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

The Eco Wonder: The density of plant life in Panama is greater than in Brazil or China. Such incredible variety inspired local leaders to erect a new Museum of Biodiversity—aka the Bridge of Life—on a conspicuous site at the Pacific mouth of the Panama Canal. Designed by iconoclast Frank Gehry, the Bridge of Life will be as colorful as a parrot’s plumage. Once it opens in 2010, the Panama City museum will house an original edition of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and it will feature twin semicylindrical aquariums, and “Panamarama,” a three-story, fourteen-screen film space.

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.

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Chongming Island. (Photo: ZUMA Press)

2. Dongtan, China

The Eco Wonder: Called by its designers “the world’s first purpose-built eco city,” Dongtan will be powered entirely by renewable energy sources and supplied with battery or fuel-cell vehicles and solar-powered water taxis. Plans call for Dongtan, which will be located on Chongming Island in the Yangtze River Delta near Shanghai,  to house up to half a million people by 2050. Tourist attractions will include a leisure park, a science exhibition, an educational center, and wildlife conservation areas surrounding Dongtan’s three distinct villages.

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.

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3. Nysted Havmøllepark, Denmark 

The Eco Wonder: The Dutch are known for windmills, but it’s the Danish who now claim the world’s second-largest offshore wind farm, located in shallow but navigable waters 6 miles off the shore of the bucolic southern coastal town of Nysted. Gently rotating blades reach out more than 130 feet from their colossal 225-foot posts. Seen from the sky, the 72 sleek, marine-gray towers rise from the ocean in neat rows, marking out a parallelogram.

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.

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"Living Roof" at California Academy of Sciences. (Photo: Associated Press)

4. California Academy of Sciences, California

The Eco Wonder: With its steep, undulating 2.5-acre living roof, the glass-walled California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco looks like it rose from the ground around it. Covered with 1.7 million wildflowers, strawberries, and herbaceous perennials, the roof serves as a habitat for birds and San Bruno elfin butterflies, an apt topper for a natural history museum, planetarium, and aquarium rolled into one.

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.

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Part of the Eden Project complex. (Photo: youMayCallMeSheep)

5. Eden Project, England

The Eco Wonder: The biome conservatories of the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, are more than visually stunning. The giant geodesic domes made of inflatable plastic-like “pillows” enclose millions of plants, 5,000 species in all, laid out in botanical gardens that reveal how the plant kingdom supports human life. Billed as the world’s biggest conservatory, the otherworldly structures are also arguably the most environmentally advanced. Just one biome, the Humid Tropics section, covers 4 acres under a 180-foot-tall canopy, and is replete with butterflies, birds, and lizards. Yet the Eden Project’s main mission is for visitors to have fun—which explains why more than a million people enter the recyclable foil bubbles every year.

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.

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6. Menara Mesiniaga, Malaysia

The Eco Wonder: The fifteen-story Menara Mesiniaga stands as one of a handful of eco-friendly high-rise buildings designed by architect Ken Yeang. Full of open-air sky gardens with mature trees and tropical breezes, Yeang’s eco structures, most of which are found in his home country of Malaysia, are unlike any other tall buildings in the world. Menara Mesiniaga’s canopied sunroof, distinctive louvers, and open-air garden balconies give occupants the sense of being outdoors in airy spaces planted with tall trees and dappled with sunlight. From inside, floor-to-ceiling windows offer panoramic views of the surrounding area.

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.

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7. Star Axis, New Mexico

The Eco Wonder: Part land art and part astronomy lesson, Star Axis occupies a remote plot in New Mexico near Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Conceived as a naked-eye observatory connecting people to the heavens and earth, the project has been underway for more than 30 years. The result, with its pink granite solar pyramid and a star tunnel precisely parallel to the Earth’s axis, will be eleven-stories high and a tenth of a mile wide—a majestic and monumental bridge between land and sky.

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.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Photo tease: arex/flickr