When I speak to Eden International CEO David Harland, he’s at the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, UK, where the Eden Project Pavilion aimed to be a ‘showcase of, and call to arms for, the actions needed to regenerate our fractured planet.’
“I might be biased, but I think it’s the most beautiful thing at COP26. It’s very visually appealing and it gets people thinking and talking,” Harland tells me, in between announcing new projects, speaking to news crews and scouting for funding.
Designed by Grimshaw, the pavilion is reminiscent of the geodesic design of the Eden Project biomes in Cornwall, but features collapsed panels to reflect the current planetary crisis.
Just before I speak to Harland, the Eden Project team used the pavilion as a backdrop to announce plans to open the first South American site, in Colombia’s Meta region. It’s the latest in a string of international ‘New Edens,’ with projects planned for Costa Rica, China, New Zealand, Australia, Africa, the US and the UK.
Meanwhile, at the original site in Cornwall UK, which opened in a disused clay pit in 2001, Eden Geothermal – a groundbreaking project aiming to harness sustainable energy from the rocks deep underground – is progressing fast. At the start of November 2021, the partners announced the project it had reached a critical point, with the completion of its first well five kilometres underground. The plan is to use the heat to produce electricity to power the Eden Project and the equivalent of around 5,000 homes.
“When we built the Eden Project in Cornwall, doing no harm was good enough. Now we need our buildings and operations to do good,” says Harland.
The Eden Project organisation has pledged to be carbon positive by 2030. “Actually, we should do better than that,” Harland says. “We’ll be carbon positive for scopes 1 and 2 [direct emissions and indirect emissions – owned] at Eden Project Cornwall by the end of 2022. Geothermal will help us to go further and deal with visitors coming to us and that element of the carbon counting. And of course that pledge must relate to all of our future sites as well.”
Since opening in 2001, the original Eden Project has attracted more than 22 million visitors. Now, Eden is keen to reach a greater audience around the world; to influence individuals, corporations and governments to change their behaviours in order to protect the planet.
“We feel you can only do that by connecting with people,” explains Harland. “The physical sites are really important to tell those stories about how we live and how dependent we are on the natural world.
“It’s about giving people the tools and capability to take action. The way we want to do that in part is by creating exemplar projects that show that the future remains ours to make – that you can take something apparently hopeless, sterile and derelict that had been used up by humans, such as a clay pit or a mine, and breathe new life into it.”
Eden Project International was launched in 2017, with the aim of driving the establishment of new Eden projects worldwide, partnering with “like-minded organisations to deliver social and ecological benefits.”
EDEN PROJECT QINGDAO
The first location to be announced outside the UK was the Eden Project Qingdao in China, which broke ground in May 2020 and topped out in October 2021. Themed around water, it’s situated on 66 hectares of reclaimed, environmentally damaged land that was used for salt production and then prawn breeding.
Eden Project partnered with China Jinmao Holdings Limited on the £150m (US$213m, €170.8m) project, which is due to open in 2023. “The site has water on three sides. We’re telling the story of water abundance, water scarcity and the power of water,” says Harland.
Designed by Grimshaw Architects, who were also responsible for the design of the original Eden Project, it will be made from triangular ETFE domes or ‘pillows’ and have the world’s largest indoor waterfall at its centrepiece. Rising to a height of 50m (164ft) , it will be roughly the same size as Niagara Falls.
Visitors to Eden Project Qingdao will journey through dramatic landscapes of extreme aridity and water abundance, surrounded by theatrical performances and interactive installations. These will explore different aspects of water – from the microscopic life forms in one drop of water to the thunder claps of a storm cloud.
WORKING IN CHINA
How have Harland and the rest of the team found working in China, I ask.
“It’s not easy,” he says, “that’s not about them being difficult; it’s just that there are cultural differences and different ways of working.
“What we did find is a real commitment to wanting to look at things afresh and push the envelope, from a sustainability point of view.”
China’s rapid urbanisation and construction boom has had a high environmental cost; it’s vital that the Qingdao project is constructed sustainably and helps demonstrate a different way of doing things, adds Harland. “You have to engage in dialogue and work with people rather than just criticising from the outside. We spent a lot of time looking for the right partner – they recognise there’s been fantastic advancement over the past 30 years, but there’s also been a cost to that.
“We’re challenging construction methods at Eden Project Qingdao,” he says. “For example our partner would have happily put peat into the project. We said, you can’t do that and we worked through the reasons, gave them the evidence, and they agreed they absolutely didn’t want to use it.”
Eden’s projects are all being run through partnerships – how do they ensure partners share their values and don’t tarnish the Eden brand?
“This is our biggest risk, and it’s the thing that occupies the most time,” acknowledges Harland. “We’re very alive to the idea of greenwashing and other traps we could fall into if we’re not careful. The key is to spend a lot of time researching our partners and finding out about them. We say to people, if you want to work with us, there’s a cost to that, and also we want to do a feasibility study. That allows us to assess if they’re really serious about the project. Feasibility is part of the due diligence we do, and it seems to work well.”
EDEN PROJECT NORTH
Plans to build a northern version of the Eden Project in Lancashire, UK, were submitted to Lancaster City Council in September 2021.
If approved, the £125m project would be situated on the site of the former Bubbles leisure complex on the seafront at Morecambe Bay. Eden has teamed up again with Grimshaw Architects to create ‘shell-like’ domes, with a mix of indoor and outdoor attractions designed to connect people with the natural environment of Morecambe Bay. It’s projected to attract around one million visitors a year, and employ around 400 people.
“The concept comes from the idea of tides and rhythms and their effect on our lives,” says Harland. “There’s a pulse, or a rhythm to life, and when things are out of rhythm, that’s when they start to go wrong. We want visitors to understand and experience this rhythm.”
Harland recently spoke about the need for government funding for the Eden Project North, and speaking to potential funders for Eden projects is a big part of his role.
“It’s a challenge and I spend a lot of my energy trying to raise funding,” he says. “Our projects are often public, private and philanthropically funded with capital, but they stand on their own two feet once they’re built. We have a sustainable business model – the exciting thing is that we can make a return both commercially and also for the public sector on these developments, which is why these partnerships work.
“Is it easy? No. Truthfully, it’s a slog, but we know that these things are worth doing because they have real impact on people’s lives and that’s why we keep doing what we’re doing,” he says.
As our conversation comes to a close, I ask Harland whether he feels optimistic or pessimistic about the future of our planet.
“I feel entirely optimistic for the future of the planet – this is a human-made problem and the planet will be absolutely fine without us,” he says. “If you ask me if I feel optimistic for the future of humankind, yes I do as well, but we’ve got to take action. We’re an optimistic organisation, I’m an optimist by nature and we know that the future remains ours to make.”