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Zoo Design Envisions Habitats Without Human Interference

A new plan for the Givskud Zoo in Denmark gives animals more freedom in captivity while effectively placing humans inside protective barriers.

Zoos have traditionally been built a certain way: Animals on the inside, humans on the outside, peering in. This separation is good in theory—humans and animals need to be protected from one another—but terrible in practice, as animals end up stripped of any semblance of a natural habitat. A new plan for the Givskud Zoo in Denmark wants to reverse those roles, giving animals more freedom in captivity while effectively placing humans inside protective barriers.

Called Zootopia, the conceptual design comes from danish firm BIG. The firm began working with Givskud Zoo a couple years ago with the goal of turning the safari style zoo into a place where animals dictate interaction—not humans. “Try to imagine if you asked the animals what they would like. What would they decide?” says Richard Østerballe, director of the Givskud Zoo. “They want their nature back, so to speak, and we are going to try to create that.”

To make that happen BIG is looking to invert the traditional safari park. In this design, animals will roam free around the perimeter while humans observe, hidden away from view in underground passageways and naturalistic architecture structures. Visitors can watch lions through an underground enclosure disguised as a hill. They’ll peek out at giraffes through windowed lodges built into the side of a hilly savannah. Outside of the main circular entrance, there will be no traditional buildings. Even the stables will be disguised as natural habitat, with the elephants lolling about a wide open rice field that camouflages the shelter below and bears that find shelter in a stable disguised as a pile of logs. “We want to take away human influence,” says Østerballe.

Like the Paris Zoo, which recently reopened after years of renovations, animals at Zootopia will be grouped based on regions (America, Asia and Africa). Visitors will start at the circular entrance way and can travel through the regions using different modes of transportation. In America, you’ll ride in cable cars that guide you through the air. In Africa, BIG envisions visitors moving through the park in pedal-powered pods, while in Asia they’ll travel by a boat on a river. You’ll also be able to walk.

BIG’s vision is almost sci-fi in its aesthetic, which makes it a little hard to believe. In a rendering, you see a mirror cable car dangling just above a brown bear’s head. In another, two children have hopped out of their pod and are swimming alongside elephants. What’s missing from these glossy images are the hidden infrastructure that ensures that little Jenny and James don’t get trampled by that massive elephant while they’re splashing around. Østerballe says things like concealed moats–where deeper depths and poles that obstruct an animal’s ability to go past a certain point–will be used in these instances. “The main challenge, of course, is to design the zoo in a way that the enclosure is still there but it’s not visible,” Bjarke Ingels told Vice.

The two-phase plan, which will cost around $200 million, is still in the refining and approval phase. Østerballe says it’ll be at least five years until we see any work finished on the park, and it’s likely to take upwards of 10 years to see the elaborate circular entranceway built. It’s easy to imagine that BIG’s plans will undergo some alterations before they enter the real world, but who knows? Maybe 10 years from now we really will be pedaling a shiny, silver orb through the pseudo African grasslands.

--- Liz Stinson, Wired

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