Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Up in the Canopy, the Treetop walk at Kew Gardens

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London

In 2008, Kew Gardens opened The Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway on International Biodiversity Day. The Treetop walkway is a series of paths and platforms 18 meters (59 feet) up in the air, allowing garden visitors to walk about the tree canopy. At a cost of £3 million, it was designed by Marks Barfield Architects, the firm who also designed the London Eye.

The experience starts underground as visitors enter a crack in the ground to explore an exhibit about the natural world beneath the trees. In this dark space, a mechanical system of cogs and wheels animates different creatures that live under the soil and highlights the relationship between tree roots and micro-organisms. There is no signage but there are video screens showing these micro-organisms and there is something very compelling about the mechanical and industrial aesthetic of the space. Along the flooring is a row of stained glass, which adds color and magic to the exhibit.

The walkway itself was a challenge for designers to install as they were trying to get as close as possible to the tree canopy while also protecting the root system below. In order to protect the trees, a radar survey was taken so that the structure could be placed in a way that would not damage the trees between major roots. In addition, traditional concrete footings were replaced by shallower steel grills so that the smaller, fibrous roots would not be harmed. Each support is tied together but custom-made welded grills.

I usually visit the garden with my children and they always insist on doing the walkway. The elevator has never worked, but we always enjoy the climb and the children especially like the donor element at the top. Visitors can slide a coin into one of three slots and listen as the money clinks through the structure down to a collection box below.

It is a big thrill to be up so high and we are always taken in by the stunning views and the slight vertigo we experience as you can see down to the ground through the flooring of the walkway. The signage is very simple and we do always read it – the signs are brass plaques in relief with one interesting sentence about tree biology. However, we rarely talk about the trees while we are up there and more could be done to draw our attention to the trees while we are up so high.

Once back at the bottom, there is an overturned tree that has been sculpted so that the “circulation system” of the tree is exposed. There are always lots of children climbing on the tree and we always look at the exhibit because as we have become much more interested in learning about trees through experiencing the walkway. It is inspiring to be up so high and be reminded of the beauty of our surroundings when we can really take them in!

Have you experienced a treetop walkway or treetop canopy exhibit elsewhere? Let us know your thoughts about being up in the trees.