Urban Nature Project, Natural History Museum
The Urban Nature Project is the Natural History Museum’s response to the growing pressures of urbanisation and biodiversity loss on people and planet. It aims to give people across the UK, no matter who they are or where they live, the motivation and tools to safeguard nature in towns and cities.
Change starts at home, with the transformation of the Museum’s five-acre gardens into a welcoming, accessible and biologically diverse green space in the heart of London.
The project will transform an underused garden into an urban oasis, telling the story of change on our planet over time. New areas of habitat will allow nature to flourish, and create a living laboratory where scientists can monitor, record and study urban wildlife.
Architects Feilden Fowles, working closely with landscape architects J & L Gibbons, are leading a multidisciplinary design team which includes Gitta Gschwendtner, engineers HRW and Max Fordham. The scheme is being delivered as a net zero carbon and zero waste project by contractor Walter Lilly.
The design team have worked closely with the Museum’s scientists to sensitively develop a series of outdoor living galleries, providing opportunities to learn about and explore nature. Integrated within the landscaping are two new buildings: Nature Activity Centre supported by AWS; and Garden Kitchen.
Nature Activity Centre supported by AWS is a 200m2 timber and stone building. It will combine vital facilities for scientific work, monitoring, learning activities, maintenance and supporting the volunteer community so important to the upkeep of the gardens. The new centre will allow improved access, legibility and interpretation of the Nature Discovery Garden, expanding the important scientific work of the Museum and encouraging community science activities.
Garden Kitchen is a 660m2 timber and stone building. It is multipurpose, functioning as a cafe space, events space and a seasonal storage and display space for the more exotic plants in the Evolution Garden. It is designed in the spirit of historic Victorian garden structures, such as orangeries and palm houses, referencing the geological strata of the timeline wall in its use of three varying ages of limestone and sandstone.
The Museum’s gardens are a sensitive reimagining of the existing green space, designed to protect and enhance biodiversity on the site, extending and enhancing woodland, grassland, scrub, heath, fen, reedbed, hedgerow, urban UK habitats, and wetlands which includes a complex relocation of the pond. All surface water is distributed site-wide via swales and infiltration basins to irrigate plants and replenish the ground water aquifer.
The gardens are arranged thematically into two areas:
Evolution Garden is an immersive, educational experience for visitors telling the story of Deep Time, from the Cambrian period 540 million years ago to the present day, through geology, planting and interpretive exhibits. A new life-size bronze cast of a Diplodocus will signpost the timeline from east to west, a journey from the past, to the present, and the study of future resilience.
Nature Discovery Garden is already home to thousands of species of British flora and fauna. More than 3,130 species have been identified in the garden since it opened in 1995. Together, the design team and Museum scientists have sensitively developed a series of outdoor living galleries providing opportunities to learn about and explore nature. The enhanced gardens will explore the profound impact of humanity through a mosaic of habitats showcasing urban nature, creating an imaginative and open platform for participation.
Within the Nature Discovery Garden, the Darwin Centre Courtyard explores ‘future nature’ through emergent and pioneer species, and possible approaches to climate adaptation, resilient communities, and promoting improved biodiversity within our cities. The gardens will transition to experimental beds on the threshold of the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Nature, where a limestone pavement is envisaged as the urban landscape of the future.
Sustainability has been a key driver for the project in the choice of materials, construction and maintenance planning. The design is minimal, low-tech, lean, clean, and green. The solid Douglas fir and limestones – Purbeck spangle, Ancaster hard white and Clipsham – for the constructed elements of the scheme are sourced exclusively from the UK. The buildings meet LETI’s targets for operational carbon with passive design used to minimise the energy demands of the buildings. The entire site is free of fuel-burning systems, and this extends to the construction, where contractor Walter Lilly has used an electric mobile concrete pump – a first in the UK – to pour the foundations of the Garden Kitchen. The concrete contains 50% ground granulated blast-furnace slag (GGBS), a recycled product from the steel industry which substitutes cement content, reducing its carbon footprint. Bridges and boardwalks across the site and the foundations of the Nature Activity Centre supported by AWS utilise helical piles, which minimise disruption to the soil and surrounding trees and contribute to carbon reduction on the project.
The project aims to inspire, inform, and empower visitors to take action to protect our planet, echoing the words of Sir David Attenborough, “The future of the natural world, on which we all depend, is in our hands”, a powerful and poignant quote which now adorns the east carriage ramp outside the Museum’s main entrance.
The Natural History Museum’s gardens will open to the public in spring 2024.