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Changing the Face of a Botanic Garden by Tackling the Concept of Sustainability head on: the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and our Learning Curve

Contributed by Robert Brett, Cambridge University Botanic Garden, Cambridge, UK


The purpose of this paper is to give an insight into what we at Cambridge University Botanic Garden are doing to help foster an awareness of the concept of Sustainability. It is, of course, not a simple straightforward task to achieve, and I find it interesting to read back over my Congress abstract to see what I initially wrote. What was I thinking when I put the title of “Changing the face of a Botanic Garden by Tackling the concept of Sustainability Head on.” Was I crazy? Is it as easy as the title suggests? No of course not. It presents a huge responsibility and extremely difficult challenge, and it begs many questions personally and collectively as an institution. What do we mean by sustainability? How can this be achieved? And for the skeptics, can it even be achieved at all?

This paper is a presentation of our process and the constraints, difficulties and challenges that we face, particularly in our experiences in wanting to reflect and promote an ethos of sustainability at Cambridge University Botanic Garden. These experiences and our learning curve are based on the development of a Green Audit. It’s aim is to assess what steps the Botanic Garden has already taken to minimize negative environmental impacts and whether they are effective, and to also identify where and how we could do better.

The Context

Cambridge is approximately 50 miles north of London, and although there is a huge diversity of activities in the city today today, its main focus is still based upon it being a University town, the first college of which was established in 1284. Although there are writings to suggest that a garden for teaching be included in the University as early as the late 1500s, it was not until 1762 that the Garden was established in the city centre as a physic garden for teaching medical students. In 1846 Cambridge University Botanic Garden was moved to its present site of 40 acres (16 hectares) about a mile south of the city centre. Its collections now boast some 8000 different species that can give visitors an insight into the diversity of the plant kingdom. Our scientific and amenity remits involve the cultivation, curation, interpretation and display of plant diversity – the basis of all life on Earth.

Over the past 156 years the Garden has functioned primarily as a garden for teaching and education; this is reflected in many of its plantings and displays. Educational displays have been developed; they include displays that represent environmental concern such as the Dry Garden (Cambridge has the lowest rainfall in the UK) This encourages local residents to grow plants adapted to low rainfall Another display is the Arable Weed Display, which shows the connection between the increased use of herbicide sprays and the decline of arable weeds.

Why Should We Undertake Change?

It can be seen that the Garden values a concern and interest in the environment and has demonstrated an obligation towards it over a long period of its history. We also know that our pursuit of environmental concern has be compatible with the way we develop and the impacts that development has. We have to look towards balancing our development with our impact on the environment: in a nutshell we have to think more ‘sustain-ably’.

However, the buzzword ‘sustainability’ represents a concept that is not simple or straightforward. We have to present many ways of tackling it. At its heart is us, people, and I believe it has to be tackled and presented in ways that are primarily of relevance to us in our local situation. Why? Well, in tackling such a concept you are going to be faced with many questions. What relevance and meaning does this have for me personally? What will this mean for us collectively as an institution? And why should we even bother? In my opinion if you bring in the local you therefore bring in local meaning and relevance. I suppose this is somewhat a valued personal perspective, brought about from studying a degree in Environmental and Development Education, but as I found, it is a perspective that is also commonly shared by many of my colleagues.

Finally, it is simply a view that if we are wishing to provide a face for the Garden that exemplifies environmental concerns, then we ought to practice what we preach. Changing the Face of the Botanic Garden by Tackling the Concept of Sustainability head on is fundamentally about providing a basis for change. Change from within. An environmental audit is really a useful mechanism and a starting point to look at what we do and what we can change.

The Green Audit

Eighteen months ago the Gardens decided to undertake a Green Audit as a way of assessing where we were environmentally. Six weeks ago we started! I can thank this Congress for making sure that at least that happened. We, too, have other work pressures, but what follows is an outline of the process we undertook to get the Audit started.

