Over the past two or so years, I’ve been trying to keep track of the Brisbane City Council’s partnership with the Cornwall based Eden Project. At first it seemed that the intention was to build a replica Eden Project facility in Brisbane. In 2007, the Courier Mail reported that the Lord Mayor wanted to build a major green science and education centre in Brisbane as a result of the partnership. Speculation abounded with the general consensus pointing to Mt Coot-tha as a likely site. While that would be a much welcome addition to Brisbane’s diverse mix of social, cultural and science facilities, it seemed like too great an undertaking given the city’s overcommitment to major infrastructure and marginalisation of other cultural and social services. Now, with the global financial crisis, such an investment seems even more unlikely. I recall attending an initial briefing about the partnership and was immediately fascinated with what this relationship could be, saying to myself “please don’t let this turn into another copycat scenario”. Thankfully, the process has been enriched with surprises and represents a dynamic community engagement approach.
The Lord Mayor indicated at the inception of the partnership that the shape of the final project was uncertain. However, he did state that he anticipated an iconic project for Brisbane for what is a drawcard to this city for tourists and a great place for Brisbane residents. However, as that 2007 newspaper report stated, the thrust of the agreement between Brisbane City Council and the Eden Project is to share intellectual property. As more information about the partnership was communicated to the community, I came to understand that the relationship was couched in terms of a learning exchange, where ideas and opportunities are explored across the partnership for the betterment and benefit of both partners and their stakeholders and communities.
I’ve now been to several events involving the Eden Project, from early roundtable conversations with Council staff to public presentations to more recent ‘learning circles’ concerning the Mt Coot-tha Masterplanning process. The Eden Project is indeed unique and listening to the representatives from the facility speak about their passion for the place and their work is indeed inspiring. The Eden Project is well documented online. It was constructed in a 160-year-old exhausted china clay quarry at Bodelva, near St. Austell, in Cornwall. It was established as one of the Landmark Millennium Projects to mark the year 2000 in the UK and supported with massive fundraising efforts. The most dramatic features of Eden are the massive biomes which as the biggest conservatories in the world house a range of environments including a rainforest and mediterranean garden. Online videos provide a virtual tour of these breathtaking facilities.
Most importantly, the Eden Project provides experiences for its visitors that aim to reconnect people to nature in imaginative and immersive ways. From its own ecological footprint to the design of its buildings to its food offerings to its public programs to its sense of place, the facility is totally focused on ‘environment’ and ‘nature’ to ensure that people understand and celebrate their connection to the world. The facility endeavours to function as a platform where stories can be told about how people interact with plants, how they grow plants, what they use plants for, as a way of communicating how we live on the planet, and explore sustainable development. As a blogger on the Our Brisbane site said, “It’s about participation, not politics. It’s about listening to stories as much as telling. It’s about art and fun and gentle education rather than scary scenarios of doom.”
Over 650 residents attended the Eden Showcase held in February this year and the community have come to appreciate the Eden Project as a kind of inspirational object lesson. In an online forum, a local resident comments, “Project Eden is a way of presenting the environmental message in a way that’s less like a sermon – and more like an adventure, a bit of fun and beauty.” Sustainability and resilience are embedded and integrated into the operations of the centre: from what I’ve read and seen, without that reflexivity, the centre probably could not function. It’s the ethos of Eden that seems to be infusing our city now, that is sticking with those who encounter it. This then begs the question of whether, if such values become embedded in our way of doing things and being in our city, we really do need a replica of the Eden Project here. The practices of the Eden Project are indeed exemplary, but can they be used to reimagine and recreate this city in another image? Can they be used to influence planning and development? Can they be used to engender a new sense of connection across culture, environment and community?
Stories from the community, as collected at that showcase event, seem to tap into a deep longing for change but an inability or lack of capacity to make that change ourselves. When asked what an urban Eden would be, with many responses about food, growing, greenness, localising, intergenerationality and community, one person says “somewhere to smell, breathe, feel at peace, laugh, meet and eat”. In the word map that arised from the brainstorm and story sharing, the word ‘community’ is prominent. There is so much to learn through this process. In order to understand our connection with the environment, we might also need to better understand our connections with each other.