Science - March 31, 2010

Theatre for participation on spatial planning

Site-specific community theatre creates a space for discussion about land use plans, which is important for both local residents and developers.

Site-specific theatre at De Haar castle, where the audience was led around the grounds for different scenes. Researcher Pat van der Jagt is second from the right.
'Changes to the living environment have a tremendous impact. Site-specific theatre can provide an arena for open discussion which is quite different to what you get with steered discussions at information evenings. It tells people stories about the area, creating a way in to talking about it', says Pat van der Jagt, a researcher at Alterra who has done research on the impact of site-specific theatre on spatial development processes. The research was done for the Government service for land and water management (DLG), together with colleagues from the LEI and the DLG.

ARENA
Far- reaching changes to an area often cause tensions between residents and developers. A good example is Haarzuilens, where Natuurmonumenten has taken on the role of the baron, who used to govern the village in times gone by. This area is intended to become Utrecht's back garden, where city residents can spend their leisure time. Some of the farmers have to move out and the agricultural landscape is to be turned into forest. These changes are meeting with resistance from villagers. Natuurmonumenten therefore sought to involve the residents in a new way, through theatre.
 An empty farmhouse serves as a base, and a farmer and a project developer are deep in conversation at the kitchen table. The farmer is reminiscing about his farm and shows the marks on the wall with which he kept track of his children's growth. The developer talks about the plans and uses the marks on the wall to give an idea of the height of the fences. 'Sometimes the audience joined in, bursting out with their reactions during the performance', says Van de Jagt.

SOUL
By appealing to the imagination, site-specific theatre gives a broader meaning to a place, concludes the Alterra report on Van de Jagt's research. Theatre increases the mental experience of the physical environment and enables people to 'experience emotional values collectively'.  Questionnaires have revealed that these added layers of meaning are recognized and valued by the audience. 'Artists can bring out the soul of a place', explains Van de Jagt. The performance was attended by both local residents and people from elsewhere. Van der Jagt: 'This may be putting it bluntly, but site-specific theatre is also PR for a place.'
 The appreciation shown for the performance has not directly resulted in a better relationship between villagers and Natuurmonumenten. The land use plans for Haarzuilens were already largely fixed. Van de Jagt expects that using site-specific theatre together with participation by residents will produce better end results. She speculates: 'If you open up opportunities in the exploratory phase and take a broader view of an area, you stand a chance of coming up with a completely different and more sustainable way of developing it.'  

EXPERIMENT
In spite of the lack of concrete impact, Natuurmonumenten and the DLG are enthusiastic about the use of site-specific theatre. 'DLG are experimenting with the arts in order to develop new instruments for public participation. The first limited experiences suggest that collaborating with artists can produce something new', says William van Wingerden, a spatial development adviser with the DLG.
Natuurmonumenten sees site-specific theatre as a gain, says Tim Kreetz , who is on the management staff in Haarzuilens. 'It can show the other side of a story. I do think that theatre has made a difference to the way some villagers look at Natuurmonumenten. We're now in discussions with another theatre group and we have every confidence that something will come out of it', says Kreetz.

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