Lessons for the future of the world

Turning slag heaps into the first environmental theme park may have cost pounds 42m but it was worth it, writes Simon Birch

That is probably as close as I will get to an acid-free trip this side of Glastonbury,' beamedCaroline Toomey, 28, from Sheffield as she staggered from the depths of the Planet Earth Gallery, the centrepiece of the pounds 42m Earth Centre, near Doncaster, which opened last Friday.

More wacky than worthy, the Planet Earth Gallery is a low, long building dug deep into the hillside behind it, housing gigantic glass panels and sculptures. What you get from it is a 21st-century sensory experience, which is supposed to represent the "great global challenge of a sustainable future". But given its wild laser show, techno-style and ambient soundtrack, it would equally be at home at an Underworld or Orbital gig.

With a history of more ups and downs than Blackpool's Pepsi Max rollercoaster, the Earth Centre was born out of the green firmament of the late Eighties. Specifically, it was a response to the 1987 call from the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 for "vast campaigns of education, debate and public participation", given that the planet was, and still is, coming off the rails big-time.

Following a nationwide search, a 400-acre site of two former coal mines in South Yorkshire was chosen as the place where the Earth Centre would be built. In turn, the new project was supposed to breathe new life into one of the most economically depressed areas in western Europe.

Eight years of hard graft, 60,000 trees and 80,000 tons of treated sewage later - not to mention truckloads of euros and lottery money - the abandoned slag heaps have been transformed into the world's first environmental theme park. Its aim? To put into practice the ideas of solution-driven sustainability that the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have been talking about for years. Put bluntly, after decades of waiting in the wings, this is the environmental movement's once-in-a-lifetime stab at the big time.

Now, if all this dredges up best-forgotten memories of drizzle-ridden, soggy-sandwich school field trips, fear not. "It's an experience - not a lecture," cooed the Earth Centre's main man and torchbearer, Jonathan Smales. "We're not an environmental information centre. What we want is for people to have some greater warmth and encouragement with regards to the issues of sustainability."

Having been reassured that we wouldn't have to take notes, back at the centre we were led from the positively psychedelic Planet Earth Gallery to the chill-out room of the Action For the Future Gallery. This is where much of the nuts and bolts of communicating the message of sustainability takes place.

Sixteen interactive installations are scattered around the room, each representing different aspects of sustainability, from climate to transport, in which artists have had as much input as ecologists or planners. The end result buzzes with ideas and innovation, not unlike the creative mayhem that you find at any art college's degree show.

Some visitors were unhappy about the way in which information was displayed. "With all this creativity flying around, not to mention resources financial and otherwise," said Annette Connor from Doncaster, "it's a shame that the accompanying interpretation was displayed simply as A4 sheets tacked on to the walls."

Moving on from these galleries, which represent the centre's headline attraction, you can take your pick from the supporting acts, many of which were voted the best on site by some of the centre's younger visitors. "I liked the Nature Works building best," enthused Elizabeth Allen, 10, from Rotherham, "because I caught lots of little fishes."

Straddling a huge wildlife pond, the building houses giant glass jars filled to the brim with green goo and wiggly things. Children fill their own jars before pouring the whole lot back into the main breeding pond - as well as catching their own little fishes.

Elsewhere in the Nature Works building, probing video cameras put aquatic creepy-crawlies up on to the big screen and, judging by the amount of gasps of amazement, everybody was having a suitably wet and wonderful time.

And while water was being chucked about with seeming abandon in the Nature Works building, over in the Living Machine, the emphasis was on how the marriage between ecosystems and up-to-the-minute computerised gadgetry can save water both at the centre and in the home.

"I'll be using some of the ideas here to try and cut down my water bill," said Bill Wright from Nottingham. All the waste from the centre's loos is processed in the Living Machine, pretty well in front of your eyes in tanks of reedbeds and water hyacinths.

There is also a solar-powered boat which glides up and down the river Don, fleets of bicycles of every conceivable design for visitors to ride, 14 acres of organic gardens and a shop selling the latest planet- and people-friendly goodies - to name but a few of the things on offer. And this is just phase one. Within three years, a further pounds 50m is to be spent on opening phases two and three, which will include a vast, pounds 16m, solar roof over the centre's entrance.

The views of the paying punters were mixed. Some thought that, as the centre felt only half-finished, the entrance fee of pounds 8.95 should accordingly be half that amount. Others, such as the Allen family, told me: "You needed more than a day to take it all in." On the whole, the centre was given a cautious and environment-friendly thumbs-up.

For further information, contact the Earth Centre (tel: 01709 512 000).

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