Redevelopment of Londonderry’s riverside would draw the city’s emigrant geniuses back home, the co-founder of the Eden Project has said.
Sir Tim Smit wants to create an educational hub on the Foyle to help regenerate one of the poorest parts of the UK.
He advocates an “agricultural revolution” to improve public nutrition and has linked up with two universities in Northern Ireland.
Sir Tim said: “The River Foyle is really extraordinary. I feel that someone has given me the Thames or something like that and said, ‘no one seems to know what to do with that but here you are’.
“In my view one of five most beautiful rivers in the whole of Europe and it is not even a social focus for a city because they had too much trouble.”
Derry was pockmarked by violence during the Troubles and more recently has suffered from high unemployment, deprivation and dissident republican activity.
The intention is to create new educational opportunities for a diverse range of students, and Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University are co-operating on the project.
The proposed site will extend from Foyle Bridge towards Culmore Point.
The initiative aims to link the Boom Hall and Brook Hall estates, including previously inaccessible river frontages, to regenerate the city.
Sir Tim said: “You have got a place that is now owned by the council that is completely derelict, a wonderful estate, the stables are falling down, the house is falling down.
“You have got the former Protestant stately home, you have got a convent – it is like a sitcom.
“You have got all of the bits you can weave together into a wonderful story.
“Derry has been a place that exported genius, its main export is in genius, its cool people go off.
“How do you create something that acts as a beacon that brings them back and also enables the people that are there to feel a sense of possibility?”
He was introduced to the idea during a visit when Derry was UK City of Culture in 2013.
“I like challenges; because it feels difficult I think it is actually relatively easy.
“Someone once said to me the most difficult prisons to break out of are those where you cannot see the bars and I thought that was really profound.
“I thought in Derry we can see the bars, we can see the low expectation that fortune will favour you, with all of the consequences associated with that, and yet you have a people who do revere education at the same time.”
In 1987 Sir Tim moved to Cornwall, discovering and restoring the Lost Gardens of Heligan.
Later the Eden Project opened as a centre for world-class horticulture.
He said Brook Hall is the largest walled garden he has seen, built before 1690 by the Londonderry Corporation to provide vegetables for the city.
He said: “Big agriculture has traditionally selected those crops that can grow to a homogenous size and shape, the nutritional value has not been particularly important. People eat with their eyes.”
He described some modern fare as bland baby food, sold in supermarkets “where you can buy a little baby sweetcorn and a baby turnip. What is going on? It is ridiculous”.
“Does not anyone know that the reason they are called root vegetables – carrots and so on – are because their roots take the flavour from the minerals deep below?
“So cutting them off in their prime is ridiculous.”