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Eden on Edge: Revitalizing a Mineral Economy in England

  Among the many projects that ensued from the United Kingdom’s “Millennium Commission,”  the most sustainable in word and deed appears to be an environmental education endeavor in the southwestern part of the country  known as “The Eden Project.”  Until mineral deposits were found in the sixteenth century, Cornwall remained an economically marginal tract of...

Confluence of form: The Eden Project combines metal, plastic and wood within its architecture inside an old quarry pit that has been ecologically restored for ease of human visitation. Photo by Saleem H. Ali, March, 2012


Among the many projects that ensued from the United Kingdom’s “Millennium Commission,”  the most sustainable in word and deed appears to be an environmental education endeavor in the southwestern part of the country  known as “The Eden Project.”  Until mineral deposits were found in the sixteenth century, Cornwall remained an economically marginal tract of land on the Western-most edge of the British isle.  Mined for metal and industrial minerals like clay, the Cornwall landscape has been altered by humanity for centuries, and not until the turn of the twenty first century has there been a concerted effort to rehabilitate the damage. Conceived by visionary entrepreneur Tim Smit as an ecological museum and an ongoing educational enterprise, the Eden Project’s distinctive series of buildings and gardens in an old quarry pit remain one of Britain’s leading tourist attractions.

I visited this phenomenal project in mid-March, just as magonlias were beginning to bloom in the mild Cornish spring. My guide was a young environmental science graduate named Michael Elkington who cheerfully walked me through gardens speckled with artwork and environmental educational exhibits to the Project’s iconic biome buildings.  Around a million people visit Eden annually, and well-informed guides like Michael form an integral part of the workforce which stood at 490 before recent job-cuts were announced. Having injected over £1.1 billion ($1.7 billion) into this rural economy in its first decade, the project is now at a critical juncture to find new ways of reinventing itself to meet market demands.

Birth Narrative

Pits of china clay have dominated the mid-Cornwall region and the wastes generated from the extraction have been immense to the extent that artificial hills have been created over vast expanses of the region and are termed the “Cornish Alps.” The goal was to reclaim the mining heritage of this area by not just building a museum as a tribute to what had occurred in the past,  but rather to celebrate the prospects for a sustainable future. Establishing a productive economic enterprise, albeit as a charity, was still very much part of the equation for Tim Smit, which coincided with Britain’s “Millennium” development efforts in  2000. Unlike the ill-fated dome that was funded by the Millennium Commission and faltered into insolvency in 2003, the Eden project flourishes to this day despite occasional rumblings of discontent about excessive traffic and congestion from the influx of tourists to this remote rural area.

A thirteen-acre grey pit that was a blight to any aesthetic eye was the property with which the designers had to work.  Clay pits do not usually have to contend with heavy metal pollution concerns, nor do they have the impending threat of acidic drainage that is a foremost challenge to remediation efforts for metal and coal mines. The easiest reclamation idea would have been to vegetate the area and create a sort of sunken garden with perhaps a lake in the deepest portions of the cavity. One of the world’s finest gardens, The Butchart in Victoria, Canada, had the pedigree of a former quarry as well. An earlier mine reclamation in Cornwall had followed a similar path by creating “The Lost Garden of Heligan” a few years earlier. The Bodelva clay pit would have made for an interesting garden excursion, but generating large-scale tourist revenues from such a reclamation needed more than just a garden. However, the theme of renewability was vitally important to the designers of the project and plants were central to any process of terrestrial biotic renewal.

The Botany of Design

Botany and engineering have a natural convergence in greenhouses, and so the Eden project designers set out to construct the world’ largest greenhouse in the Bodiva pit. Shaped as a series of huge domes within the pit, the structure might appear to some as symbolic of eggs being hatched out of the mine’s womb. The spherical shape with pentagonal and hexagonal structural geometries was also reminiscent of the geodesic structures envisaged by Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983). Much of Fuller’s erratic but productive life had been devoted to understanding chances of human survival with constrained resources and how to engineer our way out of intractable environmental challenges. He is perhaps best known for coining the term “Spaceship Earth,” which became an evocative metaphor for the environmental movement.

Using the greenhouse to cultivate exotic plants can also have an important role in restoration research itself. Often, selective plants, fungi, and their symbiotic bacteria can play a cleansing role in ecosystems depending on the kind of pollutant in play. For sites contaminated with metals, a range of plants such as those of the genus Cnidoscolus from Brazil, have been known to be “attracted” to metals and can metabolize elements like nickel. Growing such plants for experiments in restoration efforts in a facility like the Eden project with a clear mandate for post-mining research is a productive enterprise on its own.

Architect Nicholas Grimshaw was quite intent in developing the structures of the project to mimic nature in various ways. The copper-roofed building called “The Core,” has been designed geometrically with the botanic principles of phyllotaxis. The biomimicry of the design follows a mathematical structure that most plants use for their growth and is manifest in the opposing spiral structures in sunflower heads, pineapples, and pine cones. The copper on the roof was traced all the way from the mine from which it came (Bingham Canyon in Utah) through processing to roof sheets (in Germany) to show how tracing ultimate sources of materials can help in environmental accounting.

Fruitful Future?

The announcement of job cuts at the project in February 2012 received national coverage in the UK. Indeed, human capital has been just as vital for the success of this project as its invocation to nature. All of the Eden Project’s innovative features have been carefully curated by highly skilled staff with a wide range of global experience. Caroline Digby, who was my principal host for the visit has worked in multiple countries and with distinguished environmental educators and campaigners such as the late Richard Sandbrook. Caroline informed me how the next phase for Eden may well be branching out more substantively with global outposts. Already, Eden has several collaborative projects on education with communities worldwide through initiatives such as the “post-mining alliance.” Tim Smit is considering opening a similar themed project within the heavily mined Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, where much of the world’s “rare earth” minerals are mined.

In times of economic stress, projects such as Eden deserve our attention for support, since they have shown resilience, innovation and perseverance where many other high-profile infrastructure projects have fallen flat. As we strive to create a “new economy” and consider imponderable questions of sustainability in a finite world, it is precisely such microcosms of creativity that could become incubators of economic and ecological renewal.


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.