Beyond environmental remediation, how can landscape architects assist in offsetting the negative social and economic effects that mine closure has on our regional communities?

Landscapes all over the world have become symbols of our thirst for the planet’s natural resources. The year 2010 saw the greatest ever use of raw materials, and according to a 2011 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, the exploitation of resources worldwide could triple by 2050. As the Australian mining sector grows, Australia’s increasing population and cultural consumption will continue to affect communities and alter landscapes. It is vital that consideration is now given to Australia’s mining legacy, not just from an environmental stance but also socially. This poses the question of how we deal with post-mined landscapes. Simply leaving a mess behind is no longer an option.

In 2008, while working in mining exploration as a field technician, I travelled to remote landscapes around Australia in search of ore bodies and was introduced to my first operational mine. Its impact on the surrounding red sand and native arid vegetation that encapsulates the natural beauty and biodiversity of the South Australian outback left me hoping that our survey results would indicate no ore body was present.

As much as I hoped that my work in the field would not result in the development of a mining operation, it was clear that because of my lifestyle choices – the phone I use, the bike I ride, all reliant on mining – I could not stand apart from such altered landscape. Mining plays an integral role in supporting Australia’s economy and shaping the country’s settlement frontier, but the boom-and-bust nature of mining has also had negative effects on landscapes, communities and local economies. While reflecting on the brutal impact a society’s culturally fuelled needs can have on a landscape, this experience motivated me to try to take responsibility.

In 2012 I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship, which allowed me to travel to the United Kingdom, Germany, South Africa and the United States to investigate the challenges and opportunities presented by mine closure, along with the influence landscape architects can have within the mining sector. I subsequently wrote the report Healing Wounded Landscapes: The Role of Landscape Architects in Achieving Post-Mining Sustainability. My research aims to start a conversation in Australia about rethinking post-mined landscapes in the design fields, as well as in mine rehabilitation practice.

Since the introduction of the Mining Act in 1973, the remediation of mined landscapes has been mandatory and great steps have been taken by the mining industry to leave a positive environmental legacy and strengthen its reputation. Often, however, the rehabilitation bond, used like a deposit on a rental property, is far too low to create any incentive for progressive rehabilitation.

In a similar vein, the “social licence to operate,” which was introduced in 2005, is an unwritten social contract for acceptance of a mining operation by the local community. The social licence has led to a greater awareness of community needs and an increased level of community engagement during the development of a mining operation. As a result, communities enjoy social benefits derived from mining operations. Training programs, local employment, local business development, sporting club sponsorship and improved infrastructure are evidence that the mining industry takes social responsibility seriously. However, this is only part of the story – the social fabric of many regional communities has been severely affected by mining. Life post-mining can see them without adequate schools, roads or hospitals, and lacking other vital social infrastructure, as long-term visions and responsibility for the community have often been ignored in mine closure planning.

By acknowledging the impact mining has on our landscapes and through an active redesigning process, altered landscapes can be used once again for community benefit. “When we turn to reuse and redesign previously destroyed landscapes, we may find surprising, sometimes unimaginable possibilities emerging.”1 This can help a community to break away from sole dependency on the mining economy and to seek a diversification of socio-economic activities. We can start to challenge traditional thinking about mine site rehabilitation and move beyond the idea that the original landscape should be restored. It follows that mine reclamation must not rely solely on engineering or scientific methods.

Companies such as Banks Mining have recognized the need for new knowledge and skills within the mining industry. Banks Mining has employed landscape architect Mark Simmons, who is responsible for restoring surface coal mining sites. Simmons has been an integral part of the reclamation of the Shotton surface mine in the UK, where 5.4 million tonnes of coal is being extracted. While the mine is planned to operate until 2017, the company has adopted a “restoration first” strategy, providing a new landscape for the community to enjoy while the mine is operational. This includes an incredible landform sculpture of a reclining woman. The project team, including Simmons and world-renowned artist Charles Jencks, created not only a tourist attraction but also high-quality open space for the local community. Constructed of 1.5 million tonnes of surplus soil and clay transported from the neighbouring mine, the sculpture is more than thirty metres high and more than four hundred metres long.

Under Simmons’ guidance, other areas of the site have been progressively reclaimed, reintroduced into the natural cycle and made useable again. This is an example of how the expertise and creative ideas of a landscape architect can help facilitate a genuine balance between environmental and social needs, economic interest and political pressures. But it does require willingness by those traditionally involved in mining to experiment and see what the design world can offer. Landscape architects as “generalists,” collaborating across many disciplines, have a critical role to play in the mining industry. However, despite an apparent overlap between the evolving goals of mine closure and landscape architectural knowledge and skills, there is a lack of landscape architects working in the reclamation field.

Mine closure should not be viewed as a problem but as a natural conclusion to mining and a catalyst for creative solutions for post-mined landscapes. However irresponsible we may have been with the legacy of mining in the past, today we cannot escape our responsibilities and as landscape architects we must begin to play a vital role in reshaping altered landscapes. By creating positive mining legacies, society and mining communities can begin to revalue post-mined landscapes.

How can landscape architecture claim a more integrated role in reshaping altered and left over landscapes, particularly in achieving sustainability for post productive sites?

Image: Matt Baida
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