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Ecological Integrity or Landscape Aesthetics? The display of natural systems within botanic gardens

Volume 6 Number 2 - July 2009

Paula Villagra-Islas


This paper discusses the extent to which the display of more naturalistic environments can convey ecological values to a diverse public in the context of botanic gardens. Over the past several years, many botanic gardens have taken the role of conserving remnants of indigenous vegetation. This situation involves management practices to sustain dynamic systems with the aim of both reversing biodiversity loss and also increasing awareness about the relationships between people and the natural world. Few studies, however, have explored how people perceive this more naturalistic and dynamic type of plant display and the values people ascribe to these landscapes. This paper elaborates on this issue based on the review of past research findings and preliminary results of a doctoral study undertaken within the context of the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne (RBGC), Victoria, Australia.

The display of natural systems

Based on several targets addressed in botanic garden policies, management efforts over botanic collections have focused on conserving plants for biodiversity. The aim is to develop programmes for the conservation of plant species and increasing peoples’ awareness about plant diversity (BGCI, 2005). In doing so, conservation programmes are taking different forms. While some take place within laboratory facilities, for example, propagating endemic species and creating seed banks of endangered plants (e.g. Millennium Seed Bank Project), others have opted for conserving plants in natural habitats. Indeed, the management of natural areas to conserve local diversity is the objective of at least 200 botanic gardens in the world (Oldfield, 2008).

Examples of the way in which natural systems are conserved can be observed in practices undertaken by several botanic gardens in Brazil, UK and Australia. Management practices undertaken in these botanic gardens are aimed at imitating and controlling associated environmental disturbances and are also meant to meet local community requirements. For example, the research institute of the Rio de Janeiro Botanic Gardens is involved in the ecological restoration of the degraded forest area of Poco das Antas (POA). Restoration practices undertaken within POA seek to develop a local scientific culture in relation to indigenous plants. In the UK, the Loder Valley Nature Reserve within the grounds of Wakehurst Place Kew (WPK) is undergoing a ‘countryside management’ programme, aimed at conserving and restoring British plants and wildlife. In doing so, management practices consist of, for example, cutting trees and shrubs to ground level in order to create healthy habitats and produce goods such as rustic furniture and barbeque products. Similarly, ecosystem remnants at the RBGC are subjected to ‘prescribed burning regimes’ for improving the habitat of both flora and fauna. In this case, periodical burns are aimed at conserving ecosystems and preventing uncontrolled fires destroying nearby communities.

However, while the sustainable management of natural systems in botanic gardens includes displaying plants for both ecological and social purposes, it also creates landscape scenes which can be unsightly for many. Associated exhibits are constantly changing due to life cycles essential for maintaining biodiversity. As a result, while visual landscape changes are related to plant regeneration, flower and fruit, they are associated with less appealing appearances as well, such as the decay, dryness and death of plants.

At this point, several questions can be raised based on botanic garden policies that emphasize increasing peoples’ awareness about plants and biodiversity. We may ask for example, what characteristics of plant displays that change over time do people like or dislike. We also may want to understand if garden visitors perceive the visual results of sustainable management practices as part of life cycles. To what extent do peoples’ socio-cultural backgrounds influence their responses? The following sections reflect on these issues and specifically explore the extent to which visual effects of sustainable management practices (e.g. prescribed burning regimes) communicate ecological values to garden users.

Perception of landscape change

Studies undertaken to explore peoples’ perceptions of more naturalistic and dynamic types of plant display are few, yet consistent in their findings. Results suggest people’s knowledge, familiarity with the site, and personal interests influence their reaction to landscape changes. Previous studies have shown that the effects of landscape changes on people are either imperceptible or convey both positive and negative connotations.

On one hand, changes that occur over longer time periods – such as geographic changes – and on small landscape scales – such as seed sprouts – are unlikely to be perceived by the general public (Bell, 1999). This situation suggests that what experts perceive within botanic gardens may differ markedly from the views of the wider public. Experts such as ecologists are more likely to understand plant exhibits within natural systems as part of life cycles. For the lay public, on the other hand, establishing relationships between plant displays and life processes can be a more complex task. However, this may not always be the case. Visitors from botanic gardens come from different socio-cultural backgrounds and consequently have different past experiences and education levels.

Changes that are easily perceived can be associated with, for example, seasonal variations. For instance, spring and summer depict characteristics such as greenness, fruits and flowering plants and these have been associated with productive landscapes and peoples’ positive responses (Orians & Heerwagen, 1992). Evolutionary biologists suggest people prefer these landscape attributes because they signal resources for survival (e.g. food) and appeal to peoples’ emotions. Studies undertaken within botanic gardens suggest similar results. In the Morton Arboretum in Chicago, Shroeder (1991) observed that warm and sunny places convey to visitors joy and happiness and places which combine wildflowers and forest suggest a setting in which ‘nature (is) controlling the environment’.

Differences in landscape preferences can be observed in relation to personal interests as well. Studies undertaken in rural areas have pointed out that people reject changes that interrupt daily life activities and threaten infrastructure (Zube & Sell, 1986). If this is the case, garden visitors who are emotionally attached to particular garden collections are most likely to reject changes that threaten areas they constantly visit. For instance, changes affecting useful things, such as areas providing recreation, education and rest, may be perceived as negative. This can occur, for example, in cases where visitors see nearby gardens as an extension of their own backyards.

