Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

Growing the social role of botanic gardens

Volume 9 Number 1 - January 2012



In 2010, with support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, BGCI commissioned the University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) to carry out a study examining the social role and relevance of contemporary botanic gardens.  The study, which was largely UK-based, but also drew on experience from the USA and Australia, concluded that botanic gardens possess vast yet untapped potential as agents of social and environmental change.  RCMG recommended that gardens should relocate their social and environmental roles within a modern framework of values, mission and vision and urged them to work together through partnerships and networking organisations like BGCI to face the environmental and social challenges of the 21st Century.  Fundamental to this process, argued the report, was the recognition by botanic gardens that their social role is inextricably linked to environmental issues, such as climate change and social justice.

“Embracing the concept of social and environmental justice is …..critical if botanic gardens are to reinvigorate their fundamental purpose.”

In 2011, BGCI continued to develop the themes identified in the 2010 study, working with partner gardens in the UK to help them re-evaluate their mission, philosophy, values, goals and practices within a framework of social responsibility.  The project was led by BGCI in collaboration with RCMG.

Project overview

The gardens participating in the project were asked to develop and deliver a discrete project that would address a social issue or community group relevant to their garden.  The projects were aimed at engaging with non-traditional audiences on globally significant issues, such as climate change and social and environmental justice.  To support the development and implementation of these projects, a series of four workshops were organised. Through these workshops, the gardens were encouraged to re-examine their social practices in relation to their potential social role.   The rationale for the workshops was to develop the partner gardens as socially and environmentally responsible organisations. They were encouraged to embrace organisational change in order to embed their social and environmental role. 

The botanic garden projects

Urban Veg at Winterbourne House and Garden
A community-based vegetable garden, Urban Veg involved the University of Birmingham’s Winterbourne House and Garden and Birmingham’s Islam Awareness Week Committee. Winterbourne had been invited to join the project on condition that it would work with the city’s Muslim community, which, in 2010, amounted to around 17 per cent of its total population. For Winterbourne the project represented an opportunity to improve its visitor diversity. Typically, in line with most UK gardens, Winterbourne’s visitor profile was predominantly white, middle class and relatively elderly.

Designed as a ‘two-way cultural exchange and learning experience,’ the project spanned the growing season of spring to autumn, from March - October 2011. The fifteen adult participants were recruited through Islam Awareness Week from a range of backgrounds among Birmingham’s diverse Muslim population. Participants were responsible for every stage of the process, from deciding what to grow, maintaining the plot and harvesting the crops. Winterbourne staff led workshops on growing vegetables organically, including sowing, planting and maintenance techniques. Environmental issues related to gardening were highlighted, including water conservation, sustainable growing media, chemical pollution, wildlife awareness, ‘growing your own’, reducing carbon footprints, food miles and the value of the environment in promoting healthy living.

Winterbourne staff found that the challenge of helping participants grow unfamiliar crops tested their horticultural skills and in engaging with participants from very different backgrounds, they also developed their listening and negotiating skills. As a two-way cultural learning exchange, Urban Veg was not a formal process of instruction but a collaborative process. Staff confidence and understanding across the organisation was developed through training, enabling them to engage with the Muslim participants in a culturally sensitive way – dealing with language difficulties, for example, and providing washing facilities and space to pray.

Urban Veg undoubtedly made its mark on Winterbourne, but what will its legacy be? One motivation for the project was to broaden audiences to the garden, making the garden less white and less middle-class. The visible presence of the project certainly had an impact, but how will the garden sustain the work it has done with Muslim communities? And will Muslim communities find themselves acknowledged and incorporated in Winterbourne’s future programme planning and projects?

Staff are clearly more conscious of awareness training and undoubtedly their thinking is changing. Participants came up with inspiring suggestions for the development of Urban Veg – extending the concept of growing vegetables into the community; seeing Winterbourne represented at festivals and melas; and using local radio stations to highlight the work of Winterbourne for Muslim listeners.

Engaging Secondary Schools – Ness Botanic Garden
The project undertaken by the University of Liverpool’s Ness Botanic Garden Engaging Secondary Schools targeted socially disadvantaged people in its catchment area.  In a joint project with Shorefields Technology College in Liverpool, a group of secondary school students took part in six day-long sessions at the botanic garden.  During these sessions, they swapped their urban classroom for the garden, planting and growing potatoes and wildflowers, going on nature trails, hunting for insects and wildlife, pond dipping and learning about the life cycles of aquatic life and finding out about bees from a real beekeeper.

