as far away as 35km. This fact alone - combined with turbines' interaction with their local environment - can cause a large degree of hostility and controversy in the areas surrounding any proposed wind developments. One example is in the UK, where NIMBY attitudes combined with the planning process have blighted and slowed wind developments considerably over the years.

Because of this, of all the throngs of consultants you need to engage to get the blades turning, the landscape architect can play a key role.

One such organisation is RSK Environment Ltd, the environment and planning arm of the RSK Group, the UK's largest privately-owned multidisciplinary environmental consultancy. Its landscape architects have been called upon by a client base that includes government departments, regeneration agencies, planning consultants, multi-national companies, local authorities and property companies.

So what exactly do they do?

“Firstly, there could be a slant towards architecture and we may need to deal with the design and detailing of external hard works such as paving, car parking and lighting”, says principal landscape architect Chris Frain. “Or it may be that we focus on the soft landscape design and detailing, for example the planting and earthworks design. In both cases we can be required to provide the detailed proposals to help clients obtain planning permission, through to preparing the detailed documentation to allow the proposals to be built, and we may also administer landscape construction contracts.”

Landscape planning also sees the company work closely with local councils or similar organisations, to designate areas for development within their jurisdiction. “We also undertake landscape and visual impact assessments, which involves identifying how a proposed development may affect the existing landscape and visual amenity of an area. As part of this process, landscape architects are in a unique position to develop and provide solutions to mitigate any identified adverse effects. It is in this capacity that we do most of our work with wind farms,” Frain adds.

Landscape and visual assessments for wind energy developments differ to those for other construction works, as it is nearly impossible to mitigate the visual impact of such tall structures. However, by working closely with the consultant engineers and other environmental specialists, landscape architects can take a lead in developing an overall layout for a scheme that satisfies clients' requirements in terms of energy yield, and minimises adverse effects on the landscape and other environmental aspects - such as protected archaeological or cultural heritage features, or sensitive ecological habitats.

“Given the very polarised opinions of wind energy developments, landscape and visual impact is often the key issue for most people, as they want to know what the proposed scheme might look like from their area, and how it might affect them,” Frain observes.

“As the potential area over which turbines may be visible is so large, it is difficult to identify all sensitive viewpoint locations, and it is therefore a key part of the process for us and the developers to engage stakeholders, such as the local planning authority, at a very early stage so they can provide input to the identification of sensitive locations.”

The Landscape Architect in action

The starting point of any landscape and visual assessment, the zone of theoretical visibility (ZTV) is a computer-generated model that represents the extent of the area within which views of the proposed scheme may be obtained. It presents a worse case, as it only takes into account topography and does not reflect any localised screening that may be produced by existing vegetation or buildings.

These viewpoints will be used as representative locations on which the landscape and visual assessment can be based.

The landscape team identifies sensitive locations and receptors within the ZTV, and seeks to agree these locations in consultation with the local planning authorities and statutory consultees, such as Natural England or Scottish Natural Heritage.

Viewpoint locations are chosen to represent a range of sensitive receptor types, such as housing, footpaths, heritage, public amenities and leisure spots, as well as to represent a range of landscape character types, and from locations at a range of distances and elevations to the proposed development.

With this In mind, one challenge that landscape architects face is getting to the optimal visual impact assessment spot. In Scotland this can be particularly challenging, and frequently involves scaling Munros (Scottish peaks over 3000 ft).

In these circumstances health and safety is an important consideration due to the exposed location and the time it can take for landscape architects to access often very remote locations. To this end, RSK Environment employs a number of staff with helicopter licences (see image), something that has reportedly saved significant amounts of time and money.

Back to a confidential project in the UK, and Frain performs a number of functions across a different number of sites:

  • He takes a 360-degree video recording of the site. For each site there is an acetate of a computer-generated 3D-wireline of the proposed development, viewed from where he stands;
  • A bearing is taken on a compass, and the wireline is held up to the horizon. This enables Frain to visualise what the development will look like from there, and if it is visible, assess the impact;
  • Once there is a finalised selection of viewpoints, he can use the latest computer-based graphics and techniques, and specialist software to prepare photomontage visualisations.

Integrating the landscape architect function

RSK Environment is often called on to integrate its landscape team within a holistic environmental service provision.

“Landscape architects are well-positioned to provide overall management of a number of environmental services as we tend to have an overview of each project we work on,” RSK Environment director and experienced landscape architect Jenny Wilson explains:

“We try to look at the wider range of issues and not just focus on our own discipline. In this respect, we keep our geographic information systems (GIS) department very busy. They help us produce constraints mapping, wirelines and photomontages. We can also call upon the help of our RSK ecologists as and when they are required. We also provide expert witness evidence if a development proposal necessitates a planning inquiry. It is this later stage where I do most of my work as a landscape architect.”

For expert witness cases related to landscape and visual impacts it is essential that the methodologies used and the visualisations produced are robust and accurate, as the accuracy and conclusions of the assessment are frequently challenged by objectors to the proposed development.

“If a developer can prove that they have taken time to look at the different constraints, and shown how the wind farm layout has progressed because of this then they are much more likely to satisfy the legislative body.”

Landscape architects offer the wind energy industry an invaluable mixture of management and environmental services that are underpinned by a personal appreciation of landscape. In addition to being skilled professionals that are highly attuned to commercial considerations, many have a deep respect for the landscape they survey.

Sue Sljivic, a landscape architect for over two decades and a director of RSK Environment Ltd, concludes: “a landscape architect is analytical, as well as being in tune with the different emotional and practical issues that could arise, in order to bring to a conclusion which development is right for which landscape.”

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Energy infrastructure  •  Wind power