Several events have made me think differently about the whole idea of garden design, conservation and green space in cities recently. I went down to London with my husband to see Tom Stoppard’s play ‘Travesties’ at the Apollo. We last saw it about 35 years ago, when Stoppard was widely performed, and then I couldn’t understood what the play was about. This time with half a lifetime’s more worldly experience, I enjoyed it much more.
On the journey to London I was reading ‘Utopia for Realists’ by Rutger Bregman, from which one idea struck me forcefully. The wealth of a country is always measured by GDP, which is a meaningless statistic because it doesn’t consider the value of happiness, environmental services, unpaid family carers and many other hidden benefits to society of things that are not given a financial value.
The day after the play, I visited the Natural History Museum Wildlife Garden, as I had never seen it in spring, and this might be my last chance. The NHM has big plans to change the whole layout of their extensive grounds, in order to cope with the problem of large queues for entrance in the tourist season. The wildlife garden is only one corner of the grounds yet the plans would change it beyond recognition.
In spite of an online petition with nearly 40,000 signatures, the management seem entirely prepared to destroy the current habitats in the pursuit of a garden designer’s plan of an artistic setting, with much reduced semi-natural habitats. The irony of one of the greatest biodiversity institutions in the world only having dead specimens on display inside, while their mature, vibrant and well-studied habitats outside are bulldozed would have appealed to absurdist and comedy playwrights like Stoppard and Douglas Adams.
As a gardener and wildlife volunteer, I have been involved in the habitat restoration of a major reserve in North Wales for rare butterflies, and have tried to recreate many habitats on other sites and on my own eight acres. This experience has taught me that habitats cannot be dug up and translocated to another site easily. Trying to replace habitats for wildlife is actually very, very difficult. At the NHM they are planning to disturb most of the wildlife garden, where several different habitats have been bedding in for 20 years, but say it will be OK because they are going to put some of the plants back into other areas.
The NHM garden has become an essential place for education and study amongst school pupils and university students, museum staff and volunteers. In the hour I was there students from two local universities were carrying out their own survey of insects and plants. Two of the NHM scientific staff popped in to check their pitfall traps and other collection devices. And a primary school party were being guided around the ponds and woodlands. Not to mention the parents and grannies of young children enjoying the sight and sound of peeping Moorhen chicks on the tranquil large pond and the dappled shade woodland populated by native bluebells, white stitchwort and red campion.
There have also been many public events in the garden – like the ‘Bat Day’ last year when 5,000 visitors passed through to see local native bats and learn about them from the NHM scientists. Study and connection to nature in the middle of our biggest city like this has been going on for 20 years, during which over 3,000 records have been logged on the NHM database, including a number of nationally rare species found in that one-acre space.
Recording is the lifeblood of conservation because it informs us of where species are still able to live and where we have pushed them out. And it is especially important to have continuous recording in an environment like a central western city to guide planning for the mega-cities of the future
Preserving Biodiversity is essential for the health of all wildlife and our own. The knock-on effects of species disappearing from the local ecology are only just beginning to be understood. We can’t afford to be losing more species, without finding out what effects this may have down the line. The new NHM plans are going to replace their magical oasis of conservation, study and lab to spot climate change effects with artistic concrete ovals, and areas of well-trodden grass in between, where the only wildlife most people will see will be pigeons.
Now how does this connect with ‘Travesties’? In ‘Travesties’ Stoppard's main interest is in the competing value systems of art and commerce and whether art can be a greater revolutionary force than politics. In the NHM wildlife garden plans, the travesty is in the sacrifice of destruction being hailed as a modern commercial solution and artistic interpretation of what is needed now. In the play, Lenin declaims to the revolutionary crowd that
“Today, literature must become party literature. Down with non-partisan literature! Literature (and Art) must become part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog in the social democratic mechanism. ‘Everyone is free to write and say whatever he likes. But the party, is also free to expel members who advocate anti-party views.’"
This is what seems to be happening today to all those liberal views that have been developing all the last 60 years- the EU, ideas of universal healthcare and housing, the need for public green spaces. It’s all too expensive, get rid of it, and ignore the half of the population which doesn’t agree. The decision makers think the NHM Wildlife Garden hasn’t worked for its commercial needs, so it must be sacrificed. There are however plenty of excellent alternative designs that would be much less damaging.
Editor notes: This entry was delayed in publication on the web while the Heritage Lottery Fund was considering the Museum’s funding application. It has been turned down on this submission.