The Next Zoo Design Revolution?

Landscape immersion, which is a type of design intended to “immerse” the visitor in the same natural habitat as the animal, effectively began with the Woodland Park Zoo’s gorilla exhibit.  Created by zoo design godfathers Grant Jones and Jon Coe as a collaboration with Woodland Park then-director David Hancocks and biologist Dennis Paulson, they coined the term landscape immersion, and thus began the philosophical shift from a homocentric view of zoos to a biocentric view.  We now spend massive amounts of resources re-creating “natural” places and cultural phenomena, in an effort to connect people to the earth; to inspire respect of natural places.  Back in 1978, this style of design was fresh, new, innovative, revolutionary; nearly thirty years later, the style has become so a part of zoo culture that any exhibit not designed in this manner is questioned for its validity and chances of success.  However, should landscape immersion continue to be our design standard?  How do we push to the next step beyond landscape immersion?

True and successful landscape immersion requires designers to experience a habitat first-hand before beginning to design a re-creation of it.  They research the essence of the habitat, the ecosystem structure within the habitat, and the natural ebbs and flows the habitat would undergo.  The animal is an integral part of the ecosystem, not just the centerpiece of a painted scene.  The visitor is whisked away to another world, drastically different from the asphalt sidewalks and ice cream shops of the zoo midway.  Today’s landscape immersion is, too often, not this.  Today’s landscape immersion usually means planting the visitor space with the same plants as seen in the animal exhibit, and using props from a culture as shade structures, means to hide back-of-house buildings, and educational interpretives.  Moreover, today’s visitor to a modern zoo no longer has their breath taken away by a landscape immersion exhibit; they simply expect to be immersed in an animal’s habitat. The magic of landscape immersion is gone.  Along with that, the opportunity to educate and inspire is waning, because, as Coe has said himself, “Only the emotional side, in the end, has the power to generate changes in behavior” (Powell, 1997).  If the “oh my” moment is gone, does education stand a chance?  

Landscape immersion does not generate longer experiences, as commonly believed.  This can easily be shown true by simply observing visitor behavior at exhibits.  After studying visitor length-of-stay time at viewing areas, little to no difference can be observed between the old, concrete moated tiger exhibit at Philadelphia Zoo and the landscape and cultural immersion tiger exhibit at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  The average maximum stay time of 90 seconds has been consistently shown through observations at other exhibits as well, including the gorilla exhibit and bongo exhibit at Cincinnati Zoo, and the polar bear exhibits at Detroit Zoo and Louisville Zoo.  Despite renovations and millions of dollars spent on landscape, rockwork, and interpretives, the most we can expect of our visitors is a minute and a half.  Is this time shorter now than at immersion exhibits in the early 1980’s?  What can we do now to increase this time?  Or, what can we do to get the most impact for our minute and a half?

One of the biggest complaints against landscape immersion is the difficulty, generally, in spotting and clearly seeing the animals.  Therefore, proximity to animals should be a chief concern in exhibit design.  Visitors want to experience something special.   They want to do something no one else gets to do; something they have never done.  Most importantly, in doing these things, visitors feel connected to the animals.  Creating the connection should be of the utmost concern for designers and zoos. 

Another component lacking in modern zoo design (not just landscape immersion specifically) is the integration of behavioral enrichment into the basic design process.  Too often behavioral enrichment is an aspect of the exhibit that is not addressed by zoos to the architectural designer, even if the behavioral enrichment program is being developed concurrently.  Most zoos still see the enrichment program as a separate aspect of the new exhibit to be implemented by the keepers after the exhibit is opened.  Most architectural designers are ignorant to the importance of behavioral enrichment as a means not only to increase the health and welfare of the animal, but also in creating an active exhibit with active animals, which translates into longer stay times.  Thus, enrichment generally is not addressed as an aspect of design, and ultimately we see beautiful new landscape immersion exhibits with large orange boomer balls and blue plastic barrels.  Can these be considered cultural props?  Recently, behavioral enrichment has been integrated beautifully into primate exhibits, but what about ungulates and big cats? 

