Education centre > Growing the Social Role of Botanic Gardens: Partnerships in the community
Growing the Social Role of Botanic Gardens: Partnerships in the community
It is a paradox of the modern age that many people have become disconnected from the natural world at precisely the time when the threat from climate change and species extinction, both plant and animal, has never been greater and is predicted to get progressively worse. The case for unlocking the potential in botanic gardens to help educate and re-connect their local communities with the world of plants, as well as showcasing models for sustainable living, is a powerful one. This is the working assumption behind the Communities in Nature initiative which encourages botanic gardens to grow their social role.
The initiative kick-started in 2009, when BGCI commissioned research into the social role of botanic gardens. Generously funded by Calouste Gulbenkian, the study was carried out by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG), University of Leicester, UK, and culminated in the report ‘Redefining the role of botanic gardens: towards a new social purpose’.
In 2011, to build on this report, with continued support from Calouste Gulbenkian, BGCI coordinated the project: Growing the Social Role: Partnerships in the community. In particular, BGCI worked with three botanic gardens in the UK to develop their social role – Ness Botanic Gardens, Liverpool, Winterbourne House and Garden, Birmingham and the National Botanic Garden of Wales (NBGW). Staff from the gardens participated in three workshops where they spent time examining and discussing their organizations’ respective roles in society and exploring ways in which they can develop these roles further. These workshops were facilitated by RCMG and BGCI and had expert input from the Eden Project, who has experience in engaging with local communities. The project also provided funding for each garden to develop a small scale project.
Below is a short overview of the projects. For a detailed account of the gardens’ involvement, projects and outcomes download the Summary Evaluation report
Winterbourne House and Garden, part of the University of Birmingham, created Urban Veg, a community based vegetable garden designed as a two way cultural exchange and learning experience for the Islamic communities of Birmingham and the Garden.
Despite the fact that Birmingham has a higher number of Muslims than any other local authority area, this community is currently under represented in the demographics of visitors. The aim of the project was to build stronger relationships with this group. Fifteen participants visited the garden each Wednesday to grow vegetables. To help them become better gardeners, they participated in a series of workshops on sowing, planting and maintenance techniques.
The Urban Veg project workshops emphasised water conservation, sustainable growing media, chemical pollution, wildlife awareness and how to reduce food miles and carbon footprints. There was also guidance and advice about growing at home with the aim of communicating the messages to a wider audience. The final harvest took place in October, but to mark the end of the BGCI project, there was also mini-harvest in July where participants invited up to 10 guests.
As part of the Urban Veg project, the garden produced interpretative material and plant labels in English, Urdu, Arabic and Punjabi. The project was documented through photographs which were the focus of an exhibition at Winterbourne during March 2012, to coincide with Islam Awareness Week.
Read an account of setting up Urban Veg by Phil Smith at Winterbourne House and Garden here.
Ness Botanic Gardens are located close to the city of Liverpool. Although a thriving metropolis of over one million people, Liverpool is one of the most deprived areas in the UK. Ness Botanic Gardens, part of the University of Liverpool, became involved in growing their social role as they were keen to broaden their education programme and engage with students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This also provided an opportunity for the Garden to broaden their learning programme provision to the 11-16 age group which previously rarely visited their site.
Working with a College in Liverpool, the Garden ran a series of science focused workshops for Year 7 (11-12 year olds) and Year 10 (14-15 year olds) over a six week period. Students got their hands dirty, experiencing what it is like to plant and grow vegetables as well as learning about important scientific concepts linked to the National Curriculum such as photosynthesis and climate change.
Teachers at the College aimed to provide the seeds for establishing a long term working relationship between the school and the Garden, and inspire students' lifelong interest in the sciences.
Although failure always comes as a disappointment it is in these circumstances that we are often able to learn valuable lessons. The case of the National Botanic Garden of Wales’ involvement illustrates just how important compatible goals and ideology are when developing projects and highlights the importance of working to communities needs’ within the Communities in Nature initiative. NBGW, is modern and forward thinking with a heavy focus on its social and environmental responsibility. Despite this the Garden didn’t not manage to develop their community project.
The Garden put forward two project proposals, both of which did not satisfy all of the aims of the Growing the Social Role: Partnerships in the community overall project.
The first project suggested by NBGW involved an already existing art project which worked with ceramics inspired by plant DNA and was aimed at homeless people and methadone users. This project idea was not considered appropriate because it wasn’t clear how the project would address the specific social needs of the target audiences and also how it would raise awareness and participation in environmental issues.
In the second proposal NGBW wished to reach out to the local farming community. They suggested a one day event to demonstrate that the site was a place where young farmers can see, learn and talk about the future of agriculture, climate change, biodiversity, sustainable farming whilst highlight NBGW as a good venue for future Young Farmers Club activities. There were concerns that this project did not address the needs of the young farmers club and that a one day event would not allow the garden staff to build lasting relationships with the participants.
NBGW had concerns over finances and was uncomfortable with developing a project with input from the target audience, as Winterbourne and Ness Botanic Gardens did. These ideological differences between the Garden and the aims of the overall project and the Garden’s difficulties in devising an appropriate project caused NBGW to drop out of the project.