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Greenhouse Britain: The 30 Year Now

Location: N/A

Artists: Helen Mayer Harrison, Newton Harrison, David Haley and Chris Fremantle (cultural historian and project manager) - The Harrison Studio & Associates (Britain)


Most scientists now agree that global warming is giving rise to climate chaos. And, if current trends continue there will be significant increases in sea level and many areas of Britain will be flooded.

Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, who are based in the U.S.A. and are known as The Harrison Studio, are internationally renowned eco artists who have worked together since the late 1960s. Their view of the debates about global warming is: ‘… this discourse is in the hands of government, planners, scientists, insurance companies, journalists and some community leaders. Artists, writers and other voices of culture have not yet been sufficiently heard.’ (Greenhouse Britain: Losing ground, gaining wisdom, July 2007)

In March 2007, The Harrison Studio & Associates (Britain) was awarded a Bright Sparks grant to consider the impact of the greenhouse effect on the Lee Valley in Essex and generate ideas in response. This work has involved a number of collaborators and is titled ‘The 30 Year NOW: A future for the Lee Valley’.

Set up in 2006, Bright Sparks is an ‘ideas incubator scheme’ in which UK and international artists and designers are commissioned to come up with proposals for open spaces in the UK. It is run by Landscape+Network Services (LANS), an arts and the environment project based at Gunpowder Park, a new country park on reclaimed land in the Lee Valley. Bright Sparks is funded by Arts Council England, Hertfordshire County Council, Knowledge East and Lee Valley Regional Park Authority.

‘The 30 Year NOW’ contributes to a larger, Defra-funded project by The Harrison Studio called ‘Greenhouse Britain: losing ground, gaining wisdom’. A related exhibition of the same name has been shown at the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World (near Exeter) and is touring to other locations.


The Bright Sparks brief was to focus on ‘new ideas relating to open space’ and to work towards ‘a specific outcome that is conceptually challenging rather than the completion of a final project.’ There was an emphasis on originality, risk-taking and cross-disciplinary work, and an expectation that the research findings would be presented within an exhibition and seminar at Gunpowder Park, and made public in other ways. [Bright Sparks brief]

Arguing that the ‘tipping point’ for global warming has already passed, the Harrison Studio’s proposal was to ‘begin generating the thinking, the design, perhaps the new belief structure, and perhaps even indicating new economic structures that may be necessary outcomes in response to the rising ocean level’. Their objective was to ‘investigate and bring forth… a new cultural narrative, and in some senses, new metaphors… for the sequential redesign of the Lee Valley and its drain basin, as the waters rise.’ [The Harrison Studio proposal]

For the Harrisons, it is this shift in understanding that is crucial to their practice as artists, rather than any image or object they create.


Initial groundwork was undertaken by artist David Haley and cultural historian and project manager Chris Fremantle, who are based in the UK and form part of The Harrison Studio and Associates (Britain). They toured the area in June 2007, taking photographs and talking with people, and ‘looking at what’s on the ground on the relatively rural east side and on the more developed north west side, and looking at the key strategic value of the Lee Valley to the whole Thames region.’ (David Haley)

The Harrison Studio and Associates (Britain) call their Lee Valley project ‘The 30 Year NOW’ because they based the work on projections of conditions in thirty years’ time, which will be caused by current emissions of greenhouse gases. They looked in particular at the effects of projected rises in sea-level and drew up two main proposals. First, that the area should be planted with forests in order to retain considerable volumes of water and hold (or sequester) carbon, increase ‘biological holdings’ and improve air quality. Second, that the population of two million people should be moved upwards and housed in ‘sky gardens’ -- high-rise developments containing public amenities, apartments, gardens and bio-food production units. Maps and architectural drawings relating to these proposals were produced in collaboration with the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield and APG Architects. [See ‘On the Lee Valley Basin and the London Gateway Project Research Report’, Nov 2007]

The Harrison Studio’s proposals are original in several respects. Their proactive thinking differs from the usual debates about global warming that focus on the bleakness of the situation and emphasise prevention. And their proposal to build very tall structures for human habitation also runs counter to ecologically motivated designs that usually seek to have a low impact on the visual appearance of the landscape.

‘Bringing forth new cultural narratives’

In spring and autumn 2007, Chris Fremantle introduced the project to other Bright Sparks awardees, and also staff, funders and partners, and ‘other interested professionals in the fields of arts, science and ecology’ at two seminars at Gunpowder Park.

