The Green Heart

It was Valentine’s Day 2011, and an old married couple were seated a breath away from each other on the stage of the Heimbold auditorium. They often finished the other’s sentences, unwittingly using the same gestures and expressions.

But Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison weren’t there to share tips on building a good relationship. They were addressing a rarer cause: environmental advocacy through art. The Harrisons are pioneers in the field of “eco-art,” and over the course of their 40-year career, they have helped the public visualize climate change and the effects of over-development through public installations, graphic presentations, and museum pieces.

The Harrisons don’t engage directly with the political challenges of environmental policy. Instead, they create artwork like “The World Ocean is a Great Draftsman,” which maps how Britain’s coastline would change if the sea level rose. The final image, representing a 100-meter rise, is a fragmented cluster of islands.

For an exhibit in Bonn, Germany, the Harrisons physically transplanted sections of a 400-year-old meadow threatened by development to a museum rooftop, creating a walkable park. Pieces like these offer ordinary people the chance to interact with nature in a new way, and hopefully provide insights about the value of biodiversity and of preserving ecosystems.

The Harrisons’ projects often focus on protecting cultural as well as natural resources. In the 1990s they developed a campaign to protect the “Green Heart of Holland”—undeveloped land inside a ring of major Dutch cities—from suburban development. Why did the Green Heart matter? Its presence defined the cities and their respective cultural identities, they said, and its vastness supported important urban as well as rural diversity.

At the request of the Dutch government, the Harrisons developed an elaborate exhibition of maps and plans for alternative development of the Green Heart. After a series of political setbacks, many of their ideas were adopted as official policy, and the Green Heart was cited by European Union agencies as one of the seven most valuable open spaces in the region.