The Landscape Impact and Visual Design of Windfarms by Caroline Stanton

By Paul Gipe

This is the second of two reports on wind turbines and aesthetic design. The other is a Review of Wind Turbines & the Landscape by Frode Birk Nielsen. There is also a discussion of aesthetics in chapter eight of Wind Energy Comes of Age and in Design as if People Matter: Aesthetic Guidelines for the Wind Industry.

The Landscape Impact and Visual Design of Windfarms is intended to aid landscape architects in advising wind developers and to aid British planners in establishing national, regional, and local strategies for coping with wind development. Though Stanton’s goal was to provide general guidelines and not be prescriptive she, like others who have tackled the thorny subject, finds some of today’s practices so patently discordant that she simply recommends against it. She readily acknowledges that the “assessment of visual impact contains a degree of subjective judgment.” However, Stanton, like most other architects, argues that wind power plants must conform to widely known and accepted design principles.

While Stanton cites the seminal work of California landscape architect Robert Thayer, she overlooks the work of some Dutch and Danish architects and the critical work by architecture students at California Polytechnic Institute at Pomona in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, she independently reaches many of the same conclusions.

In contrast to other discourses on wind turbines and aesthetics, Stanton’s frequent use of simple sketches to illustrate her points is most welcome. The sketches are so clear that even the most dunderheaded wind farm developer or Philistine wind turbine engineer can comprehend her point. Another useful feature is her guidelines for specific landscape types, including flat or gently sloping agricultural landscapes, coastal landscapes, mountain and moorland landscapes, landscapes with dispersed small settlements, and industrial landscapes.

Beginning on an encouraging note, wind plants, says Stanton, “should not be judged solely on their visual properties; indeed, they may be greatly valued for other qualities, such as what they symbolise.” And although a wind plant is clearly a man-made structure, what it represents “may be seen as a positive addition” to the landscape. Despite this, aesthetic design remains extremely important she says.

Wind turbines, like farms, make a strong visual statement. “The powerful image presented by agricultural land is in part due to its strong visual elements of sky, horizontal lines, and a formal pattern. . . . The location of wind turbines within such a landscape results in a powerful image of contrasting form, colour, shape, line and elevation.” This is the reality that wind turbine engineers and wind plant designers must face. Moreover, the need for good exposure insures that wind plants will be highly visible. Wind turbines will form the dominant landscape element for up to 2 kilometers from a wind power plant, and from 2 to 5 kilometers they will be seen as an important element within the landscape.

Stanton challenges the prevailing assumption among British planners against placing wind turbines on the skyline. “The location of turbines beneath the skyline may, however, actually heighten visibility due to the contrast of wind turbine colour . . . the location of a windfarm (sic) is as much about symbolic expression than purely ‘looks’. It is about honestly portraying a form in direct relation to its function and our culture; by compromising this relationship, a negative image of attempted camouflage can occur.” Thus, hiding a wind plant below a ridgeline may do more harm than good.

As in the 1984 CalPoly study, Stanton also finds that accessibility will affect how the public perceives wind projects. Wind plants that are inaccessible by fences and barbed wire may cause “frustration on the part of the public . . . in not being able to get close to the wind turbines which acts as a visual focus and attraction. The ability to view a windfarm at proximity can also allow the public to appreciate . . . the importance of wind energy.” She recommends that developers offer some means for visitors to view wind plants from strategic points by providing parking or information centers.

Stanton incorporates Thayer’s view and that of other observers, that “if turbines are faulty, the public may perceive a windfarm to be unjustified–a waste of visual resources.” Thus, when turbines don’t operate often or are perceived as often broken, the public is far less likely to tolerate the turbines’ intrusion on the landscape.

Interestingly, Stanton finds that intrusiveness of a wind plant is not directly proportional to the number of turbines in an array, and, instead, more a factor of design features. For example, large wind plants (defined as more than 70 turbines) may appear less dominating than a smaller project when the large wind plant is subdivided into several visually comprehensible units.

For conditions in Britain, Stanton recommends designers use white turbines and towers rather than off white or gray. The use of white is a clear, forthright statement, she believes. Gray or off white may be seen as a form of deception, as an effort at camouflage. While provocative, this view is not universal. She discourages using galvanized towers as they “seem more technically primitive,” and link the wind plant with industrial structures.

Like others before her, Stanton stresses that the blades, nacelle, and tower should all appear the same color. Furthermore, she discourages emblazoning brand names or logos on the side of nacelles as this too accentuates a wind turbine’s individual components (rotor, nacelle, tower) at the expense of a harmonious whole.

Stanton’s recommendations on structures ancillary to wind plants is of special interest considering the current controversy in California with erosion from excessive road construction. She notes that “a windfarm is essentially a temporary structure . . . Consequently, it is preferable for there to be no permanent structures associated with windfarms . . . the construction of access tracks to, and within, windfarms should be avoided wherever possible . . . (as) access road construction, particularly within mountainous and moorland areas, will have a significant physical impact which contrasts to the ‘environmental friendly’ image portrayed by the windfarm industry.” Similarly, she suggests burying power lines, transformers, and substations as they introduce “horizontal lines above ground, which conflict with the vertical element of windfarms, potentially destroying their visual clarity.”

Some of Stanton’s other points are:

Wind turbine proportions should appear aesthetically balanced.

Nacelle and tower must appear simple and aerodynamic to convey an image of mechanical competence, that is, that the turbine works reliably.

The location of functional elements (catwalks, anemometer booms, etc.) on the side of a nacelle will reduce its sculptural image.

“A tapered tower can appear quite elegant in form, but if the connection to the nacelle is too narrow, its shape can appear week and precarious.”

Non-operating wind turbines or a mix of different turbines will disrupt uniformity within a wind plant.

“There should be a consistency of wind turbine type within a landscape, reinforcing visual clarity, simplicity, and repetition of form.”

“Whatever the choice, wind turbine blade number should be consistent within a distinct region or visibility zone.”

In addition to a wind plant’s relation to the landscape there is also a relationship between each turbine in the array. “This relationship must appear clear and simple in order for a development to seem rational.”

“The main visual aim of a windfarm layout should be to convey a sense of clarity.”

“The spacing of turbines should be regular to give a consistent and repetitive image. . .”

The Landscape Impact and Visual Design of Windfarms is an important work and the wind industry owes the author a debt of gratitude for her contribution.

The Landscape Impact and Visual Design of Windfarms by Caroline Stanton, August 1996, School of Landscape Architecture, ISBN 1-901278-00-X, 52 pages, A4 format paperback, Edinburgh College of Art, Heriot-Watt University, Lauriston Place; Edinburgh EH3 9DF; Scotland; United Kingdom; phone: +44 0131 221 6091; fax; +44 0131 221 6005.