Natural History Museum managers have put in a planning application to redevelop the museum grounds and in doing so are substantially digging up the beautiful Wildlife Garden which was created twenty one years ago. The move is opposed by many museum scientists and ecology and conservation professionals and also by a public petition which has attracted more than 37,000 signatures since last October.
The museum proposes to excavate the entire central part of the existing Wildlife Garden, felling trees and translocating other trees and plants. Two existing ponds would be drained and a new sunken round pond dug only meters away. This area would be replaced with concrete terraces and smaller thematic planting areas to provide easier visitor access to the Darwin centre. Unfortunately, the museum is suggesting that an increase in planted area across the whole site will somehow be enough to offset the massive decrease in recorded biodiversity incurred by the excavation of the established and complex mosaic of habitats in the existing garden. This plan is based on theoretical data and has not been supported by a full Ecological Impact Assessment.
The wildlife garden is a highly regarded and award winning assemblage of British lowland habitats which was designed by Museum scientists and ecologists in 1995 and has thrived since, maturing into an exceptional and well recorded haven for wildlife. It is the only ‘living’ public gallery in the entire museum and supports the museum’s strategy for championing the conservation of UK biodiversity. It is also a borough Site of Nature Conservation Importance and since its creation, nearly 3,000 species of plants, invertebrates, fungi, reptiles, mammals and birds have been recorded in the one acre site, including 28 Notable and 7 Red Data Book species.
Although the museum has suggested that this is the only possible plan to achieve all of its objectives (for visitor access and public engagement) there is clearly an opportunity to rethink this part of the design and dispense of the currently fashionable sweeping terraces that are the trademark of the designer. Clearly the museum has to respond to the pressures of its huge visitor numbers, and no part of the museum should be immune to change, but with some sensitive and creative thinking it should not be too difficult to devise a less destructive design for the Western Grounds.