Our Simple Strategy for Implementation

In order to acieve results, we really felt a need to keep things simple. We decided to first look internally at the core of the Botanic Garden. Of uppermost importance was that a strategy for implementation was needed to provide participation for all of the 46 staff across all departments, from administration to horticulture to our custodians. The inclusion of views, opinions and ideas was vital, but we also had to appoint someone as coordinator, someone who would be keen to take the task under their wing but who would also have a basic understanding of the wider issues.

It also was about looking for ideas on what others have been doing. Let’s not re-invent the wheel! We initially started by collating data from other sources, such as local government audits and otheruseful documents. One of these was the Green Audit Kit, which was developed collaboratively between the Countryside Agency and the English Tourism Council. Although aimed at the tourist industry, it helped us to in structure our Audit and gave us useful ideas for inclusion. As we are linked to the University, of real value is the University’s own Environmental Policy. This provides an all-important support mechanism. For example, the fact that the University has developed a purchasing policy gives us the ability to get help from the University and develop a purchasing policy of our own.

Assessing Staff Opinion - Using a Questionnaire

We then announced our intentions through a memo to all Garden staff and gave an overview of the Audit. Why? What? How? Questions. We combined the memo with a questionnaire aimed at getting a view of staff perceptions, interest and input in environmental concerns and to provide a basis for first-step evaluation. The importance here was that a memo was sent out that could then be returned – the recycle philosophy. (Copies of the questionnaire can be obtained upon request).

The questionnaire included tick box questions; for example,

  • Do you know what a Green Audit is? Yes – No,
  • Do you recycle any of the following? Yes – No – Sometimes
  • Do you practice at work any of the following, for example printing using both sides of paper.

Comment boxes were also included, along with broader and more direct questions such as would you participate in the Green Audit? And whether staff felt that they considered environmental aspects of their work for environmental impact.

The questionnaire provided a means for evaluation; 60% of them were returned. What we found from this simple questionnaire was that 70% of staff were generally motivated and positive towards the idea of recycling, wished to participate in the Green Audit and felt that they did consider environmental aspects of their work.

We could also see where areas for future improvement could be identified. For example, over 60% of staff do not recycle plastics, why is this? And how can this be changed? We also found that not all biodegradable material was being recycled and that over 50% of staff do not print using both sides of paper? These may seem insignificant results, but they enabled us to highlight where we are missing areas of concern and perhaps serve as starting points for future actions.

The questionnaire also provided a means for staff to give their ideas and say what they would like to see included in the Audit. Of course there were some laughable suggestions: for example, in order to reduce energy consumption, animals should graze the main lawn and our Tropical Palm House should be converted into an Alpine House. But there were also had good suggestions, ranging from from waste minimization and reducing consumption, to providing greater educational awareness and educative displays for the visitor. It provided a useful tool to see what ideas staff actually had.

Interestingly, staff had similar views and concerns. Admittedly, some of the suggestions and questions could be viewed as ‘political’ and difficult to achieve, due to existing internal and external influences. For example, should the University invest ethically in its pension scheme? But these suggestions are valid and in my opinion should be incorporated into the Audit. This would provide an interesting debate.

In conjunction with the memo and questionnaire, few interviews were carried out, mainly with heads of departments and the Director. The interviews were really a means of discovering what the management understanding of the Audit would be and of gauging the level of support that could be provided by them for future developments. Of importance was the inclusion of their top ten personal issues that they would like to see achieved. The lists also provided a useful comparison between the ideas of management and of staff. Were they similar? In a nutshell: yes.

Next Step - Workshops

This all provided a useful basis for the next stage in the Green Audit’s development, the running of workshops. The workshops are aimed at all staff and to date we have carried out achieved two sessions, each lasting approximately 1½ hours. The workshops were a means of enabling further participation and input by staff, with feedback, discussion and time to focus in on the issues at hand.

The workshop also allowed opportunity for further clarification and ensuring that staff had a clearer idea about questions such as what Green Audit was. What are we trying to achieve? Who has responsibility? Who is involved? And what have we achieved so far? For example, did staff know that over the past five years the Garden has reduced the amount of green waste going to landfill and recycles all green waste on site? That they have improved Garden management practices for increasing wildlife? And that the Garden takes into account environmental factors when purchasing machinery and other equipment?

