Story | 22 Feb, 2021

University of Edinburgh artists and IUCN explore the nature of cities

The Edinburgh College of Art, a leading international art college within the University of Edinburgh, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest and most diverse environmental network, have partnered to explore the theme of ‘ecological urbanism’ through the medium of artist film. Defined as urban development that places nature at the heart of the design process, ecological urbanism is increasingly recognised as a social, environmental and economic imperative.

University students pursing the MA/MFA in Art, Space and Nature, in collaboration with peers undertaking the MSc in Composition for Screen and BA in Film and Television, created a series of 7 experimental short films exploring the interconnected ecologies of cities. Drawing inspiration from the Scottish Wildlife Trust – IUCN report, Living Cities: Towards Ecological Urbanism, and the nature-rich neighbourhoods of the Scottish capital, the students examined a range of issues including control, light pollution, sharing spaces with nonhumans, displacement, and more. IUCN actively supported  students by delivering a keynote lecture on ecological urbanism, circulating educational materials,  and providing constructive feedback during the film production process.

When pandemic-related restrictions on travel and gatherings threatened to undermine the students’ film production plans, they responded with admirable creativity, resilience, and perseverance. “They dealt with the challenges exceptionally well, making the most of nearby locations, improvising where necessary and ultimately producing a fantastic set of films” cheered Yulia Kovanova, the artist and MFA Art, Space and Nature tutor at the University of Edinburgh, who led the project, working with the students over a semester. “It is a great example of how artistic expression can provide insight into some of the most important changes facing society today”, she added.

The virus also denied students the opportunity to premier their films in a conventional cinema as planned during the Edinburgh Science Festival in April 2020. Instead, they were screened at an online degree show in August 2020 to a global audience of art critics, urbanists, ecologists and alumni. A second in-person screening, however, will be organised at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille, September 2021, where thousands of leaders and decision-makers from government, civil society, indigenous peoples, business, and academia, will meet to set and drive the global conservation agenda.

The students’ efforts can be regarded as part of a broader movement to align the creative sector with social and environmental goals. Russell Galt, Head of the IUCN Urban Alliance—a coalition of organisations collaborating to take ecological urbanism to scale, and supported by Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin—commented, “Throughout history, the trails of every great political or ideological movement have been blazed by artists – poets, painters, musicians, writers, and filmmakers. Art can help us to rethink our cities and heal our planet. I applaud Edinburgh University staff and students for producing such a diverse and thought-provoking set of films on this hugely important topic.”

MFA Art, Space and Nature programme director Ross McLean added, “opportunities to interlink academic programmes with leading environmental organisations is incredibly valuable in educating a new generation about how they can contribute to significant environmental issues. At the same time, advanced post-graduate students bring considerable creative and intellectual capabilities to these opportunities, providing a basis to engage audiences through compelling works of art. The film projects demonstrate the fruition of working on transdisciplinary projects that transcend academic boundaries.”

Over the past year, repeated lockdowns have brought ecological urbanism into sharp focus, imbuing the students’ films with special salience. In the height of the pandemic, many urban people found solace and fortitude in nearby nature: drawing comfort from birdsong in soundscapes once dominated by traffic; breathing clean air where smog once lingered; and placing hope in the emerging buds of spring. Curious sightings of wild animals in downtown neighbourhoods stoked amusement and fascination. More and more of us began probing the built environment and questioning our place in the natural world.

Despite occupying just 2-3 percent of the Earth’s land surface, cities are home to the surging majority of humanity, accounting for the lion’s share of natural resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, and inflicting heavy impacts on ecosystems, near and far. Yet they are also centres of social, political and financial capital; divers of innovation and progress; and integral the success of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Bringing cities into balance with nature is now an imperative of the highest order.

Over the course of 2021, the students’ seven films will be released one after the other, each for a limited period of time, via the IUCN YouTube channel. All of the films will then be screened at the IUCN World Conservation Congress.