A ‘living lab’ for nature in the middle of L.A.

How do you bring nature to the middle of the city?

That’s the question curators and administrators at the Natural History Museum are facing as they begin construction of a $30-million outdoor wilderness exhibit near downtown Los Angeles.

Once their planned 3 1/2 -acre garden sprouts, operators of the Los Angeles County museum are counting on birds, bees and other bugs discovering it and moving in. When that happens, operators will have what they call a living laboratory where visitors can “partner with museum scientists on public science projects.”

The place will certainly be easy to find for two-legged types: The garden will be located in Exposition Park along Exposition Boulevard between Vermont Avenue and Figueroa Street, a few steps from a new Expo Line light-rail station.

Smaller visitors may have a more difficult time.

Critters that manage to scoot or slither across busy city streets and commuter train tracks will also have to survive USC next door. Densely packed commercial and residential areas, paved parking lots and the 16-lane 110 Freeway lie in other directions.

Nonetheless, creatures will show up, garden planners predicted Thursday as details of the project were outlined.

“There will be engagement with urban wildlife,” promised Karen Wise, museum vice president for education and exhibits.

“People will realize that nature is here, not just out there,” said Michelle Sullivan, gesturing toward distant Griffith Park and the Santa Monica Mountains.

“Most of the wildlife you find in L.A. will make it here,” pledged Brian Brown, the museum’s curator of entomology.

Some won’t, he conceded. Rattlesnakes, for example. “You’d need a [wildlife] corridor to Griffith Park for them to be here. And we’re not going to introduce lizards or other animals. You do that and you introduce disease,” Brown said.

Sullivan is landscape project manager for the garden. Along with the urban wilderness section, it will include a “pollinator garden” focusing on butterflies, a “get dirty zone” where visitors can interact with worms and other earth creatures; and a pond that will create an aquatic habitat for native and nonnative turtles, she said.

Wise said other areas will feature a 1913-style garden that will relate to the museum’s 97-year-old main building and a home garden section that will serve as a starting point for children and adults interested in starting their own vegetable gardens.

“We’re looking at different audiences … at all age groups,” she said.

Architect Fabian Kremkus, who has been in charge of the restoration of the museum’s 1913 building, will oversee construction of structures in the new garden, including a new 221-space parking lot.

The parking area will be partially underground and will be designed to eventually be covered by a canopy of trees, Kremkus said. An older parking lot, brick entryway and large concrete fountain have been removed as part of the project.

Funding for the garden parking structure has come from a $10-million county allocation. The remaining $20 million must come from private sources, officials said. They hope to open the garden in July 2011, shortly after Expo Line service begins.