Lauren Saunders (b. 1990) is an award-winning visual artist-activist living and working in Hull. Inspired by ecological research and her own personal connection to the Earth, she explores questions surrounding environmental ethics within her highly experimental and philosophy-inspired drawing practice. Lauren is also co-director of the arts journal The Critical Fish.
As sea-levels continue to rise as a result of the climate crisis, water heads inland, causing increasingly powerful waves and coastal flooding to wear down or carry away rocks, soils and/or sands. Since their coastline is the 'fastest-eroding' in Northern Europe, Withernsea (East Yorkshire) is in a place of transition and precarity; the community is watching their deprived seaside town rapidly crumble into the sea whilst fighting for much-needed economic regeneration. The existing sea defences were recently extended to protect public infrastructure and buy the town some time, yet installing additional rock armour caused vital soft sediment wildlife habitats to be lost... subsequentially decreasing biodiversity in the area, and therefore contributing to more climate instability.
Here we explore Living Lines, a proposed project which seeks to increase local marine biodiversity and boost local socio-economic regeneration through the co-creation of an innovative piece of site-specific public art.
Inspired by the research into ecological enhancements by the University of Hull’s Marine Sciences department, I propose retrofitting artistic ecological enhancements into the rock armour coastal defences at Withernsea, reflecting key marine species found locally using cavo-rilievo drawing techniques. This innovative piece of coast-specific public art - consisting of an art trail along a 400m sea defence - will directly benefit the local ecosystem by increasing biodiversity, and boosting community and cultural value within the area. I call this proposal, which is currently seeking funding, Living Lines.
It began with a caravan trip to Easington, a small parish village along East Riding of Yorkshire’s Holderness Coast, in the early spring of 2018. After my daily walks along the near-empty beaches, I found myself bringing all sorts of objects back to the caravan to draw on the evening... shells, stones, driftwood, lobster-pot ropes, bones, bits of seaweed, bits of ceramic, things with barnacles on, things that I couldn’t identify... whatever caught my eye whilst out roaming. I held onto a few of the things that were in abundance, or that could be considered litter, but most of the objects I found were returned to the beach before I left Easington.
Observational drawing Lauren Saunders, 2019
Alongside an already developing critical interest in the climate crisis, my Easington drawings had helped formulate a new direction in my work, one based in marine sustainability and the impact humanity has on the water. That summer, I visited Dr. Sue Hull, Senior Lecturer in Marine Biology and Ecology at the University of Hull (UoH). I asked her about the kind of things her department were exploring. She told me about the 50% decline in shore birds in our region, about iron pollution in streams and rivers, about northern pink tortoiseshell limpets and montegeu sea snails and where the best wildlife places were to go and visit along the Holderness Coast (Filey and Runswick Bay, in case you were wondering).
After explaining that I was interested in drawing, and particularly with ‘line’, I asked her what sort of lines she came across in her practice. She told me about a current research project she was leading, where her team used hand saws and drills to carve grooves and holes into the coastal rock faces, which were usually made from granite. This intervention was helping to increase biodiversity in that area by offering damp little nooks and crannies for tiny organisms to co-inhabit, away from too many hungry beaks and the dangers of receding tides. Lines were being used as beneficial ecological enhancements within the rock shore ecology. Amazing! I was so excited at the concept of drawings having real-world potential to directly support life. And that’s where this idea of ‘Living Lines’ came from. Literal lines teeming with life.
I wanted to test out making grooves and holes into rocks myself, yet sourcing suitable rocks proved difficult... and expensive. So I continued to make work based on the impact of humankind on marine wildlife, my Easington findings and subsequent trips to Flamborough Head and Spurn Point. I exhibited some of this work at Hull Central Library in a show titled ‘Littoral Vistas’ in the Spring of 2019.
After the show, I spent time articulating my ideas, and created a first proposal to send over to Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (YWT), explaining my interest in partnering with The University of Hull and themselves to deliver a project I called ‘Living Lines’. Based on the research from the University’s Marine Sciences department, I proposed carving artistic designs into the rock faces at Flamborough (not the soft cliff face, rather into the large rocks scattered on the beaches), creating site- specific drawings. I included ideas for a public programme, a public art trail and a residency at the Spurn Lighthouse within my proposal. They were very supportive of my ideas and suggested that I get in touch with East Riding of Yorkshire Councils (ERYC) Sustainable Development Team to move the project along. However, I soon discovered that Flamborough is a nationally and internationally protected site due to its high level of marine diversity and geological importancei. Nonetheless, all three organisations were still keen to see the project happen and so unexpectedly offered me an alternate site along the Holderness Coast.