Moreover, results of a study that explored responses to landscapes in rural areas in Australia suggest that differences in landscape perception are associated with the values conveyed by landscapes. These were described based on Keller and Wilson’s (1993) categories of human values of nature as: utilitarian, or the value of the natural world in providing material benefit; naturalistic, or satisfaction obtained from the experience of nature; ecological-scientific, or the satisfaction achieved from the study of nature; and aesthetic, or values received from the observation of physical aspects and beauty of the natural world (Williams 2003).

Case study: Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne

In testing previous findings, a study undertaken by the author is exploring how people perceive landscape changes associated with sustainable management practices. The study area is the reserve of the RBGC (363 ha) that was subjected to fires thousands of years ago until man-made disturbances, such as grazing and mining, took place. In order to reverse this situation, in 1993 the board of the RBGC decided to restore the remnant vegetation. Accordingly, a fire management plan, among other practices, was adopted. It consists of periodically burning small areas of land during spring and autumn and within different time intervals in order to assure landscape diversity. Resulting land-mosaics also provide resources for local fauna, such as wallabies and koalas.

While these burning patterns help to increase biodiversity and prevent uncontrolled fires, they also create plant displays of burnt and un-burnt areas. These are constantly changing in association with life cycles and sustainable management practices. Landscape changes were photographically documented before and after fires for over a year and used in a series of interviews undertaken in Australia and Chile. Participants were asked to evaluate the images according to preferences (rating scale 1-7) and similarities and also to describe them in their own words. Preliminary results suggest that regardless of peoples’ socio-cultural backgrounds, they prefer similar landscape scenes. They prefer landscapes depicting semi-open areas with scattered trees and bright green colours. For example, recently burnt landscapes depicting more open areas and providing depth of view received higher rating values than many unburnt landscapes illustrating overgrown and dry vegetation. Areas that underwent a moderate burn - not too hot and not too cold - received high preference values as well. These landscapes changed from darker and dull to brighter and contrasting colours over time. Scenes depicting green and yellow-bright colours were associated with plant regeneration processes and received the highest preference values. The opposite situation was observed in landscapes scenes subjected to lighter fires. Low fire intensity impeded clearing the land successfully; hence resulting landscapes were described as closed, old and dead and were less preferred.

Findings outlined above are not meant to suggest that everybody interprets landscape scenes in the same way. On the contrary, while experts associated more open scenes with healthier landscapes, lay people liked them because of the accessibility and depth of view these landscapes provide. Additionally, while experts related brighter colours to landscapes in process of regeneration, lay people associated them with life and happiness.

A series of ideas can be outlined at this stage of the study. Firstly, the effects of sustainable management practices undoubtedly influence people’s perceptions of plant displays. Secondly, the study suggests that certain landscape attributes are more preferred by people regardless of their own values and previous experiences. However, some landscape features can convey different meanings depending on, for example, peoples’ expertise in landscape management practices.


Understanding how people perceive landscape changes associated with sustainable management practices in botanic gardens is a complex situation. Perceptions vary in relation to landscape characteristics and the individual. The information reviewed here suggests that ecological values associated with naturalistic plant displays are better understood by experts. While expert preferences seem to be based on both ecological-scientific and aesthetic values, lay people like similar scenes purely based on aesthetics. Hence, the importance of complementing more naturalistic landscape exhibits with innovative plant displays and interpretation techniques to enhance the experience of the general public.

Fruitful approaches can be achieved if the design and management of plant exhibits is informed by studies exploring relationships between landscape attributes and people’s responses. Indeed, the methodology prepared for the RBGC study was developed by the author with the aim of facilitating the exploration of people’s responses to naturalistic environments in botanic gardens subjected to other environmental disturbances as well. Associated findings can help to understand educational and emotional effects different types of plant displays have on garden visitors. Results can contribute to improve botanic garden effectiveness as communicational tools.


Bell, S. 1999. Landscape: Pattern, Perception and Process. London, E & FN Spon.

BGCI (Botanic Gardens Conservation International) 2005. Botanic Gardens: 2010 Targets. Online:

Keller, S. and Wilson, E. 1993. The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington DC, Island Press.

Oldfield, S. 2008. Editorial-Urban botanic gardens-benefiting people and biodiversity. BGjournal 5(2): 02-03.

Orians, G.H. and Heerwagen, J.H. 1992. Evolved Responses to Landscapes. The Adapted Mind. J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides and J. Tooby. NY, Oxford university press, Inc: 555-579.

Schroeder, H.W. 1991. Preference and meaning of arboretum landscapes: Combining quantitative and qualitative data. Journal of Environmental Psychology 11: 231-248.

Williams, K. 2003. The biodiversity we want to maintain and the reasons we want to maintain it. Land Use Change - YES! - But will biodiversity be OK? Proceedings of the Conference on Rural Land Use Change, Victoria, Australia, Department of Sustainability and Environment.

Zube, E.H. and Sell, J.L. 1986. Human Dimension of Environmental Change. Journal of Planning Literature 1(2): 162-176.

Paula Villagra-Islas
PhD Candidate
ABP Faculty
The University of Melbourne