Shorefields Technology College serves some of the most socially deprived areas of Liverpool. Thirty three first languages are spoken amongst the students at the school and levels of attainment are very low.  However the school is working hard to improve the life opportunities of its students.

Working with a secondary school from the inner-city of Liverpool was a new experience for the staff at Ness. Situated in a predominantly rural and affluent area of Cheshire, Ness, like most UK botanic gardens attracts a predominantly white, middle-class, and middle-aged audience. Working with Shorefields was seen as an opportunity for Ness to ‘reach out’ to socially disadvantaged groups in Liverpool and Cheshire. The project challenged many staff assumptions, including the perception that secondary school students are harder to engage with than primary school children. They also harboured negative views about young people from Liverpool.

Students selected for the project were motivated and able scientists. Many wanted to go to University. Shorefields was keen to ensure that the students were not discouraged by the experience of classroom learning. For both students and teachers the collaboration with Ness proved a very positive experience. Students talked enthusiastically about the activities they had been involved in and greatly enjoyed their learning experiences outside the classroom, especially the practical elements of the sessions. They were allowed considerable autonomy within the safe boundaries of the garden.

The students met adults from very different backgrounds, including specialists and experts with links to the University, who worked well with them. The lack of negative feedback from the students and their obvious excitement about visiting Ness were notable.  Garden staff also saw the experience as very positive and enjoyable, reporting that a good relationship had developed with students and teachers.

Many of the students did not have gardens at home and most had not visited a botanic garden before. Their initial comparisons were with what was already familiar to them – parks, greenhouses and allotments.  Garden staff reported that seeing the students’ ‘enjoyment of being outside’ made the project worthwhile. Shorefields’ teachers saw the visits as an opportunity for their students to compare urban with rural environments and understand the value of both.

Shorefields was clear about the project’s focus on the needs of its students. It was a learning experience that took them away from their everyday lives and brought them into contact with a range of people within a new environment. The desire to raise the aspirations of its students was a key motivator. The garden’s link with the University of Liverpool was critical. Shorefields saw an opportunity to make the idea of university more accessible to their students, many of whom are from families with no experience of university, and to plant the idea of potential careers in the sciences.

For Ness, the project synchronised with the University’s strategy of championing activities that involved knowledge exchange, widening participation, research and innovation. It was also linked to a ‘sustainability framework’ designed to ‘enhance the purpose and relevance of university botanic gardens and their plant collections by utilising skilled and knowledgeable staff to benefit the community and society as a whole.’  However, although staff at Ness recognised that botanic gardens do have a role to play in developing young people’s learning beyond the curriculum, they lacked the means to communicate how to do this. Nevertheless, the project showed what Ness could do, and may provide a model for the garden to replicate with other schools, perhaps helping to broaden the view the botanic garden has of what was possible in terms of developing its social role.

Lessons learned
The projects undertaken as part of Growing the Social Role of Botanic Gardens showed that botanic gardens have the potential to significantly impact on individuals, garden staff and communities. The examples of Ness and Winterbourne also demonstrated that even apparently disenfranchised communities can be willing and enthusiastic partners in joint social enterprises. Moreover the barriers to their involvement are not insuperable. However, gardens in the UK are still at an early stage in this process of engagement and there is much work to do if they are to demonstrate their real potential.  Gardens need to be able to relate what they are doing to the wider policy context and see how they are part of a bigger societal picture.

The involvement of Ness and Winterbourne Botanic Gardens in Growing the Social Role tested their management structures and organisational practices and challenged them to reflect on and develop their social roles. Neither garden found the process straightforward but their engagement with new groups demonstrated the benefits that botanic gardens can offer marginalised communities when they embrace their social role. As a result of the project, RCMG made a series of recommendations to help botanic gardens develop their social role.  These include developing a vision for the sector, ensuring that the work of botanic gardens is rooted in the wider national policy context and understanding how they form part of a bigger societal picture.  Training is essential for gardens to understand the context and barriers to participation and what it means to be excluded, as well as the dynamics of community engagement and partnership.
As the report concludes:

gardens need to reach out into their neighbouring communities to establish meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships. They cannot merely see themselves as islands separate and distinct from the world around them. That way lies irrelevance.”

This article is based on the report: “Growing the social role, partnerships in the community” available for download from BGCI website: