Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

LA's Natural History Museum replaces asphalt with outdoor learning lab

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The Los Angeles Natural History Museum (NHM) is poised to unveil a new, 3 1/2 acre "nature gardens" that will also serve as the homebase for multiple scientific studies. Although the area won't be open to the public until June, the museum offered a sneak peek of the lush grounds last week.

The gardens includes surveillance cameras to capture visiting wildlife and a "living wall" full of purposeful cracks meant to encourage plant growth and insect visits.

There's a large pond with turtles, lizards and dragonflies and a "listening tree" where an amplification system taps into tree roots so visitors are able to actually hear the tree soaking up water from the earth. 

The gardens are located where two parking lots used to be. They're intended to serve as "an exhibit and programming area" where students and visitors can take tours, attend classes, or participate in one of the museum's research projects.

"If the museum can recruit tens of hundreds of Angelenos to help our scientists document what is living in our city right now, we can measure how things have changed over time," said NHM's Manager of Citizen Science Lila Higgins in a statement. 

As part of the garden's debut, the NHM has launched a major research project to catalog L.A.'s insect population. Dubbed "BioScan," this effort will rely on the public's help to count and compare bugs collected at data stations—from the museum in Exposition Park to the Santa Monica Mountains.

One of the lead scientists on the project, Dean Pentcheff, said the project might seem basic. But he said it's extremely important in establishing an accurate inventory of insects in the area. 

Bugs will be collected at 30 different stations over the next three years. Within one week of collection at the NHM garden site, Pentcheff said they yielded what could be thousands of insects. That ranged from bugs that are easily seen down to microscopic organisms.  

"Expected science outcomes include the near-certain discovery of numerous new species from the L.A. area, an important biodiversity inventory, and active collaborations with evolutionary and population geneticists eager to use the project's unprecedented insect collection," according to the museum.

The gardens were a collaboration of scientists, educators and architects who tried to create an urban oasis that was also functional.

Mia Lehrer + Associates served as the landscape architects on the NHM gardens. It's worked on other major L.A. projects, including the Silver Lake Reservoir walking path and the revitalization of the L.A. River. 

Mia Lehrer said removing  the asphalt of the parking lots and replacing it with green space was very "satisfying."

"The notion was to create these gardens that allowed Angelenos to understand nature, and especially nature in the city, and to bring the expertise of the museum out of the confines of a building and into the gardens," said Lehrer. 

The gardens will officially open to the public on June 9 as part of a year-long celebration of the museum's centennial. The NHM opened in 1913 and cost a whopping $250,000 to build. 

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