New plans for the Museum’s green spaces: connecting people and nature | Science, society and skills

A little over a month ago, the Museum applied for planning permission to continue with an ambitious transformation of its outdoor spaces. Drs John Tweddle, Paul Kenrick and Sandy Knapp of the Museum’s Science Group provide the background to the project and clarify its impact on the Wildlife Garden.

This week marks 21 years since the establishment of the Museum’s Wildlife Garden – a wonderfully green and diverse space tucked away in the western corner of our South Kensington grounds. Since then these habitats have been actively managed and have matured into their current condition.

6. Insect rich grassland WLG_01062015_185

Vibrant and verdant colours in the Wildlife Garden at the west end of the Museum

The anniversary gives us a moment to reflect on how the Museum and its partners are contributing to inspiring people to look more closely at wildlife around them – something that’s a hugely important part of our jobs – and to look forward to how we can make even more of this in the future.

Let’s set the scene: 90% of us in the UK now live in cities and outdoor play has fallen by well over 75% in the last 40 years. People spend over eight hours a day on electronic devices. It’s not an encouraging picture for appreciating natural history and there’s even a term for this – Nature Deficit Disorder.

That makes the Museum’s role vital. Alongside curating the natural world, it’s our responsibility to engage, excite and inspire as many people as possible to experience nature first hand.

The Wildlife Garden and the other green spaces surrounding the Museum provide us with a unique opportunity to do just this, right in the middle of London. However, the sad truth is that fewer than 2% of our visitors actually explore the Wildlife Garden, and the rest of the grounds are ecologically bland and uninspiring.

Fast forward to the present, and very much motivated by our mission to ‘challenge the way people think about the natural world’, we’ve submitted an ambitious plan to turn the whole of the Museum’s grounds into a diverse and fascinating area, full of opportunities for people and nature. It’s the first time we’ve really joined up the learning and discovery inside the galleries to the entire experience outdoors – emphasising the importance of biodiversity, past, present and future – and it can’t help but excite.

Computer generated image of the proposed design and look and feel for the eastern grounds of the Museum, as viewed when looking towards the main entrance from the far eastern corner of the grounds.

Plans for how the eastern grounds of the Museum will be transformed to tell the story of the origins of life on Earth

In the plan, the east gardens transform into a story about the origins of life on Earth, with plants from the past creating a walk through time that also features a new cast of our iconic Diplodocus. The main entrance – with improved step-free access for all – will have planting that connects to Museum research on the unique botany of the Atlantic islands such as Madeira and the Azores.

Computer generated image of the new grounds design looking as viewed from the far south west corner, overlooking ponds and meadowland

Plans for the west end of the Museum’s grounds, including the Wildlife Garden of today

The west garden is the counterpart to the east, celebrating how visitors can interact with nature in a myriad of positive ways, for the benefit of both people and nature. It will contain enlarged areas of woodland and meadows, ponds and associated terraces to study pollination, food sources, and practical approaches to gardening for wildlife.

Alas, all is not rosy in the garden though! Plans for the east gardens and the main entrance have been broadly welcomed, but there’s been a lot of debate about the plans for the west, specifically the ecological and conservation impact on the existing Wildlife Garden. You can read more technical detail on the plans, letters of support and objections and our responses to those on the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea’s website. We’re lucky that people are so invested in what we do, and as a scientific institution we take all the feedback seriously.

At the same time, we want to directly address some very alarming headlines that have been circulating.

“The Museum is ‘bulldozing’ the Wildlife Garden”

Just the opposite! Of the planting currently in the area occupied by the Wildlife Garden, 76% will stay within the grounds: more than half (57%) not moving at all and 19% translocated.

‘Translocation’ means ‘moving things from A to B’ – it’s how some of the Garden was established in the first place, with mini representations of UK habitats introduced and actively managed to take on its current form, regularly enhanced through careful new planting. It is not easy and it does take a lot of planning to get it right. We’ve received invaluable feedback from external partners that has resulted in a better scheme and combined with the expertise of the Museum scientific team, we’re optimistic that it will be successful.

