Designing the Aesthetics Long Term Monitoring Program (ALTMP)

Led by: Dr Matt Curnock, CSIRO


Project Summary

Aesthetic condition and trend of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) are critical to monitor for the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program (RIMReP), and World Heritage Area reporting. The purpose of this proposed project is to design and implement an aesthetics long term monitoring program (ALTMP) for the GBR. It will include a strong research component that identifies how to convert a subjective measurement into an objective one. Baseline data will also be provided that represents a snapshot of aesthetic condition at a large number of below-water and above-water sites within the GBR, and for a range of stakeholders.


Project Publications
Final Report
Virtual Conference Presentation
Journal Article
Conference Presentation


Project Description

Research Problem

Recent research has shown that the aesthetic appreciation of natural places is one of the most fundamental ways in which people relate to their natural environment. It provides wellbeing, an opportunity for recreation and inspiration, and a sense of place. Beautiful natural places also motivate people to take care of them and to conserve them for all time. Incorporating aesthetic values of natural landscapes into environmental management can thus increase the likelihood that such values are maintained, in turn inspiring higher conservation priority.  As such, monitoring of aesthetic quality has become urgent for many natural places, and particularly within the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Within the GBR context, there is also a strong impetus to report on aesthetic condition and trend within the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program (RIMReP) and World Heritage Area reporting system.

Despite the importance of aesthetic quality, aesthetic values are not well represented in policy decision making and management. This may be because aesthetics are regarded as too subjective to measure, and there is only little guidance available for environmental leaders. Recently, two NESP projects were set up to develop knowledge around aesthetic values, finding that indicators of aesthetic value could be identified. Their purpose was to develop an understanding of how aesthetic values could be identified and measured for more effective integration into coral reef management and to contribute to management frameworks.

Building on these projects, we propose to design and implement an Aesthetics Long Term Monitoring Program (ALTMP) that can routinely report into the RIMReP and potentially other programs such as Environmental Reporting. The design of the ALTMP will be based on consultation as well as a strong research component that further tests for aesthetic indicators both above and below the water, and from a range of stakeholders including Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents, and domestic and international tourists. The project will also link strongly with a ‘sister’ NESP project (if funded), led by Griffith University – see proposal 5.5 under RPv5.

The research will focus on quantifying subjective measures of aesthetics by building on previous work that identifies useful and practical indicators of aesthetic value within the GBR. It will aim to understand variability between individuals (e.g. age, gender, education, experience), and the conditions under which aesthetic ratings might not be repeatable (such as expectations, weather, wonderful interactions, etc).

The design and implementation of the ALTMP will include a large number of sites throughout the GBR. We will test the practicalities and desirabilities of: (i) citizen science in situ assessments, (ii) photographic assessments, (iii) expert assessments, and (iv) machine-learning assessments.

In order to assist the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) meet its management information requirements (RIMReP) and World Heritage reporting obligations, we propose to undertake three key phases in this study:

Phase 1. The Science of Aesthetics (Jan-July 2019) The first phase will focus on developing scientifically-robust knowledge that allows meaningful aesthetic ratings to be assessed and compared through time as part of a long-term monitoring program. Both above-water and below-water aesthetics are in scope. A literature review will be produced, which will consider latest science, citizen science approaches, photographic assessments and expert opinions. A re-analysis of previously collected NESP data will look at the subjective nature of aesthetics, and additional experimental testing, including that of above-water images, and with a range of stakeholders. Dr. Susanne Becken and her team will be heavily involved in the ALTMP design.

Phase 2. Design and Engagement Workshops (Aug-Dec 2019) We will conduct a series of workshops that engage stakeholders in program design and data collection. Building on the science phase, these workshops will identify: (i) the number of sites that would be needed to represent the GBR World Heritage Area, (ii) site locations, (iii) an easy to use and scientifically robust method to assess the aesthetics of each site using existing citizen science programs, online participants assessing photos from each site, and an expert panel. Dr. Susanne Becken and her team will be heavily involved in the workshops.

Phase 3. Baseline and trial experiences of rating aesthetics (Aug 2019-June 2020)  We will trial and establish a baseline data-set for the ALTMP that can be continued for a reasonable cost into the future.

Aesthetic monitoring of the GBR will be able to provide reef managers with information about the extent to which cultural ecosystem services in the form of aesthetic quality are maintained. In consultation with DOEE, we will consider how the outputs from this project may be used in an ecosystem account, as defined by the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting. We will also consider the extent to which this approach be applied to reefs within other Australian Marine Parks.

Two previous NESP projects led by Marshall and Becken respectively had provided insights into some key indicators of aesthetic quality. Both projects provided similar results despite using different approaches, suggesting that aesthetic ratings can be collected in a robust, comparable and repeatable way.

Dr. N. Marshall leads the Social and Economic Long Term Monitoring Program (SELTMP) for the Great Barrier Reef. This project aligns directly with the objectives of the RIMReP. Similarly, Dr. Marshall will streamline the ALTMP into the RIMReP, and ensure that aesthetic quality within the GBR can be directly reported on at a site, regional and WHA scale, for residents, Indigenous residents and tourists, and for sites both above and below the water.


NESP 2017 Research Priority Alignment

This research will meet the NESP research priority: Improve our understanding of the consequences of climate change for the health and resilience of vulnerable freshwater, coastal and marine species, and ecosystems (2.1).

Aesthetic monitoring is a critical component for the RIMRep. Of the current 70 monitoring programs already underway, only one is based on the human dimensions of the region.


Project Keywords

Cultural ecosystem services; Natural beauty; Outstanding universal values; Aesthetic values; Long term monitoring.


Project Funding

This project is jointly funded through CSIRO, Reef Ecologic and the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program.