The Seven Wonders of the World. The phrase, first used by ancient Greek historians like Herodotus, recalls a simpler time, when the human influence over nature was an awesome mystery. From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the Great Pyramid of Giza, the magnitude and mastery displayed by the ancient wonders were staggering to our ancestors.
Century by century, through advances in technology, engineering, and exploration, our collective sense of what constitutes a marvel has changed. But even recent rankings of world wonders—a set called the New Seven Wonders of the World, based on global voting results, was announced in Lisbon last summer—herald our ability to triumph over nature. Today, at the dawn of a new eco era, this old-school monument standard makes us, well, wonder. Should we celebrate endeavors that cast us as conquerors of the natural world, or those that connect with and sustain our environment?
The editors decided we need a new list of wonders—one with an eco-enlightened perspective. So we searched the globe. We visited today’s most progressive, iconic structures. And we studied blueprints for projects now under construction that represent a better form of development for tomorrow. We insisted that these eco wonders connect our built and natural realms, cultivating hope for a brighter, greener, more innovative century. And lo and behold, the Seven Eco-Wonders of the World was born: present and future marvels (in no particular order) that prove our civilization can leave an eco-friendly imprint.
1. Museum of Biodiversity, Panama
What’s Behind It: Sensing the need for a new national icon, Panamanian nonprofit Fundación Amador is developing the museum with Gehry; the surrounding botanical park with New York’s Edwina von Gal; and the educational exhibits with Toronto design guru Bruce Mau. The Smithsonian Institute and Panama’s national university are also advising.
Eco-touring Tips: Soberania National Park, a lush rain forest preserve, is just minutes away. Many visitors stay at Canopy Tower, an observatory in the tropical park, amid the roar of howler monkeys and the blue flash of Morpho butterfly wings. More than 1,500 islands dot Panama’s coasts, making it a kayaker’s paradise.
Chongming Island. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
2. Dongtan, China
What’s Behind It: Even skeptics of this Chinese eco wonder are impressed. The Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation is developing the site with contractors who use a mix of traditional and innovative measures like low-energy air-conditioning and green roofs. Dongtan will use half the water and create one-sixth the waste of a comparable city, even with 20 acres set aside for producing native foods like corn, rice, and fish. Nearby farms will be restored as wetlands, with a 2.1-mile buffer around the city to control ground pollution.
Eco-touring Tips: By the time World Expo 2010 comes to Shanghai, as many as 5,000 people will call Dongtan home. A one-hour ferry ride far from the big-city bustle, pastoral Chongming Island is crisscrossed with canals and dirt roads, and hosts the largest migratory bird sanctuary in China.
3. Nysted Havmøllepark, Denmark
What’s Behind It: Denmark leads the globe in the push for renewable energy. More than 5,000 turbines on land and 200 offshore produce about one-fifth of the nation’s energy. The Nysted project, a joint venture between several European companies led by DONG Energy, has an annual output of 595 million kilowatt-hours, enough to supply 145,000 homes. Three of every four Danish wind farms are owned by individuals or cooperatives.
Eco-touring Tips: Visitors can sail in the unrestricted waters around the Nysted wind farm using sailing directions found on the farm’s website. Frequent tours leave from Nysted, where sport fishing is another popular local pastime. On shore, the Rødsand area is well-liked for its dunes, seaside campsites, game reserves, and a European Union bird sanctuary—and don’t miss the Egholm Ulvecenter, a wolf park and museum.
"Living Roof" at California Academy of Sciences. (Photo: Associated Press)
4. California Academy of Sciences, California
What’s Behind It: Designed by Italian modernist architect Renzo Piano with Monterey green-roof design firm Rana Creek, the $488 million building is shooting for a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum rating—a first for a museum. Built mostly of recycled materials, the natural showplace heats and cools itself with almost no external energy. Inside, there are more than 20 million living and preserved animal species from 170 countries displaying nature’s diversity. There’s even an alligator swamp and a rainforest.
Eco-touring Tips: The Academy opens this fall in Golden Gate Park. Nature lovers can plan picnics and hikes in the 1,000-acre park when visiting. San Francisco, a global capital of eco chic, offers a near-endless selection of urban pleasures. Pick up a map from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s impressive selection and two-wheel it wherever you go.
Part of the Eden Project complex. (Photo: youMayCallMeSheep)
5. Eden Project, England
What’s Behind It: Millionaire record producer Tim Smit worked on another area attraction, the Lost Gardens of Heligan, before he envisaged his Eden, working with cofounder and architect Jonathan Ball, and horticultural gurus Peter Thoday and Philip McMillan Browse. Smit later enlisted British enviro-architect Nicholas Grimshaw to design the biomes.
Eco-touring Tips: By train, bus, or car it’s four and a half hours from London to the Eden Project in southwest England. Cyclists earn discounted tickets and line-jumping status at the biomes. Nearby activities include hiking the Camel Trail and Dartmoor National Park, plus Heligan’s Lost Gardens.
6. Menara Mesiniaga, Malaysia
What’s Behind It: Yeang’s bioclimatic design, better known as passive low-energy architecture, makes these towers work. The architect gained international renown by touting a future with “hairy” and “breathing” buildings, a reference to his patented ventilation techniques; high-rise vegetation sprouting from balconies; and open-air lobbies with picnic areas and playgrounds. Yeang believes that skyscraping cities are vital to our future, reducing sprawl while contending with booming populations. To work, they must bring in nature, fresh air, and sunlight where it’s least expected.
Eco-touring Tips: To witness the natural inspiration for Yeang’s architecture, stay at the Taman Negara eco resort, nestled deep in the world’s oldest tropical rainforest northeast of Kuala Lumpur.
7. Star Axis, New Mexico
What’s Behind It: Charles Ross, a physics-student-turned-sculptor from New York, conceived of Star Axis in 1971. His idea was to create chambers and tunnels so people could experience the Earth’s spinning and movement in various time frames, from one hour to one season to one 25,920-year cycle of procession. Ross is well-known for celestial works—his prism installations at Harvard University create spectrum light that changes with the Earth’s rotation.
Eco-touring Tips: To look 13,000 years into the future, plan ahead. Star Axis is not officially open yet (the target date is 2010), though much of it is complete. The site is on Chupinas Mesa, where the Sangre de Cristo Mountains meet the eastern plains; check staraxis.org for updates.
Story by CC Sullivan. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2008.
Photo tease: arex/flickr