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Planning with the Community - Problems and Solutions

Volume 3 Number 1 - April 2006

Sharon Willoughby and Chris Russell





The Australian Garden is an exciting new botanic garden, due to open in May 2006, at the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne.  The Australian Garden will be a place where visitors can immerse themselves in the colours and textures of Australian landscapes.  It will be a garden that showcases the unique character and beauty of Australian plants in new and surprising ways. In opening this new garden and creating a suite of public programs our aim is to explore the connections that exist between landscape, culture, people and plants.  We want to inspire visitors to view Australian plants in a new light and to convert that inspiration into the use, enjoyment and conservation of Australian plants back in their home gardens.

Creating a new botanic garden is obviously an enormous undertaking - quite literally a once in a lifetime event for most of us involved in this project.  The opportunities the Australian Garden provides to us, for engaging our visitors and wider community, are really exciting.  In order to capitalise on this amazing new resource, and to help match our vision with the reality of our resources, we are undertaking a strategic planning process to develop a master plan for community engagement for the Australian Garden.  It is envisaged that by creating a master plan we make the best use of our resources and create the most impact within our community.  


The Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne (RBGC) is a division of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne and is dedicated to the research and conservation of, and public education about, Australian plants and ecosystems. The Australian Garden will be located within the Cranbourne gardens in a 26-hectare site, which is being reclaimed from a former sand mine.  The RBGC is located 50 km from the centre of Melbourne in one of Australia’s fastest growing outer urban regions.  In total, the RBGC has an area of 363 hectares, two thirds of which is covered with remnant vegetation of high conservation value. We expect that over the next twenty years the agricultural land adjacent to the RBGC site will become fully taken up by housing development.   It is easy to see that in these circumstances the green space of the RBGC and Australian Garden will be an increasingly valuable community resource. 

While modern Australia shares the same passionate gardening tradition as the United Kingdom, it would be fair to say that we Australians have not yet fully embraced our native flora for use in the home garden (Elliot, 2002).  This has a number of potentially important consequences when we consider that gardeners are  “one of the most important groups of land managers in this country, since between us we manage more than 50 per cent of all urban land in Australia, that is, the land that carries 80 per cent of the population” (Seddan, 1997). 

The principle that home gardens and gardeners could benefit through the use of Australian native plants is founded in the following ideas.  There are many Australian plants that are adapted to dry conditions.  With a continuing drought in much of eastern Australia, the need to conserve water at home is increasingly important.  Some exotic species traditionally used in Australian home gardens have escaped into bushland and become serious environmental weeds.  Using Australian plants at home in the right ways can contribute to the conservation of local biodiversity.  Encouraging the use of Australian native plants in private and public gardens can also help build on the sense of place, what is unique about Australian plants, landscapes and cultures. 

We hope that the Australian Garden will have a powerful influence on the way in which our local community views and uses Australian plants.  We hope that this interest in Australian plants can foster a greater appreciation and protection of the remnant collections at RBGC and elsewhere and create more sustainable home gardens. 

The Master Planning Process

Getting Started - Researching 

To begin our planning process, we looked for examples of how other similar organisations had planned their programs.  Three resources that our team found particularly useful has been the BGCI website notes on starting an education program , John A. Veverka’s textbook ‘Interpretive Master Planning’ and the web publication ‘A Sense of Place – An Interpretive Planning Handbook’ edited by James Carter.  These references were very useful in helping us to develop a framework for our planning.

Early in the process we decided to follow a thematic planning approach to master planning.  This approach required early definition of the key messages that we wanted to convey to our audience, which had the benefit of acting as a filter to the myriad of stories and information that we potentially could provide as part of the visitor experience.  At the organisational level we are also working to create a whole-of-organisation approach to education.  By focusing and co-ordinating all our communication outside the organisation around themes we hope to better achieve the objectives of our engagement with our community.

Who Should be Involved?