The workshop was split into three main sections:

  • An introduction, including feedback from the questionnaires
  • Ideas and thoughts to date, including what the Garden is already achieving
  • Three Activities. Participants were split into groups to work on these.

The activities were:

1. Working in your group pick 2-3 ideas, giving reasons why you think they should be included and then place them in order of priority, listing which you think should be developed first
The ideas were divided into relevant categories, including energy reduction, waste minimization, purchasing and education. The categories would help in providing understanding and focus to the wide-ranging issues. There was then an opportunity to discuss how we might go about implementing the ideas. The groups were given details of support mechanisms: local councils, the University, product manufacturers and local knowledge. They were also made aware of difficulties such as lack of money, quantified information and time.

For the next two activities the groups were asked to follow on from one to the other:

2. From the ideas discussed in Activity 1, try to develop an idea of how you would assess a proposal for its environmental impact. What key areas would need to be assessed? What information would be required?

3. What stages or steps would be required for you to see your idea implemented?

Between each activity, the groups were asked to report back to the other groups what they had been discussing, with an open discussion held about any issues or points raised.


Possibly the main achievement of the Green Audits process has been motivate people to think constructively and support the Audit’s further development. The ideas that have been produced are wide-ranging and will ultimately provide a strong basis for the Green Audit. They also provide a view of what needs to be evaluated and implemented. It indicates those ideas that staff considered of greatest importance, for example, the development of an educational area within the Garden and the need to develop a purchasing policy.

The questionnaire allowed for inclusion and openness, and the participative workshops developed ideas, set targets and gave suggestions of issues that might be raised when looking at implementation. These two stages provided a useful indication of how the audit could be developed and what questions may be raised. For example, the idea of recycling paper into the compost, as opposed to sending it for recycling, was developed by two different groups. Both groups raised similar questions. Would the paper bulk affect the balance of the compost? Would there be problems with confidentiality? And would inks in paper be problematical? Such vital questions provide a growing framework for the Green Audit.

The questionnaire also raised questions that are more difficult and have to be viewed as more long-term issues. They included issues about control and how can we influence other departments? Also the accessibility of data, such as scientific evidence that would help to make informed decisions. However, this is where other referenced resources, such as our University Environmental Policy, can be vital in providing support.


The strengths of this process can be seen in the way it provides for inclusion, participation across the whole Garden, and raises awareness. It assesses and evaluates, produces ideas and develops clarity and helps in the framework for developing your audit.

The weakness we found was that even though we had support in carrying out a Green Audit, it is fundamentally an additional piece of work to an already burdened workload. Time for developing everything further may be difficult.

The opportunities? Such work will provide a useful working document and a useful reference for the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, but it could also be of influence and help to the wider audience and particularly the University.

The threats that can be evaluated at present are based upon keeping the existing momentum going. If time for developing is hindered this will effect the implementation of ideas and when linked with other hindrances, such as the lack of quantifiable data to justify and act upon ideas, staff interest and their enthusiasm could be lost and progress in developing further seriously impinged.

This paper has outlined a process that has provided a number of learning outcomes for us at Cambridge University Botanic Garden. The most important we felt were:

  1. Institutional support is vital in being able to overcoming barriers. Barriers such as the second crucial outcome…
  2. Time. This was so necessary for the work to be even undertaken and allowed for the staff to have input into the process, which leads to the third vital point…
  3. Participation. This allows for inclusion, helps allow for concerns and ideas to be raised and can provide a sense of ownership.
  4. Motivation. We also learnt that in the end you just have to get on and do it. It’s amazing what you can achieve in six weeks!

Finally, the work described here represents only the beginning of the process and what we have learnt to date. It has possibly taught us a great deal about our concerns, ourselves, and has given us a tremendous input to developing further a Garden that can say it practices what it preaches. It also is a reflection of the strength and character of the staff and the Gardens as a whole, and has wider implications as one person commented upon in their questionnaire… “Great to have a work-placed, environmentally driven policy – it even rubs off at home!”

The next step is with the continuation of the workshops for the remainder of the staff, the collation of the data and the production of a working document. We hope that this will be a short-term process and completed within the next six to eight months and we will keep you posted.