It’s the place meaning that matter: Is the assessment of place meaning improving controversial community wind energy planning in Switzerland?

Authors and Affiliations: 

Stefanie Müller
Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL
Department of Geography of the University of Zurich

Dr. Matthias Buchecker
Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL

Dr. Prof. Norman Backhaus
Department of Geography of the University of Zurich

Corresponding author: 
Stefanie Müller

Wind energy acceptance studies have shown that visual impact on landscape is one of the most dominant factors, which fosters opposition [cf. 5, 9]. Moreover, it is argued that wind mills are better accepted in certain landscapes than in others [10]. Several research studies, thus, are denying the “not in my backyard” effect for wind mill site acceptance and are focusing on fitness of attributes of landscape type and wind energy installation [cf. 1, 8, 10].

In order to examine whether a lack of suitability between attributes of landscape types and wind mills is explaining controversies in wind energy projects or whether other reasons are more important, qualitative interviews and a Participatory GIS approach in three contended wind energy projects in Switzerland have been conducted for this study. Each of these case studies is located within a different landscape type. The first case study is located in a flat-hilly region with peri-urban characteristics in the Swiss Plateau. The second is located in a pre-alpine and touristic region and the third in an alpine and agricultural region. The qualitative interviews have been conducted with positively, negatively and indifferently inclined persons. A Participatory GIS approach was chosen in order to link statements to locations.

First results of the interview analysis indicate that it is not primarily the landscape type and its associated attributes, which define the suitability of wind energy installations. It is rather place meaning that is crucial regarding the perception whether wind mills are suitable for a specific landscape or not. The term place meaning encompasses more than visual perceptions of landscape attributes. Place meanings are constructed and their construction is dependent on people’s different experiences they made with and attachments they developed to places [cf. 2, 3, 4, 6, 7]. In addition, place meanings are heterogeneous between individuals and among groups and are very dynamic. Often meaning of places is constructed during the planning process: A place without a specific meaning often becomes a place with a specific meaning.

With respect to the planning context, the results indicate that a systematic assessment of place meaning, such as with a spatial mapping approach, might be expedient for socially acceptable wind mill siting-decisions. However, the qualitative study of these three wind energy projects also indicates ethical limits of an application of the concept of place meaning: To avoid feelings of tokenism it is indispensable to create opportunities of direct exchange where a withdrawal of a planned wind energy project is still a possibility. Otherwise, people could feel exploited if assessed place meanings were used as an indicator of high wind mill siting acceptance. An assessment of place meanings for community wind energy planning should, thus, be applied at an early state of planning and its prior aim should not be an increase of public acceptance but of socio-spatial learning in order to foster mutual understanding.


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