Connection creation and enrichment are the two most important issues that we must address in order to move beyond landscape immersion. The complexity of stepping beyond landscape immersion may seem a daunting task.  However, the essence of the next successful step will be in creating “novelty”-something new or unexpected.  Novelty to visitors, both within every new exhibit they encounter, as well as within the same exhibit upon repeat visits.  We must create novelty to animals, both in new enrichment devices and methods, as well as within their own habitats.  We need to make adaptable habitats that can be changed on a daily, weekly, monthly or seasonal basis.  We need to make experiences for the visitor and animal that they can share, becoming intuitively novel, since every person or animal will react slightly different in new situations.  Thus, our new exhibits will stay new, increasing visitor repeat attendance, and discouraging cookie cutter exhibit design. 

But how do we begin to do this?  In addressing the issues of connection creation and incorporation of enrichment into design, the first and most critical step will be to develop stronger relationships between architectural designers and zoo staff.  Designers need to be educated by the keepers on animals’ behaviors, both in the wild and in captivity, as well as on methods of behavioral enrichment.  Designers should spend a day or two working side-by-side with the keepers as “keepers for a day.” This will help designers to not only understand the needs of the keepers in their daily work routines, but also to help create bonds between designers and the animals whose homes they are creating.  The zoo staff has a passion for animals that most architectural designers are lacking.  This passion needs to be shared and experienced by the designers. 

In “novelty-based” design, zoos and designers need to work together to develop new methods of enrichment and test them before integrating them into design.  Design schedules and budgets should include a phase for enrichment development and testing, wherein the designers work with the keepers to create prototypes to be tested with the animals.  If the zoo is designing exhibits for animals they currently do not have in collection, partnerships should be developed to test enrichment devices at other zoos with those animals.  These findings should be recorded scientifically and published for the entire zoo community to share.  If the zoo uses training as enrichment, the designers need to experience training sessions and clearly understand the need and utility of the training.  Keepers and designers should be discussing how all of these methods can be displayed on exhibit.

Specific enrichment goals need to be addressed at design kick-off meetings, making numerical goals for incorporating enrichment devices and creating new methods.    Enrichment must be seen as a philosophical aspect of design, incorporated into the master planning process, because if animals are active and happy, visitors will become more engaged.  Enrichment must be planned not only for the opening day of the exhibit, but for the future of the exhibit as well.  Animals become acclimated to enrichment devices and stop using them.  We must plan for this, developing phasing plans for enrichment, and flexibility of the exhibit design for novelty of the environment.  Most importantly, after the construction is complete, studies must be conducted to determine the successes and failures of enrichment techniques.  These results should be shared with the zoo community, and especially, the designers. 

Secondly, the “novelty-based” design process must become “connection-centered,” not visitor-centered or animal-centered.  Connections are created both by proximity and by experience.   Landscape immersion began to explore this idea by attempting to have visitors and animals in the same habitat, thus experiencing the same things.  However, in landscape immersion, we don’t experience the same things at all.  As visitors, we have a choice to move into a different area, to eat ice cream or hot dogs, to sit and watch the gorillas or to go see the penguins.  We don’t swim in the same water as the polar bears and we don’t get to swing around on ropes like orangutans.  What if we started creating these shared experiences?  Can we make environments for animals and visitors that are truly similar?  What if the actions of a visitor change the environment for the animal?  What if the actions of an animal change the environment for the visitor?  No longer would we be bound by the idea that the habitat must look like the animals’ wild habitat.  We could make it look like any thing, any place, any time, as long as the visitor and animal are engaged and ultimately, connected.  

