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Environmental Law 12 - Sense of place, aesthetics and visual impacts

Sense of place, aesthetics, visual impacts – an ambiguous difficult to quantify yet prevalent issue with regard to development impacts The relationship between agricultural or open space preservation with housing or other infrastructure can be both confusing and contentious. Especially for those communities that are experiencing growth pressure struggling to manage rural development along with other community concerns can be difficult. One primary goal of many communities is to balance development with agricultural needs, open space, and natural resources while trying to retain a sense of place.

Issues relating to sense of place and aesthetics are highly emotive in nature and need to be examined taking into account a variety of issues. The overriding factor to consider when looking at sense of place is that this is a subjective topic, and sense of place differs between different demographics in the population.

Most importantly, perceptions in regard to sense of place are influenced by socio-economic circumstances. For example, a person living in poverty is unlikely to object to an activity that would bring about employment opportunities, such as labour intensive industrial development, as the need to provide for his or her family outweighs any perceived loss in character of the area. On the other hand, someone financially secure has nothing to gain from a factory or warehouse in his or her view and would be more likely to object to an intrusion into a landscape as there are no benefits for that specific person. The latter’s concern would pertain to changes in ambient noise levels, vibration and illumination, which would reduce that person’s enjoyment of the environment.

Whilst sense of place may relate to income levels, the level of services, and security of tenure, for many people and businesses (particularly those relying on aesthetic qualities of an area) the greater part of sense of place relates to the visual character of an area. Visual impacts can be determined on the basis of a visual obstruction (undesirable structures blocking views, for example structures blocking line of sight to a waterfall) or intrusion (undesirable structures reducing the quality of a viewscape, for example urban structures in a wilderness area or disruption of the skyline). Developments, by virtue of inserting buildings into a landscape, therefore almost always impact on the visual character of an area.

There are no laws that specifically indicate what degree of change brings about a significant change in sense of place. However, through the application of the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations (2006) in terms of the National Environmental Management Act (Act 107 of 1998) this issue has to be considered. Some aspects of sense of place are considered indirectly in other legislation, including the Environmental Conservation Act (Act 73 of 1989), where increases in noise levels are controlled.

The impact of development, in terms of sense of place, must be examined balancing the subjective loss in visual amenity versus the measurable gain in opportunities for employment and service provision. Notwithstanding the above, development should as far as possible uphold those characteristics beholden to the area, achieving a balance between the need for development and preserving the sense of place.

The author will not be held responsible for misinterpretation of the law, and strongly recommends that readers consult their local DAEA branch for clarification.

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  Tel: +27 (31) 303 2835
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  Tel: +27 (31) 303 2835
  Fax: +27 (86) 692 2547
  Map »