Coral Lauren Saunders, 2019
Erosion on the Withernsea Coastline (2020) Image credit: Andy Medcalf
The Withernsea coastline ‘is the fastest-eroding part of northern Europe, with a rate of between 0.5m and 4m lost each year’, with the worst recent example being a stretch of land that lost 10m between March and October in 2019 (BBC, 2020) (ii.)
In 2020, East Riding Council installed just under 70,000 tonnes of granite rock armour along a 400m stretch as part of a £7m schemeiii to protect public infrastructure (BAM, 2020). It is along this newly developed artificial site that I now have permission from ERYC / Yorkshire Marine Partnership Development (YMPD) to ‘soften’ the rock armour through the creation of artistic ecological enhancements.
My plan is to first spend time in and along the Withernsea/Holderness coastline, and just watch, listen, smell, feel and observe the landscape and the marine wildlife its home to. I find meditating to be a meaningful way of really tuning into and ‘hearing’ land and sea, so I’ll probably do a fair bit of that too. I’ll draw and make works on-site and off-site, including on field visits where I’ll shadow the Marine Biology department, but also from specimens loaned by the University and YWT. Although I’ll likely experiment with different tools, materials and processes, especially since I don’t know where my creative practice will be by the time this project commences, it will all be rooted in mark-making. I’ll be drawing - both representationally and sensually - as a way of learning about, understanding and connecting to the environment I’m responding to. These initial works will serve as a springboard into the next stage of developing designs.
It’s essential that I have a solid practical understanding of the specific site from early on too. I will need to explore the 400m stretch of sea defences first hand, and get a feel for the site and that stretch of rock armour in particular. The total number and designs of the enhancements will be informed by the accessibility of suitable rock faces, but the placement and scale must reflect current scientific understanding and build on ecological enhancement feasibility projects elsewhere (e.g. Runswick Bay) (iv.) Guided by UoH, I will also need to research and test out the best ways to work with the granite, and what shapes and patterns have been found thus far to be optimal for biodiversity. Any works installed on site need to be at the most appropriate height and scale to enhance biodiversity, balance art with habitat-supporting patterns, and consider the practicalities and limitations of the carving process itself.
Extended Withernsea Rock Armour (2020) Image credit: InternetGeography.net
During this research and development phase, I also intend to create plenty of formal and informal opportunities for dialogue and creative collaborations between the local Withernsea community and myself, as I believe it to be incredibly important to regularly offer residents the chance to ask questions and share ideas about things pertaining to their home town. Most importantly, I want Withernsea residents to have a sense of ownership over Living Lines, so I’ll be asking them what ideas they have about getting involved creatively.
I have some ideas of my own though; I’d like to document their stories through mark-making, by inviting them to show me the interesting things they’ve found on the beach or share their fondest memories of encountering local wildlife - this could be face-to-face or on social media. I’d like to go into schools, working with YWT to support children and young people to create their own Living Lines designs based on artistic flair and scientific reasoning. I’d happily take on a sixth former or two to learn what about being an artist ‘on-the-job’. I would also like to invite people to draw alongside me on- site or in workshops, or otherwise support them to find new creative ways to engage with the nature on their doorstep. All of these opportunities for conversation and collaboration will help support a sense of local ownership, and inform the final designs for the ecological enhancements. I fully intend to translate their wildlife-based stories and ideas into the rock armour sitting in their own back yard.
I can imagine there will be hundreds of options following this process, so I will need to curate a selection of the strongest designs (with the most potential ecologically) and put them, with their accompanying stories, to the people of Withernsea to make the decision about what they want represented, and how they want to come to that decision. I expect it could be some sort of voting system, but I’ll leave that to them to figure out. And then when the weathers right... I’ll start installing the works! If resources allow, we hope to install a pattern of artistic designs alongside more ‘traditional’ saw-cut grooves and indentations along the length of the defence - but this all depends on what is practical.
Once installed, the work created by both myself and the community during the development of Living Lines will then be showcased in an accessible local exhibition, which I’d like the community to co-produce curate and install alongside myself. This show will be complete with a partnered-up and coproductive programme of talks and additional creative workshops, and opportunities for further creative participation within the gallery space itself. Of course, this is all assuming that COVID-19 won’t still be doing the rounds. Contingency plans must be made to engage with people remotely should restrictions increase.
View of the North Sea (2021) Lauren Saunders
I’m acutely aware of how inaccessible these artworks are likely to be for people with a range of disabilities. I mean, sandy beaches are a no-no for a lot of people, let alone clambering over rocks. So as part of the project, I want to find an effective way to document and capture the public art work(s) so they can be shared digitally. This might be a video tour, a VR experience or creating tactile smaller versions on smaller rocks... but I’ll chat to those in the local disabled community to see what would work best for them nearer the time.
