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Reflection, Participation and Change; Local Agenda 21 in Action

Number 17 - December 1998

Dawn Sanders

Local Agenda 21 focuses on the ability of local communities to:

'Foster a sense of personal environmental responsibility and greater motivation and commitment towards sustainable development' (Earth Summit p.224).

In order to do this well we need to construct an environment for learning that engenders not only the science of sustainability but the ethics, aesthetics and culture of sustainable development. We need to view both the science and culture of nature.  In doing this within botanic gardens, we have to ask many questions of both our contemporary and historical working practices:

  • Do we adopt a social model of education, offering a common platform for the shared experiences of what is both celebratory and problematic in science?
  • Do we encourage: change, empowerment, equality and participation?
  • With what voice(s) do our gardens speak? 
  • From which cultural perspective do we come from and who do we perceive as our audiences?
  • Are we using the lessons of the past to create the future?
  • Do we provide opportunities for sharing human experience in an environment that values differences equally?
  • Do gardens acknowledge that they are stewards of a living archive of cultural information?
  • Do we create a set of issues which acknowledges a variety of interpretations and structures?

Local Agenda 21 encourages people to be involved in the sustainable use of the environment through their daily decision making.These decisions, whether about transport, recycling or biodegradability, all have an impact on other living organisms.  Partnerships in Local Agenda 21 help to build a basis for equipping people with the:

'knowledge and motivation required to amend the environmental mistakes of the past and construct a more sustainable future' (London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea 1996 p. 24).

The concept of biodiversity is part of that constructed knowledge. As Anna Lewington in a lecture at Oxford Botanic Garden commented '…plants are as strategic as oil.’ It is not enough merely to concern ourselves with the biology of plants, we have obligations under Agenda 21 to develop a broader context where:

'… environmental education and development with the dynamics of both the physical, biological and socio-economic environment' (Earth Summit 1992 p.221).

In considering our role in Local Agenda 21, Chelsea Physic Garden has chosen to work in several ways:

  • encouraging personal change by providing bike storage facilities for both workers and visitors
  • buying 'fair trade' coffee
  • encouraging waste recycling for workers and schools
  • auditing and converting our cleaning materials, soap and toilet rolls to more eco–friendly ones
  • using second hand computers in some sections of the garden
  • using material from the living collections to make fencing e.g. bamboo cuttings
  • printing conservation and education messages on the back of our seed packets.

On a recent public open day we invited three actors from Emergency Exit Arts to perform two one-hour interactive walkabouts with three of their characters from their show 'What a load of rubbish':

Their main characters included Mrs Gleam, a compulsive cleaner; Mrs Green, a committed environmentalist; and Miss Daydream, a total consumer. The characters operated in three different ways:

  1. as visual images to engage the curiosity of visitors
  2. as performers of debates with each other
  3. as catalysts for conversation based around environmental issues with the visitors.

We are working in close partnership with the local borough under a Local Agenda 21 umbrella of organisations, both voluntary sector and local government on several projects:

  • Being involved in annual awareness raising environment days
  • Producing a leaflet showing a map of several environmental education venues in the borough.The leaflet also contains a leaf of commitment for people to make personal pledges to change.
  • Providing a site for Nitrogen Dioxide measuring tubes to read road pollution (the garden is sandwiched between two busy roads).
  • Conducting an environmental audit of the garden by council staff
  • Providing a site to publicise the borough's plans for changing people's transport practices e.g., 'Don't choke London'; 'Walk to School Week' and 'Bike to Work Day'.
  • Providing the main contact point for schools based in the south of the borough wishing to develop environmental policies
  • Featuring the garden in the borough's walking guide.

Through The Royal Society's Millenium Awards and The Body Shop Foundation, the garden has received funding to develop a cultural botany link project with the Al Hasaniya Moroccan womens project in North Kensington.This project will record and present older Moroccan women's botanical knowledge in order to raise their self-esteem and strengthen bonds with young women in the community.

We feel that traditional knowledge amongst urban cultural communities needs to be recorded and presented in order to rebuild personal self-esteem and communal social fabrics severely compromised by radical geographical and cultural changes in peoples  lives.The preservation of this knowledge we hope will encourage the reinforcement of previous connections with plants and the wider landscape.

Mark Francis and Randolph Hestor (Jnr) stress the idea that large public gardens 'Speak as much of capitol and control as of plants and nature' (1995 p.5).They go on to comment that gardens ‘characterise the ideas and values of our time'.  If this is the case, then botanic gardens can be considered important sites for developing patterns for sustainable living through education programmes.

At present cities occupy just 2% of the world's land surface, yet research suggests they devour some 75% of its resources.  Chapter 7 of Agenda 21 states that:

'Consumption patterns of cities are severely stressing the global ecosystem'

Thus sustainable living is an important issue for city local government.  Achieving sustainability needs many partners.  Botanic gardens can be strong participants in this process and, as the majority are situated in urban areas, can provide accessible green environments for people to contribute to, and participate in.

As we head towards the year 2000 we need to consider our relationships with each other; between countries, continents, organisms and with land, sea and air.  Botanic gardens have reached a stage in their history where we need to do more than reflect and ask questions.  We need to make choices:

Do we stay within the garden wall and practise a culture of education that is uncritical and complacent in its social vision?


Do we go beyond the garden wall and engage in debate and change through participatory and reflective processes?


Francis, M., Hestor R. (1995) The Garden as idea, place and action, in The Meaning of Gardens. MITPress,USA

London Borough of Kensington andChelsea (1996) London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Environmental Policy Statement (1996-99).

The United Nations (1992) Earth Summit’92 The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development Rio de Janeiro. The Regency Press Corporation, London, UK.