We felt that involving members of our local community in the planning process would be a good way to foster a community sense of ownership of the Australian Garden.  One of the first ways that we tried to involve our community was to invite them to attend focus group meetings, with the aim of receiving their perspectives on what was important in programs they might attend.  Invitations went out to both teachers and interested members of the public to attend either a community or schools forum.  This approach was spectacularly unsuccessful – no one came!  It seems that so early in the project when awareness of the Australian Garden was low it was difficult for people to see why they might want to become involved.

The approach that we are now taking is to create a number of community partnerships – that is, long-term relationships with a small number of local schools and particular segments of our community, such as our local Indigenous community.  It is envisaged that through these long-term relationships we might create ongoing input to our program development.  For example, we have assisted our local secondary school in the development of their school grounds master plan. In return, Cranbourne Secondary College teachers will review the programs that we develop for secondary school children and Cranbourne College students will road test our programs before opening. 

In order to engage with our local indigenous community we have secured external funding to employ an Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer who will work to insure that interpretation and education in relation to indigenous culture is authentic and appropriate.  This position will also ensure that the indigenous community has access to the Australian Garden and future opportunities for employment and cultural self-expression. 

In short, involving the community in a meaningful way in our planning process has taken much more time and resources than was initially planned.  A much more successful approach has been to involve the community in helping to plant out the Australian Garden.  In hindsight, this was probably a more realistic place to start, and has provided us with a rich source of informal input into program development.

At another more formal level we are in the process of establishing a Schools Education Service Reference Group for the whole of the organisation, covering both the Melbourne and Cranbourne sites.  This reference group will input expert and academic expertise into the development of schools education programs.  Engagement of the community at this level will help to ensure that our programs are up to date with the very best research on student learning but also ensure that our programs are keeping pace with government directions in education.

Who is Our Audience Now and Into the Future?

“Who are we planning education programs for?” has been one of the most important questions in this planning process so far.  If we want to create real change in our local community, especially in how people garden at home, it is obvious that concentrating all our effort on our schools audience will not create change very quickly.  Delivering schools education is an important part of our role as a botanic garden, however if we have only limited resources it is important that we continually review where and how that effort is applied to achieve the most impact. 

Visitor research at RBG Cranbourne and local demographic information suggests that families will be one of our largest visitor segments in the Australian Garden.  With this audience in mind and our goal to change the way that people garden at home we know that we need to create programs that will inspire our family audience to use Australian plants at home.

In better defining target audiences, we have also had the benefit of identifying communication opportunities for the whole of the organisation.  As a diverse organisation covering multiple sites, it is easy to have the situation of sending a high diversity of messages to the community.  While they may all be worthwhile and accord with the organisation’s charter, it is likely that the greater the diversity of messages, the more diluted the result.  Undertaking a thematic master planning process has allowed us to integrate and co-ordinate the engagement effort right across the organisation, which we are confident will assist in the achievement of a more effectively engaged community.
In what ways do people learn – what sort of education programs should we develop?
Now that we know who we are communicating with and what changes we are seeking to create, we have begun to research how our target audiences learn in a botanic garden setting, as this will impact on the kinds of programs we create.  The way we have always done things may not always be the most effective way and research into how people learn is always moving on.  There are a number of resources we have found very useful during this phase of our planning.  The CD Rom created by the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta, Reaching Out to the Garden Visitor, contains some very useful information on planning programs in botanic gardens.  There is also research undertaken by organisations in Australia such as museums, which look at how groups such as families or school children learn in cultural settings (David, 2005).

Countdown to Opening - the Year Ahead

The Australian Garden opens in May 2006 and we are confident we will be able to offer a range of opportunities to our visitors.  This is due to the fact that we have developed a Master Plan that has incorporated current thinking on the way people learn and developed specific themes for target audiences.  We look forward to those first evaluations and the feedback on our programs but most importantly we look forward to the opening day when we first see visitors moving through, using and enjoying the Australian Garden.