We have already seen a movement starting to push beyond landscape immersion, and, in some instances, toward “novelty-based” design.  Several new exhibits, including the St. Louis Zoo ‘Penguin & Puffin Coast’ exhibit and the San Francisco Zoo’s ‘Lipman Family Lemur Forest’, utilize natural habitat but also incorporate distinctly non-immersive elements, and are exceedingly successful.  These exhibits focus on getting the visitor close to the animals (connection-centered) and being surrounded by active animals (behavioral understanding and enrichment incorporation).  This experience, which will be different and therefore novel upon each visit, makes these exhibits extremely emotional and therefore memorable to visitors, and begins to create a connection.  These exhibits are a step in the right direction toward “novelty-based” design.  Using this type of design, we can move to the next incremental step in the evolution of landscape immersion, keeping the “oh my!” moment, and continuing to educate and inspire our zoo visitors.

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12 thoughts on “The Next Zoo Design Revolution?

  1. I disagree that “the magic of landscape immersion is gone.” The problem is it is almost never done right–where it is it is still breathtaking and inspiring: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s Desert Loop Trail, Woodland Park’s Brown Bear exhibit, Zurich’s Masoala Rain Forest, and a number of others represent the true potential of “pure” immersion exhibitry. Too often it is dumbed down with cheesy “thematic architecture,” unimaginative/crude use of rockwork, heavy-handed visitor barriers and inconsistent horticultural maintenance–or often times just bad design.

    Today, it is a cliche to say an exhibit is an “immersion exhibit,” just as in years past anything with a fake rock was called a “natural habitat.” Zoo clients need to be more demanding and zoo designers need to be much more creative to not accept the cookie-cutter stuff that is popping up around the globe. And yes, built-in naturalistic enrichment and visitor proximity are important, not as a “new paradigm” but simply the natural product of a thoughtful and creative landscape immersion design.

  2. I absolutely agree that landscape immersion has been copied to the point of dumbing down, which makes the magic disappear on an overall scale. Its the status quo.

    I simply question the need for landscape immersion as a style of exhibitry at all. If we create the connection to the animal, meet its mental and physical needs (which do not require landscape immersion at all), and bring the guests close to the animal, wouldnt that be more powerful than a beautiful setting?

    Case in point…Read the review of Jungala @ Busch Gardens. The reviewer says Jungala is BETTER than Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s Maharaja Trail, which in my opinion is the best landscape immersion exhibit I’ve ever seen (of course they use architecture to achieve it). He also criticizes the experience’s lack of quality theming (and immersion). Thus, he’s saying the importance of the connection (proximity + interaction) is more important, more impactful, than the setting.

    Of course, we all feel differently about this.

    I also agree that “novelty-based” design may not be a huge revolution in design; however, I’m still waiting on someone to think up what will be the next revolution. Ideas beget ideas…We should all share our thoughts and perhaps that will push to the next level.

    Thanks for reading, Lee, and contributing!!

  3. From what I’ve seen “Jungala” presents unnatural animals (white tigers=genetic freaks that spur Plush toy sales), exhibited in unnatural assemblages (there are no “packs” of tigers in nature), in a patently fake, human-dominated setting (viewers surround the tigers and I’m told the facility WANTED as many cross-views of people as possible). While people may be getting close to the tigers and enjoying that experience, I don’t think they are getting the essence of what a wild tiger is. People like going to circuses and petting tigers on leashes at State Fairs too…that doesn’t mean it is right to present animals in those ways, which IMO demean and diminish the animals and their wild nature.

    Nature is timeless. Concepts like “activity -based” or “novelty-based” design are not.

    Zurich has been able to cultivate a zoo-going public who bring binoculars to the Madagascan rainforest exhibit to search for animals, ala an ecotourist experience. Here in the US we seem to be succumbing to accepting that our visitors are so impatient and media-saturated that we need to present animals as part of a barrage of entertainment modes.

    We can do better.

  4. I agree with your sentiments.

    Our culture is in fact very different from others, and, definitely, are instant gratification addicts.

    However, part of good design is understanding our market and our guests. As difficult as it is for us, as nature lovers and animal lovers, to understand why some people do not get that amazing sensation of joy from watching, through binoculars, a bluebird alight to a birdbox with a worm for its anxious brood, and others do (like I’m sure you and I do), we have to remember that zoos are a cultural institution fighting for the precious free time our society has. And in those few hours people are able to spend with us, we need to impact them in the most powerful way possible, igniting a passion or curiosity as a means to educate. At one time, a landscape immersion was enough. Now, as its just the basis of expectation, we’re searching for new ways to surprise, engage, amuse and enlighten.

