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Consuming Landscapes: Appreciation meets destruction in the age of Instagram

The Cheltenham Badlands, near Caledon, is a provincially significant Area of Natural and Scientific Interest and one of the most recognizable and visited natural heritage landmarks in southern Ontario. IMAGE/ Gary J. Wood

The landscape of the Cheltenham Badlands, near Caledon, seems unearthly, as if it belongs on the surface of another planet rather than our own. But it is, in fact, an exposed landscape created as a result of years of destructive agricultural practices that have left the land stripped of trees and the soil bare. The striking geologic formation has always attracted visitors. In the age of Instagram, however, the landscape’s photogenic character has meant a significant spike in popularity, exposing it to further erosion that threatened to wear away its iconic features.

Deposited more than 450 million years ago, the Badlands get their deep red colouring and grey-green stripes from the iron-heavy Queenston shale that underlies much of the Niagara Escarpment. The clearing of the land in the early 1900s made way for croplands and pasture, and constant tilling gradually stripped away topsoil, leaving the site vulnerable to erosion. As the surficial soils washed away, the hills and hollows that characterize the Badlands emerged, creating the otherworldly landscape that exists today.

The Badlands in 2006. IMAGE/ Ontario Heritage Trust

The striking visual qualities of the Badlands make it one of southern Ontario’s most Instagrammable natural landscapes. Visitors flocked to the area to fill their feeds, snapping selfies against a Martian-like backdrop. On weekends, there were people climbing all over the iconic hummocks and gullies, a significant factor in the rate at which the Badlands were washing away, with 2.5cm disappearing from the hummocks each year, and some of that washing through the gullies and completely away from the site altogether. In the making of their online images, visitors were accelerating the erosive processes that were the generative force behind this anthropogenic landscape. It is a striking beauty not without irony.

To slow this process, as well as address other factors such as public safety concerns associated with inadequate parking and site circulation, the Ontario Heritage Trust in partnership with Credit Valley Conservation and the Bruce Trail Conservancy temporarily closed the site in 2015 and began the work of developing a long-term vision. After years of planning and design, the site was eventually reopened in the fall of 2018. A formal parking lot was added to the site, and access is now provided along a wooden boardwalk. Visitors are no longer permitted to wander freely over the hills and hollows.

Aerial view of Cheltenham Badlands. IMAGE/ Google Earth Pro

The making and remaking of the Badlands speaks to the power that humans have in manufacturing the landscape. We are an incredible force of change. As scientists now herald the end of the Holocene epoch and the birth of the Anthropocene, they cite our role in changing landscapes as the most influential geologic force on earth today. And just as our activity has hastened environmental change on a global scale, our own lives are impacted by change at an exceedingly fast pace. Technological advances have changed our relationships with each other, and with nature. The ever-evolving social media landscape raises questions about both the natural and built environment; how we interact with and influence it. The rate at which we consume—consume landscapes, natural resources, images—has accelerated to a pace that is difficult to keep up with. Our attention spans are limited to the time it takes for a finger flick to refresh our Twitter feed, and our eyes to scan the latest posts.

The seduction of landscapes with imageability such as the Badlands, along with farm fields of sunflowers or a park with a well-placed piece of public art, plays to our lust for likes. As we are driven to document our lives online, it can be said that we are no longer really experiencing them. We are not in the moment, connecting with the people and places around us; we are struggling to find the perfect filter for our posted images. We are immersed in our feeds, unwittingly beholden to the algorithms that curate them.

The Cheltenham Badlands. IMAGE/ Ian Muttoo

This monumental shift in society asks challenging questions of designers of the built environment. Should landscape architects be changing the way we approach design in the age of social media? How do we treat sites such as the Badlands, a landscape that has its own page on Instagram? There are obvious responses—for example, to create public spaces that address the physical demands presented by the potentially overwhelming crowds that may descend upon a site. The more interesting design question may be to consider how we might more carefully choreograph the experiences of such landscapes. To draw people away from their phones, to look, and to listen, and to connect with their surroundings. To create the opportunity for people to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, and to marvel at its mysteries. That strengthened connection may inspire more people to protect the land rather than simply post photos of it.

BIO/  SHANNON BAKER, OALA, IS A LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT AT WATERFRONT TORONTO AND A MEMBER OF THE GROUND EDITORIAL BOARD.