Planning and Education for W etlands

W etlands are vital and sensitive habitats, often misunderstood and undervalued by the public. W etlands provide food, water, shelter and nesting for wildlife. In doing so, they attract diverse and often rare species that we humans can enjoy watching. What isn’t often appreciated by the public is that wetlands play several other crucial roles in maintaining a healthy and balanced living environment for us humans. Depending on the wetland type, they might of fer coastal protection, flood prevention, water filtration, nurseries for t h e f o o d w e c o n s u m e a n d o f c o u r s e, p l a c e s o f r e c r e a t i o n .

Protection of wetlands benefits everyone and education about the value of wetlands is hugely important. Having worked in design and interpretative master -planning for nearly twenty years, I have been fortunate enough to be involved in the development of several wetland park projects, including the highly successful Hong Kong W etland Park. Sited near Mai Po W etlands, Deep Bay, in Hong Kong’s New T erritories, the Hong Kong W etland Park is an example of the often-dif ficult balance b e t w e e n c o n s e r v a t i o n a n d d e v e l o p m e n t . C o n s t r u c t e d f r o m scratch, as a buf fer between the 300, 000 population New T own of T in Shui W ai and the globally significant Mai Po wetlands, the project developed as the dense urban area grew up around it.

Today the relatively small park—60-hectares—sits surrounded by high-rise and provides much needed open space for the local people. The design of the visitor experience reflects the nature of the site, on the edge of the urban area, with a gradual stepping down of human intervention as one moves deeper into the park. This design approach is reflected in the architecture, the landscape design andthe interpretation. For example:
architecturally, the entrance is grand and solidly built, although earth and grass covered, with expressed concrete finishes, while buildings further out in the park are timber clad. The landscaping feels at first rather like an urban park, transitioning later into natural “wild” wetland habitats.

Within the building, interpretation has high ener gy and intensity, reducing as visitors move through the park, to create a seamless transition to nature suitable for a variety of audiences. Landscaping, architecture and interpretation were designed to complement one another and to create a varied and engaging day- out for visitors. For this to be possible, close collaboration between design disciples was necessary . The result is a recreated wetland with remarkable biodiversity and educational opportunities crammed into a small site. Surveys conducted in 2015 recorded two hundred and fifty-four dif ferent bird species, fifty-two dif ferent species of dragonfly, ten dif ferent amphibians, twenty-nine reptiles and one hundred and sixty-six dif ferent species of butterfly.

The success of the Hong Kong W etland Park is reflected in the high visitation, with more than three million visitors in the first four years of operation and on average more than four hundred thousand visitors annually . The high visitation has helped raise local awareness about wetlands and their importance to the ecological balance. The success of the Hong Kong W etland Park and other similar projects is the result of careful planning and development. Feasibility studies and interpretative plans were developed to help shape the vision of the park and identify the audience needs.

The subsequent design was based on a sustainable model that of fered recreation and entertainment, as well as education and conservation. The design plan was a unique solution for Hong Kong, a city with a highly urbanised population. The step-down approach allowed visitors to engage with nature at their own pace and to explore as deeply as they felt comfortable. Each project is, of course, unique, and every interpretative plan s h o u l d r e s p o n d t o t h e u n i q u e s i t e c o n d i t i o n s, t h e n a t u r a l vegetation, native species, local culture and visitor needs, as well as budget constraints, both capital and operational.

Defining achievable goals and objectives that correspond to the best interests of the environment and local people is essential. If done well, an interpretative plan and feasibility study can help shape the long-term direction of more than just a wetland park. If done well a wetland park plan can help positively shape the thinking of generations, towards the protection and appreciation of wetlands, wildfowl and other wetland species. As designers and planners of design, we have an incredible opportunity and with it great responsibility to shape our future world through sensitively designed environments that provoke reflection and engagement with the natural world. The challenges and opportunities are there for us to grasp.

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