Dr Susan Johnson explains how the UK’s bid to make Charles Darwin’s home a World Heritage Site will help to maintain biodiversity.

In 2009 we will mark the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150 years since The Origin of Species was published. In advance of these celebrations, the area around Downe village in Kent, where Darwin lived and experimented, has been nominated for inclusion as a World Heritage Site (WHS). This is the first time that a site based on the life and work of a scientist has been proposed for such status. A successful nomination bid will enable a tremendously important environment to be conserved for long-term wildlife observations within 25 miles of central London.

World Heritage Sites and citizenship

The World Heritage Convention was adopted by UNESCO in 1972. It aims to identify and protect sites of cultural and natural heritage which are of global value for future generations. Analysing the UK’s 2006 ‘Darwin at Downe’ WHS nomination offers a realistic, investigative citizenship exercise for secondary schools. Making a WHS bid also requires management reports outlining the current situation, which show how the site’s capacity will be able to cope with increasing visitor numbers.

Completed nomination and management documents for Darwin at Downe are available at www.bromley.org. From these, students can learn about the roles played by local and national wildlife organisations in maintaining biodiversity. Students can also examine the importance of consultation with  local people and groups responsible for the conservation of local heritage. Furthermore, the likely impacts that accompany a site’s global recognition can be projected and solutions offered.

A case study of Downe

Students attending a Down House summer school in 2005 made a comparison of Greenwich WHS and Downe village. Surveys in Downe were used to identify existing visitor numbers and calculate the site’s carrying capacity. Access issues, marketing and promotion were monitored. Students predicted the outcomes of increased visitor numbers and proposed sensible and insightful ways of dealing with authentic problems. Their observations raised the following points:

Access: narrow roads to Down House (Darwin’s home for 40 years) meant restricted access, particularly for coaches. However, visitors could reach Downe village by train from Bromley.

Parking: kerbside parking reduced road width further, as there was no car park in the village. The problem was exacerbated by the small number of coach bays at Down House (currently an English Heritage property).

Sustainability: pollution would increase if visitors arrived by car. Daily bus services were limited and totally inadequate for weekend visitors.

Economic: as Downe village had only two public houses and no shops, services would need to increase in line with growing visitor numbers.

Conclusions: students found that traffic movements would rise beyond capacity unless an integrated traffic management scheme was introduced. Employment opportunities for local people would increase with the opening of shops, cafés and other services. 

Managing biodiversity

For any nominated WHS, plans for visitor management, access to features on the site and – in this instance – plans for protecting and enhancing wildlife, must be in place. Landscape management is essential at Downe, where Darwin worked, in order to retain the species of plants, insects, birds and mammals on which he reflected. Darwin’s experiments can be repeated today and many of his key observations are central to WHS’s wildlife monitoring. If the UK’s 2006 bid is successful, investigations and continuing research will be needed and the findings disseminated widely. Schools will be able to access this data and compare it to similar experiments in their school grounds or locality. 

Until such experiments are sufficiently established at Downe and in the curriculum, students can submit wildlife observations to a range of organisations that combine science and citizenship. Volunteers adding to survey data are of growing importance for phenology (the study of first sightings of seasonal indicator species, see www.phenology.org.uk), surveying bird numbers (www.rspb.org.uk/science/birdweb/results/index.asp) and common plant censuses (www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/plantlife-get-involved-common-plants-survey.html).

Schools and World Heritage Sites

Students may visit a World Heritage Site or simply discuss the issues involved in conservation, whether of cultural heritage or landscapes, to clarify their understanding. They can make a contribution to scientific knowledge using their own observations or make surveys of local features to gauge their sustainability. Whatever the motivation, students may begin to understand the significance of conservation efforts now for the world of their future. World Heritage Sites are spread widely across the UK (see below for some examples).

World Heritage Sites include:

  • Blaenavon Industrial Landscape
  • Derwent Valley Mills
  • Dorset and East Devon Coast
  • Frontiers of the Roman Empire
  • Heart of Neolithic Orkney 
  • Maritime Greenwich
  • Old and New Towns of Edinburgh
  • Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
  • Saltaire

Further information

Down House : www.english-heritage.org.uk/ server/show/conProperty.102

WHS wall map available free from http://whc.unesco.org

Dr Susan Johnson is working on the EU Plantscigardens project at the Institute of Education, University of London.