The main event, however, was when Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison made a presentation to an invited audience in November 2007, again at Gunpowder Park. This was attended by eleven people: four artists, two curators, a journalist, a representative from a university art department, an artist/landscape designer, a representative from Defra and a representative from Lee Valley Regional Authority.

Sara Mark, the artist and landscape designer who attended: ‘I came out feeling cheerful. The Harrisons are able to dream the big dream without being constrained by reality. They have for a long time been a hero and heroine of mine. I have spoken to colleagues about the day, but it was difficult to communicate what the Harrisons were saying. All I could communicate was their enthusiasm.’

Kate Smith from the Public Engagement Team at Defra: ‘They mostly spoke about their previous experiences and their thought process. There wasn’t much about climate change. They melded together scientific material and artistic thinking in interesting ways. But they haven’t identified their target audience. It’s quite hard to pin it down.’

Further dissemination of ‘The 30 Year Now’ proposals is planned and underway. The Harrison Studio will undertake follow-up work relating to this event in spring 08, and will also conduct further research. LANS is planning a Bright Sparks working group in May 08, at which the eleven Bright Sparks awardees will share their work with each other, and a final Bright Sparks seminar and exhibition in autumn 08. The Harrison Studio’s proposals for the Lee Valley now also form part of ‘Greenhouse Britain’, the touring exhibition mentioned earlier, and there is a planned ‘Greenhouse Britain’ publication.

Touring the exhibition

At the first tour venue for the exhibition, the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, a prominent wall was devoted to the Lee Valley work. Clive Adams, director of CANW: ‘We have had a steady number of visitors and good attendances at the two events we held here and in Plymouth where Helen and Newton spoke… We did find that ‘lay’ visitors [non-scientists] needed an additional sheet which we handed out.’ An education programme, too, was run by the gallery and there were positive comments in the visitors’ book:

This is a very interesting and affecting exhibition applying art and raising political issues in an instructive and inspiring way.

Nice to hear no berating or preaching to the converted and very good to get an insight into another attitude of mind and approach.

More projects like this needed. Too much cultural denial which this project may help break down.


The budget of £10,000 was allocated as follows: artists' fees and expenses, £4,000; seminars (invitations, catering, travel, accommodation), £2,000; architects’ and cartographers’ research and consultancy, £2,000; printing and production costs, £2,000.

Key issues

  • Artists contribute to non-arts debates. A number of recent initiatives have involved artists in ‘blue sky’ thinking for new developments at the very early stages of the planning process. Several which were funded by PROJECT are featured on this website: see for example Warwick Bar Soundwalk, The Peterhead Creative Communities Project and Burnley Elevate Artist Injection case studies. Bright Sparks and ‘The 30 Year NOW’ took this approach to an entirely new level of ambition: the artists were invited to contribute, in the widest sense, to national debates about the global issue of climate change – and their declared mission was to determine the terms in which we think about that subject, even. It is clearly going to be some time before we can judge the results of ‘The 30 Year NOW’, and to know if it will represent value for money in relation to eventual impact, for example.
  • Clear and wide communication. In order to ‘bring forth new cultural narratives’ (to use a Harrison Studio expression) it would seem crucial to communicate both clearly and widely. However, the term ‘new cultural narratives’ is itself a relatively abstruse expression. Much of the literature relating to ‘The 30 Year NOW’ is convoluted; the maps are difficult to interpret; and too many different headings and slogans are used for anything to stick in the mind. There are baffling metaphors and strange poems, too, and sometimes academic jargon is used. It was also disappointing to learn that such a small number of people attended the key event – and that there were so few planners and no politicians or engineers, for example. The two attendees who contributed to this case study reflected on the day in ways that suggest that the style of presentation could be improved. It was necessary, too, for the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World to provide visitors with interpretative support.

    Problems in communicability may have stemmed in part from the brief, which many will find obscure: 'Bright Sparks is concerned primarily with research towards a specific outcome that is conceptually challenging rather than the completion of a final product. However, proposals for practice based research are welcome as long as the creative output is an integral part of the research process and not the final product.' The Harrison Studio would perhaps have benefited from more clarity than this, and more initial input from Landscape+Network Services. A partnership with a communications expert might also have been helpful.


Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison
Harrison Studio
[email protected]

Chris Fremantle
[email protected]

David Haley
Manchester Metropolitan University
[email protected]

Adriana Marques
Creative Production Manager, Landscape+Network Services
[email protected]

© Angela Kingston 2008