A Visit to Eden

Eden Project biomes, Cornwall, UK Photo: PK Read
Eden Project biomes, Cornwall, UK
Photo: PK Read

Our trip to the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, did not get off to an auspicious beginning. For one thing, our rented GPS system simply refused to find the place, which is odd since the Eden Project is one of the top tourist attractions in the area. Then, we had to rely on signage, which didn’t seem much better than the GPS black hole of information. By the time we found the place, we were thirsty, hungry, and dismayed to find that the closest parking lot was a longish walk down a languidly twisting path clearly made for those with sturdy legs, empty bladders and full stomachs.

Once our basic needs had been met and the initial stress of finding the place had subsided, we were able to better assess the massive biomes, gardens and installations that form the Eden Project. For those who don’t already know, the Eden Project is a series of biomes, or plant conservatories, initially conceived by creator Tim Smit CBE as a UK Millennial Project and opened to the public in May 2000.

Biome structure: Steel pipes with inflated layers of thin UV-transparent ETFE film Photo: PK Read
Biome structure: Steel pipes with inflated layers of thin UV-transparent ETFE film
Photo: PK Read

The Project is located in a former china clay quarry, and it is both massive and impressive. There are two covered biomes, large steel and plastic structures which are so lightweight that they actually weigh little more than the air contained inside the domes. The plastic covering looks a bit like sturdy bubble wrap. Together, the biomes house over a million plants – the largest biome houses a rainforest climate, the second a Mediterranean climate, and the third outdoor biome reflects the temperate climate of the surrounding countryside. In the large biome, huge rainforest trees tower along walkways, and the treetops are nowhere near the dome surface.

Rainforest biome interior Photo: PK Read
Rainforest biome interior
Photo: PK Read

It is presented as an educational charity, a place and a concept that together provide a means of engaging the public with issues of ecology and sustainability. The Eden Project is as much about inspiration as it is about education or diversion. It is meant to bring visitors closer to understanding¬† how the natural world is integrated into their daily lives in the form of food, clothing and products, and how their lives impact natural environments around the world. As Smit has stated, he’s not interested in preaching ecology to the already-persuaded green choir; he wants to target the uninitiated, the uninterested, the under-informed.

Photo: PK Read
Photo: PK Read

This might have been part of the problem for us, as ecology-literate visitors. While we were deeply impressed by the Project’s structures and concept, we missed a depth of communication. There were signs offering basic information on the importance, for example, of the olive tree in human culture. But the Mediterranean biome has a large restaurant in the middle, and the atmosphere was more of a park visit to another climate rather than any deep insight into sustainability of Mediterranean environments. Other displays reminded me of the kind of ‘educational moment’ when an urban-raised child is informed that plastic-packaged supermarket meat actually comes from a cow, a chicken or a some other animal rather than from the packaging machine.

Mediterranean biome Photo: PK Read
Mediterranean biome
Photo: PK Read

We also wondered about the energy footprint of the Project itself. Researching articles for this post, I found information that the Project has undertaken a number of initiatives to reduce its energy consumption, but in the interest of educating visitors about sustainability, that would have been interesting to see at the Project itself. There are a number of smaller projects and educational courses which take place in and around the biomes, and those likely delve much more deeply into sustainability issues than a simple visit allows.

Photo: PK Read
Photo: PK Read

Having said that, the Project is certainly a worthy destination – it’s impressive, it’s different, it’s quite beautiful, and it’s in a gorgeous setting. Created by public funds and supported by (rather steep) entrance fees, it has created hundreds of jobs in the local community and generates millions in visitors and the Cornwall economy – no small feat. It’s always easier to see how things could be improved upon once something’s already been built.

Outdoor biome orchard Photo: PK Read
Outdoor biome orchard
Photo: PK Read

Like the lack of good signage and the winding paths leading to the Project, I still feel a bit lost as to the goals of the Project itself. I can circle the concepts, but I am not sure I’ve gotten to the heart of it.

More:

Kilgerran lecture by Tim Smit CBE – Recreating the Garden of Eden

Sir Robert McAlpine web site – Description of the concept and construction of the Eden Project

Modern Building Services article on energy use and innovation at the Eden Project

This is Cornwall article on financial support required for the Eden Project (2013).

Good article (2001) on the Project from when it was first opened.

Green Foundation – courses offered by the Eden Project