There are also funds earmarked for plans to support me with my own creative and professional development once my practical involvement with the project has concluded. There will be space for me to reflect and evaluate, but also engage in paid artistic residences with project partners to explore the next stage of my creative practice.
Partnerships and Opportunities
Living Lines has developed into a collaborative, multi-disciplinary effort. The core partners supporting my work are the East Riding of Yorkshire Council (ERYC) / Yorkshire Marine Partnership Development (YMPD), University of Hull (UoH), and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (YWT). Whist each partner wants to make the best of this opportunity to further their own aims and objectives, the extent of what we are each able to deliver (including myself) depends wholly on how much funding we are able to obtain, and where from. Generally speaking however, ERYC / YMPD will provide project management expertise, staff resources, financial regulation and evaluation services, UoH will provide expert scientific guidance and ongoing analysis, and YWT will support with community engagement and the exhibition of work.
These key partners are keen to build upon the initial idea and use it as an opportunity to innovate and generate further research. They would like to monitor the enhancement(s) over a number of years to determine efficacy, for example, engaging about 50 Marine Biology students in annual monitoring surveys. There is also enthusiasm for a local citizen science programme, building on a successful national ‘Capturing our Coast’ project that enables residents to engage in marine management, develop skills in data collection and analysis and inspiring them to learn more about their local coastline. They would also like to weave in a new sponsored MSc research project, providing a student with a unique opportunity to develop their research skills in evaluating an innovative biodiversity enhancement technique on a unique stretch of coastline. They would analyse the ecological success of the project, comparing the artistic enhancements with rudimentary, saw-cut techniques, and whether it could be a viable option for other artificial structures elsewhere.
There is also plenty of opportunity for other partners to get involved with the project, should they wish. Some of the more obvious ones we thought of included; East Riding Libraries, Artwaves Festival, Withernsea Big Local, Withernsea Art Club and Residents Community Group, The Withernsea Coastal Change Observatory and the Environment Agency. There are also several projects and initiatives that Living Lines could link in with, including YMNP Coastal/WFD Water Quality Working Group (a group who explores improvements in ecological water quality, including ecological enhancements, along the Yorkshire coast), England Coast Path (who are expected to open a national trail connecting Withernsea with the rest of England’s coastline via a public footpath), the Coastal Opportunities Gateway (which aims to engage the local community in the aforementioned Coast Path and encourage communities to seize the opportunities an increase in visitors might bring), The Big Draw and Active Withensea (a initiative encouraging the town to embrace a more healthy and active lifestyle). I’m also very keen to weave The Critical Fish (which I consider an extension of my personal creative practice) into the project - I have budgeted for Fish to independently critique the artwork in and of itself, to deliver workshops as part of the exhibition programme, and whatever else feels like it would be good for Fish to do.
Local Impact and Legacy
The Withernsea sea defences are positioned within the Holderness Inshore Marine Conservation zone (MCZ) and the Greater Wash Special Protection Area (SPA), which are protected, designated areas of important soft sediment habitats (MCZ) and offshore foraging areas for diving birds (SPA). Unfortunately, some of the soft sediment habitats have been lost as a result of installing the sea defences. Living Lines is not trying to replace any soft sediment habitats lost by the construction of the defences, but instead aims to improve upon a new habitat by creating self-sustaining opportunities for life. The benefits of ‘softening’ hard defences (through mitigation techniques such as retrofitting ecological enhancements) have been acknowledged at all levels, including the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM). Research consistently shows that adding simple additions to rock faces (and indeed any artificial coastal structures) will help retain water at low tide, and in turn better support species colonisation. Without such enhancements, the artificial structures would have a low biodiversity value as they wouldn’t be very good habitats for the intertidal species that need them, such as algae, shellfish and gastropods (which are sea slugs to you and me).
High levels of biodiversity within an area is generally considered to be a marker of good environmental health; increased biodiversity boosts local ecosystem productivity, provides more food resources, promotes healthy soils and waters, contributes to climate stability and is generally more resilient to environmental changes. The more species and genus’ are supported to thrive in an area, the healthier and more resilient that area is going to be. Trials on similar defence structures at Runswick Bay in North Yorkshire show that species colonisation can be expected to be evident within six months of installation and that the abundance and extent of intertidal species using the enhancements continue to grow for many years (subject to environmental conditions). Within a relatively short space of time, biodiversity can be greatly increased. Additionally, the project will have a lasting and sustainable impact as the enhancements will continue to provide habitat for intertidal species in the long-term; no further maintenance will be required once installed so these small ecosystems won’t need to be disturbed. As a result, this project will also support efforts in achieving biodiversity net gain on artificial construction projects, as embedded within the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan.