    Nature is timeless. But is it exciting for all? For most people, the people we truly need to reach, those who do not feel the way we do about it, those who do not regularly seek out spending time in nature as a free time activity, for those people, those people who most desperately need a connection, a spark, an interest, what is the best way to connect with them? A pretty setting or an engaging, interactive, playful experience?

    I’m definitely not advocating demeaning or diminishing the animal in any way. In fact, I’m advocately for drawing parallels between animals and ourselves. Encouraging active animals through enrichment and focusing on that as the design element, or encouraging animals to make decisions that affect the visitor, or having shared experiences beyond just a setting. It does not mean to present the animal in anything but a respectful manner.

    Another great example of a non-LANDSCAPE immersion exhibit, which is immersive in architecture, but not so much in landscape, is the PECO Primate Reserve at Philadelphia Zoo (designed by Coe himself). This exhibit is dominated by man-made architecture; however, the experience is amazing in that the primates have choices and move about all around you. There are also shared experiences incorporated, like climbing into a box with a primate (glass between).

    Moving beyond landscape immersion, does not mean forgetting about it. It does not mean forgetting about story or theming. It means building on what we have currently, learning from what worked and what didnt, and pushing beyond a passive experience.

    From what I believe you are expressing, I think you’d love the concept Coe set forth for the UnZoo. Basically, it calls for re-creating a natural habitat. Creating a Biodome (almost or exactly!) and an environment that allows the habitat to come into balance on its own with a little help from us. Its the next step from a drive through safari.

    I’m in love with this concept as well. However, it has its flaws, considering space, time and money. I can see this becoming a new attraction in the middle of the countryside that becomes a destination. Its sort of Jurassic Park like. But, urban zoos will still exist, I’m sure. And the question for them is, what now?

  5. I’d like to add that the PECO Primate Reserve also has an immense outdoor yard that does utilize landscape immersion. The indoor space is a choice for the animals. I saw this exhibit years ago, and for me, the most impactful was the indoor space. I can’t even recall the outdoor space… and I’m a zoo person!

  6. May I say: It is not about the animals.

    The mission of zoos now is, at the very least, fostering and supporting a care for Nature and, at best, personal commitment to preserve natural places. Immersion exhibits, done right as Lee states, are aimed at bringing those Places to the visitor. The animals are essential, of course, but let’s not lose sight of the big picture.

    PECO Primate Reserve is a fun place to see primates. (And the outdoor yards to not stand up to Lee’s criteria for real imersion!) How does a visitor take that experience anywhere that matters for the wild populations? What’s the connection? What’s the “in”?

  7. Pingback: Landscape Immersion Article » United States » ZooChat

  8. Very interesting article. As a long time zookeeper my only comment is – as long as exhibits are built for people, animals will continue to be props in cement castles. And as long as animals are props in cement castles they will continue to suffer in substandard housing. With all due respect visitor immersion didn’t start in the zoo world, the idea was copied from Disney and is entertainment oriented. I was working in the zoo world when I felt the cold winds of money oriented exhibitry come upon us as directors with no animal background took over zoos and made them profitable. Yet, bears still pace in million dollar cement monstrosities, gorillas still suffer stress responses, and reptiles still claw endlessly at glass because they don’t understand the concept of glass. Natural became naturalistic and soft earth subtract became a token digging pit surrounded by cement habitat. Enclosures are still small relative to animal need and non inhabitable if you ask the animals. Large zoos have taken a turn away from behavior-based husbandry into the world of Disney. Its sad and horrednously expensive. Repeatedly I have observed builders completely befuddled at animals’ thaty continue to exhibiot stereotypies in these enclosures because we just spent millions to make it better – really? The money was spent on the visitor experience not animal welfare. I have been in the zoo world for over 25 years – tell me something – when did the words ‘animal welfare’ become bad words to us?

