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WWF garden highlights freshwater conservation at Hampton Court

July 20, 2011

Between 5-10 July at Hampton Court gardens on the outskirts of London, the WWF exhibited a specially commissioned garden to the public, aimed at engaging and enthusing the public with the need to conserve and protect freshwater ecosystems.  The garden “Why we care about chalk streams” was created by award-winning designer Fiona Stephenson to highlight the effects of water extraction on U.K. chalk stream ecosystems, as shown in the video above.

WWF freshwater expert Rose Timlett, explained, “A chalk stream is such a special habitat, stunningly beautiful with gin clear water and a perfect environment for wildlife and plants. But these rivers supply water to millions of people in the UK and it’s the demand for water that is threatening this eco-system. We hope our garden will inspire people to really think about their use of water and the impact they have on their surroundings.”

WWF Chalk Stream Garden

The garden – available for online viewing through a virtual tour here – was well received by judges, winning a silver-gilt medal.  However, there has been less discussion of how effective the project has been at communicating a message of freshwater conservation.  A theme we’re constantly pondering is the potential for the creative arts as a means of engaging a wider audience with the environment.  The WWF garden blurs the lines between two rich traditions of landscape modification –  land art (e.g. Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy, Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson) and landscape gardening (e.g. Capability Brown and Frederick Law Olmsted).

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty. Image: George Steinmetz September 2002

Whilst it could be argued that both traditions have reflected underlying attitudes on the human-nature relationship, and so influenced our behaviour towards it (for example, see the history of American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s involvement in designing Yosemite national park), it is relatively rare to find examples of environmentalists and artists collaborating through the creative process to produce a piece with a well-defined and articulated environmental message (although see Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking and Joseph Beuys’ 7000 Oaks).

Richard Long's A Line Made by Walking. Image:

It is this collaboration between environmentalism and the creative arts that we think could hold potential for engaging and enthusing a wider audience with environmental messages.  This collaboration runs throughout the WWF garden, as explained by the creator:

  • The stone at the garden entrance is full of fossils.  These represent a scaled up version of the microscopic marine animals that contributed to the creation of chalk layers around 100 million years ago.
  • The moon gate serves as a garden entrance, representing the cyclical journey of water and consistency of water in chalk streams.
  • The rammed earth wall shows the layering of chalk beds, representing the chalk aquifers that filter rainwater and are responsible for creating chalk streams.
  • The giant spheres represent greatly oversized water drops, holding different volumes to illustrate different uses of water.
  • A giant plug and artworks contribute to the idea of scale.  The artwork symbolises large dew drops held aloft by oversize blades of grass.  By distorting the scale, these features symbolise the overuse of water from our rivers.
  • The dry zone beyond the plug represents the eventual result of taking too much water from our rivers.

The WWF garden appears to have been successful in its collaborative creation, and has won a range of plaudits for its design.

However, how successful do you think this garden has been in achieving its aims?  Do you think it helps us imagine a model of conservation that considers the benefits of collaborating with artists and designers throughout its communication process (as opposed to tacking on art as a communication adjunct at the end of a project)?  What do you think are the most successful examples of this collaboration between art and science combining to produce and effective and engaging conservation message?

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