Space for wildlife will actually be doubled around the Museum, giving many more people the opportunity to engage with the natural world as an integral part of their visit and creating larger areas of well-connected habitats and resources (like food and shelter) for a greater number of species.

A new activity centre and maintenance facility will be a hub for learning in South Kensington and London. Here, we will encourage children and adults to get hands-on with the running and monitoring of our urban wildlife environment. It will host groups and events throughout the year, creating a weather-proof connection to the outdoors.

“These plans are really all about reducing queues. Everything else is secondary”

The Museum has been a world-famous visitor attraction ever since it first opened in 1881, but over the last decade, visitor numbers have trebled. While as a nation we love a good queue, asking people to wait for up to an hour or more to come into the Museum isn’t acceptable.

So how do you improve access in a way that creates an even better experience, while delivering on our mission to ‘challenge how people think about the natural world’, for as many visitors as possible?

What we love most about the proposed plan is how it solves a practical problem about access AND expands the best parts of the grounds from a natural history perspective.

“The Garden is a unique resource used by thousands of people to study and enjoy the natural world”

We agree! Nevertheless, fewer than 2% of our visitors actually visit and enjoy the Wildlife Garden. With over 5 million visitors every year, we have an incredible opportunity – and responsibility – to inspire many more people about nature. We believe the plans will do just that, all the way around the Museum rather than in just one corner.

Computer generated image of the proposed design of the Western lawn as viewed from near the main gate to the Museum

Increasing access to the western end of the Museum’s grounds will lead to more people experiencing and being inspired by the natural world

“A new path will cut through the middle of the Garden and destroy habitats”

A curving path has been designed to entice people to experience and explore the green, natural space in their own, personal way, whether that’s strolling through or getting down on their hands and knees to take a closer look. The path will be made of breathable, water-permeable materials, creating greater connectivity between the different habitats and resulting in less asphalt across the site.

“Why haven’t alternative plans been considered?”

We’ve seen a number of alternative plans put forward, but none were able to meet all our aims and ambitions.

The final proposed plan has actually been two years in the making, evolving thanks to a huge amount of feedback and input from Museum staff and members of the public alongside the country’s foremost conservation trusts.

This has helped shape some really positive changes for wildlife across the whole site, as well as creating many different ways for people to enjoy, learn new skills and actively participate in the science of nature. It’s for these reasons that we, as scientists working in the Museum, support the changes so strongly.

“3,000 species are in the Garden now and some are at risk”

More than 2,800 species have been recorded in the Garden over the last 21 years. That means they’ve been observed at least once in that time by our passionate staff and volunteers – some yesterday, some twenty years ago.

The most recent list includes 36 Nationally Notable or Red Data Book invertebrate species, four of which have been recorded more than twice, and 33 of which are known to be resident elsewhere in London. It is undoubtedly a diverse space and just like everywhere else, the more it’s studied, the more one observes. That’s partly what makes natural history so exciting!

The valuable data on what has been seen in the garden over 21 years, together with specialist knowledge of the habitat requirements of many of these species, means we are well-placed to plan changes in a way that best cares for any species that might be disturbed. By making better connected, larger habitats for them to flourish, we would hope to see even more species in the future.

“The conservation science behind the plans doesn’t add up”

Nobody can see the future, but we’ve done our best to anticipate the impacts of the new plans on biodiversity. Alongside the existing, well-established approaches, we’ve also employed an innovative new methodology called PREDICTS which was published in 2015 in the world’s leading international scientific journal Nature and is highlighted in the upcoming UK State of Nature Report.

What happens next?

Before anything else happens, the local council need to review the plans. If approved, then the real work begins – which exact species of plants will be added to the new space to complement the existing variety? How do we best encourage insects and other animals to colonise the area, and stay? What stories do we hope to tell as people walk through the grounds? How can we involve you in helping us bring the vision to life?

In the meantime, be sure to make the Wildlife Garden an essential part of your next visit and we look forward to sharing more news as the new gardens take shape.