  9. Hello designers,
    My name is Lola Lombard.
    My background is as a writer, theatrical designer. For a while I worked in theme parks. Now I own an arts company for kids in the Washington, DC area. I am holding a summer camp for K-5th graders called Zootopia that will explore zoo design. This is our 2nd year doing this theme, actually.

    In writing our curriculum, I have been researching comments and information on zoo design and appreciate all your information. Each year it is very interesting to see if the kids come up with novel ideas.

    We are designing our zoo for mythical and newly invented animals but the concepts we are focusing on are generally the same as any zoo might contemplate. I think we can incorporate many kinds of experiences. In our camp, we will make up ideas, inventions, and artwork based on these ideas and present everything together as a staged zoo in a final zoo day with “kid and parent visitor” interaction.

    Nothing is the same as being in authentic habitats. But you know, not everyone can do that so “focus” on animals is the point of a zoo. There are many ways to focus on an animal and as technology changes, there will be more and more possibilities. For example, logging into a camera via skype on the shoulder of a park ranger in Africa for a interactive safari might be something a traditional zoo could do right now as a partnership. The viewer at the zoo could actually talk to the ranger and view the scene at the foreign park in real time, as he walks among the animals.

    Telling a story is what makes connections. People have the primal need to relate, be educated, inspired, and to dream. If I can think this up, I wonder what the kids can create?

    You may wonder if I told the National Zoo about our curriculum. Of course I did. They replied that they “are not an arts program”. My child will still attend their program because hey, they have real animals. But is the experience stimulating all areas of her mind and heart and soul? No way. Designers, I believe that is the goal.

    If you would like to know more about my camp and the curriculum, please get in touch. I’d sure LOVE to work with you!

  10. I really wish you had cited your example of exhibit viewing times. To me the example seems a case of apples and oranges. Visitors to Disney’s Animal Kingdom are in “theme park” mode and therefore probably little inclined to linger at an animal exhibit regardless of how well presented simply due to the overall passiveness of the experience in comparison to the experiential gluttony that occurs over a week long theme park vacation. In a 2012 study, looking at visitor viewing times at Lincoln Park Zoo between the older Great Ape House and the new Regenstein Center for African Apes found an increase in visitor viewing time (Ross, Melber, Gillespie, & Lukas 2012). “The data presented here suggest that the naturalistic exhibit space appealed to and engaged visitor attention successfully; visitors spent more time in RCAA overall, and a smaller proportion of their visit engaging in disruptive behaviors such as hitting the glass.”The primary difference between the old exhibit and the new exhibit from a guest perception is the naturalness of the presentation. In this case the context made the difference.
    Stephen R. Ross , Leah M. Melber , Katie L. Gillespie & Kristen E. Lukas (2012)
    The Impact of a Modern, Naturalistic Exhibit Design on Visitor Behavior: A Cross-Facility Comparison,Visitor Studies, 15:1, 3-15, DOI: 10.1080/10645578.2012.660838

    • This was from my own study conducted during my graduate school work. Your point is well taken though–visitors to zoos and theme parks do have different agendas and expectations. Thanks for comments and keep them coming!

      • Okay, great. I had wondered if that was personal observation. This is a very thought-provoking article indeed, I certainly agree that an emotional connection is vital to delivering any sort of message and that behavioral enrichment is all too often the after-thought rather than the reason for the design. But I think the point that Lee made about context is also a vital piece of the puzzle. In my own observations I’ve seen visitor behavior be radically different in more immersive environments. For example, the lion exhibit at Zoo Boise is nice and aesthetically pleasing, but often guests treat the great cats lying by the windows in the same way they would a house cat, by talking to it in a cutsie voice and expressing their desire to pet it. I’ve not ever witnessed those types of behaviors at Woodland Park Zoo’s immersive lion exhibit. Admittedly this is quite anecdotal, but I can’t help but wonder what the psychological effect of obvious and visible barriers has on a zoo visitor.

        Thanks for the reply!

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