Modern Garden of Eden Draws Millions in U.K.

Eleanor Stables
for National Geographic News
February 6, 2003
An isolated, abandoned industrial site in Cornwall, England, a region
long scarred by mines and slag heaps, has been reclaimed; the former
clay pit is now a virtual garden of Eden.

Showcasing 4,500 plant species, the Eden Project is designed to increase public awareness of our dependence on plants, support research and conservation projects around the world, and provide a vision for a sustainable future.

The project received its first funding in 1997, and is already the third most popular admission-charging tourist attraction in Britain, hosting approximately 2 million people during 2002. Only the London Eye and the Tower of London surpass it in popularity, according to the English Tourism Council.

Why has the Eden Project so captured the public imagination?

"We live in a cynical age and Eden is about the possibility of positive change," said Tim Smit, founder and chief executive of the project.

That positive change has thus far included turning an abandoned, ugly pit into a flourishing garden; teaching millions of visitors about environmental stewardship; boosting the local economy; and last but not least, demonstrating that a business operating on environmental principles can make money.

Plants and Biomes

The grounds within the nearly 200-foot deep (60 meter) former clay pit cover 37 acres (15 hectares] and are interlaced with pathways, herb and flower gardens, planted terraces, trees, and experimental crops.

The outdoor gardens are anchored by two biomes. The Humid Tropics Biome, the world's largest conservatory, is home to plants from the Oceanic Islands, Malaysia, West Africa, and tropical South America. The Warm Temperate Biome sitting next to it houses plants from the Mediterranean, South Africa, and California.

A third biome mimicking a dry-tropics ecosystem is in the planning stages.

Increasing public understanding of the need to adopt a sustainable approach to life on this planet is a key component of the project.

Exhibits extol the virtues of the fair trade coffee market, which ensures that coffee growers receive a fair share of profits, and the advantages of biodegradable products such as plant-based plastics.

One section of the garden demonstrates a method developed by the conservation group English Nature to restore heathland, a landscape habitat that is rarer than rainforest and being lost at a rate of 15 percent a decade. Surrounding slopes provide an example of successful eco-engineering using plants to prevent soil erosion.

The project also has a plot of cannabis that manages to stand out even among all the other green plants. The exhibit explores the many uses of industrial hemp, and demonstrates its advantages. A hemp crop, for instance, requires far less pest protection than cotton crops, which are responsible for 25 percent of all pesticide use in the world.

Promoting Environment

Eden is leading by example in its mission to promote environmentalism. The center is designed to recycle water, conserve energy, reduce waste, and experiment with innovative strategies to become waste-neutral.

Only about 20 percent of Eden's annual water requirement—water used for drinking, washing, and catering—comes from the public supply. The conservatories are humidified with rainwater. Groundwater, which seeps into the pit and needs to be constantly pumped out, is used for irrigation and toilet flushing.

The architecturally stunning biomes are made of a recyclable transparent foil that maximizes the amount of sunlight and retains heat. A new educational center will showcase energy efficiency with the latest photovoltaic solar power technology.

Eden won't even waste dirt, instead pioneering a technique that created 17,000 cubic yards (13,000 cubic meters) of soil from local organic refuse and waste from the china clay industry. Using this technique, scientists manufactured a variety of soils suitable to the radically different needs of thousands of plant species.

Locals and Multinationals

The project has been a boon to the local economy, providing employment for hundreds of local citizens. Officials estimate that the gardens brought $250 million of spin-off business to the region last year.

In addition, the project gets much of its food locally, and project managers are working with local growers to meet its needs. Their ice cream comes from a "farm just down the road," said George Elworthy, operations manager. The same is true of the milk, bread, Cornish pasties, and meat.

However, "we're not squeaky clean and we don't pretend to be…it's a learning process," said Elworthy.

Early problems with too much traffic and not enough parking are being resolved by building more lots and developing programs to encourage tourists to use alternate transportation modes, such as trains, buses, bicycles. Currently 18 percent of the visitors arrive by means other than cars, and project management hopes to increase this number.

Incorporating the products of a huge multinational company was another lesson learned the hard way.

"We talked to Coca-Cola and said if you would like to come on site, we want you to build a vending machine with us to tell Coca-Cola's story," said Elworthy.

Coca-Cola came up with a green machine, instead of its trademark red, that includes a few lines of text about the company and the cola nut.

"The public perception was that we let Coca-Cola greenwash on our site," he said.

The company was genuinely shocked to learn of the negative feedback, and is working to redesign the machines, said Elworthy.

Coca-Cola may not come up with a story that convinces visitors that Eden is the appropriate environment for their product, but Elworthy believes the machines have already been successful in opening up a dialogue.

Eden approached the company because Coke is a highly demanded product. "You can't turn your back on big multinationals," Elworthy said. "We hope to bring change within the company."

As visitors follow the "Eden—outward bound traffic" exit sign, there's one message Elworthy would like them to leave with.

"Something must change; we can't continue as we are," he said. "We've got to wake up."

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