Sea Slug Lauren Saunders, 2019
Living Lines could also help enthuse residents about their local environment, coastal management and wildlife conservation as it offers an opportunity for the community to engage with ecological climate action in their own back yard. This will indirectly support local grassroots and regional environmental organisations as this project provides another opportunity for community engagement with nature.
As a project that also places heavy emphasis on community engagement, participation and local creative ownership, Living Lines could also support efforts to address economic and social disadvantages in the town. Withernsea has suffered economically for decades, with some areas falling into the 10% most deprived areas in the Index of Multiple Deprivationv. The Local Government Association (LGA) published a report in 2013 that identifies five key ways that arts and culture can boost local economies; attracting visitors, creating jobs and developing skills, attracting and retaining businesses, revitalising places and developing talentvi. All of these are regenerative goals listed in ERYC’s Withernsea Renaissance Plan (WRP)vii a strategy designed to elevate the town’s economic, cultural and social capital. One of the aims of the WRP is to ‘reposition Withernsea as a seaside destination with... visitor / cultural attractions’, and interestingly notes that environmental improvements to the seafront area would support the development of a more cohesive visual identity and communal ‘sense of place’ for residents.
As highlighted by Arts Council England, it has been demonstrated time and time again that arts and culture ‘contributes to citizenship and social inclusion by strengthening social capital’ as there ‘is strong evidence that participation in the arts can contribute to community cohesion, reduce social exclusion and isolation, and/or make communities feel safer and stronger. In particular there has been ‘strong research studies since 2010 about relationships between arts and cultural engagement and educational attainment and later life outcomes’, including growing evidence that children and young people’s engagement with arts and culture has a positive long term impact on their wider civic and social participationviii. Living Lines will be a piece of community-owned public art that supports the towns economic, cultural and social regenerative aims, as well as important ecological ones.
Still from a community-focused Mindful Drawing activity Lauren Saunders, 2020
If Living Lines demonstrates that artistic designs can provide adequate artificial habitats on sea defences, the project could be developed and replicated across Yorkshire (and further afield) as a way of enabling local communities to directly engage with marine conservation by shaping biodiversity improvements along their inhabited coastlines. This has not been done before, and so could have a lasting impact on the ways that communities steward their local environments.
There will be plenty of avenues to evaluate the impact and legacy of the project, thanks largely to the partnership with the University of Hull who will evaluate the collected data. Funding willing, the annual project-specific surveys conducted by Marine Biology undergraduates will be complemented by the development of both the citizen science programme and the MSc research opportunity. Working in close partnership with the University will allow the entire ‘Living Lines’ project to be analysed and appraised – in terms of its scientific, ecological and community engagement values. The data gathered by the ‘Living Lines’ project about whether artistic designs carved onto rock armour can be an effective way of improving the biodiversity of hard sea defences will be an important tool for additional research and help to inform any future ambitions to enhance other hard sea defences on the coast.
PS - If you’ve got about £60k going spare and you want to do something good with it, hit me up.
(i) Joint Nature Conservation Committee. 2021. Flamborough Head - Special Areas of Conservation. [online] Available at: <https://sac.jncc.gov.uk/site/UK0013036> [Accessed 10 October 2021]
(ii) BBC News. 2020. East Yorkshire erosion-threat coastal homes spark cash plea. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-humber- 51207384> [Accessed 10 October 2021].
(iii) Royal BAM Group nv. 2020. South Withernsea Coastal Defence Scheme completed | Koninklijke BAM Group / Royal BAM Group. [online] Available at: <https://www.bam.com/en/press/press-releases/2020/12/south-withernsea-coastal-defence-scheme-completed> [Accessed 10 October 2021].
(iv) Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission. 2021. Coastal protection & ecological enhancements | Runswick Bay Coastal Protection Scheme Ecological Enhancements. [online] Available at: <https://yorksandhumberclimate.org.uk/coastal-protection-ecological-enhancements> [Accessed 10 October 2021].
(v) OpenDataCommunities.org. 2021. Indices of Deprivation 2015 and 2019. [online] Available at: <http://dclgapps.communities.gov.uk/imd/iod_index.html#> [Accessed 10 October 2021].
(vi) Local Government Association, 2013. Driving growth through local government investment in the arts.
(vii) East Riding of Yorkshire Council, 2011. Withernsea Renaissance Plan. Withernsea and South East Holderness Regeneration Partnership. viii Arts Council England, 2014. The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society: An Evidence Review.