Elliot, R. (2002) Horticultural use in Australia, in Aitkin, R., Looker, M., The Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens, Oxford University Press.

Seddon, G. (1997) Landprints, Cambridge University Press.

Grant, P. Habitat Garden (2003) – attracting wildlife to your garden.  ABC Books.

Botanic Gardens Conservation International,

Veverka, John A. (1994) Interpretive Master Planning. Falson Press Publishing Co., Inc. Helena, Montana.

Carter, James (1997) A Sense of Place: An interpretive planning handbook.  Tourism and Environment Initiative, Scotland.  Downloaded from

Arnstein, S, (1969) The Ladder of citizen participation, Journal of the Institute of American Planners, 35,4, 216-24.  Can be downloaded on the web from many different sites including also of interest is the UNICEF Ladder of Children’s Participation based on this paper.  The Ladder is a useful tool for thinking about what kind of community participation you are looking to create. 

The Victoria Government has just released a new blueprint for education, which will alter the way in which teachers, and schools deliver the Victorian Schools Curriculum.  Of interest to cultural organisations in Victoria the blueprint is seeking to create opportunities for a greater depth of experience for school children.  Institutions such as botanic gardens are well placed to meet the objectives of the blueprint because of our ability to offer student centre, immersion experiences in the natural environment.  For more information see

Reaching Out to the Garden Visitor – Informal Learning and Biodiversity (2001), American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta, Inc.

David, J, (2005) From Research to Action: Finding evidence of Learning at Melbourne Museum. Insite January –February 2005 downloaded from

Sharon Willoughby is the Manager of Public Programs, Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne
1000 Ballarto Road, Cranbourne, Melbourne, Australia 3977. Email: Website:



Le Jardin Australien est un nouveau jardin botanique, qui sera ouvert en mai 2006 au jardin botanique royal de Cranbourne. Notre but est de créer une suite de programmes publics qui explorent les relations qui existent entre le paysage, la culture, les peuples et les plantes. Nous voulons offrir aux visiteurs l’occasion de voir les plantes australiennes sous un autre jour et faire en sorte que cette inspiration se traduise ensuite concrètement dans l’utilisation, le plaisir de cultiver et de conserver des plantes australiennes lorsqu’ils sont de retour dans leurs propres jardins. Les opportunités fournies par le Jardin Australien pour impliquer nos visiteurs, et plus largement la communauté, sont réellement excitantes. Pour capitaliser ces ressources et nous aider à avoir une vision juste de la réalité de nos ressources, nous entreprenons un processus de planification stratégique ordonné afin de réaliser un plan détaillé pour favoriser un engagement communautaire pour le Jardin Australien. Nous prévoyons que, par la création de ce plan détaillé, nous ferons une meilleure utilisation de nos ressources et nous aurons plus d’impact auprès de nos communautés.


El Jardín Botánico Australiano es un nuevo jardín botánico, que abrirá sus puertas en Mayo del 2006 en el Real Jardín Botánico de Cranbourne. Nuestra intención es crear un  programa público atractivo que explore la conexión que existe entre el paisaje, la cultura, la gente y las plantas. Nosotros queremos inspirar al visitante a ver las plantas de Australia de una manera nueva y transformar esa inspiración para el uso, disfrute y conservación de las plantas australianas en el propio jardín de tu casa. Las oportunidades que el Jardín Australiano provee para captar a nuestros visitantes y una comunidad mas amplia son realmente excitantes. Con el propósito de capitalizar estos recursos, y ayudar a compatilizar nuestra visión con la realidad de nuestros recursos, estamos desarrollando un proceso de planeamiento estratégico para desarrollar un Plan Maestro para la participación de la comunidad en el Jardín Australiano. Creemos que creando el Plan Maestro hacemos el mejor uso de nuestros recursos y creamos el mayor impacto dentro de nuestra comunidad.