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Towards a new social purpose: The role of botanic gardens in the 21st century

Volume 8 Number 1 - April 2011

Jocelyn Dodd & Ceri Jones

French title: Vers une nouvelle résolution sociale: Le rôle des Jardins Botaniques pour le 21ème siècle.

Spanish title:  Hacia un nuevo propósito social: El papel de los Jardines Botánico en el siglo 21

With evidence for global climate change and wholesale species extinction mounting up, the gulf between humankind and the natural world is growing ever wider. Drawing on recent BGCI-commissioned research, Leicester University’s Jocelyn Dodd and Ceri Jones highlight the immense potential in botanic gardens, as agents of social and environmental action, to bridge the divide. It’s a slow process, however…

In our modern society people have become increasingly disconnected from plants and the natural world.  At the same time, it is impossible to ignore the growing evidence that climate change will have serious implications for human and plant life.  Around two-thirds of the world’s plant species are threatened by population growth, habitat loss, over-consumption and agricultural expansion.  How are we going to tackle the growing social and environmental problems that our world faces?  What kind of life do we want now and for future generations?

It is crucial that society engages with these questions.  Like many organizations in the cultural sector, botanic gardens are looking to be more socially relevant to meet the urgent challenges of the twenty-first century.  How can they best use their resources to address social needs?  How should they engage with contemporary issues that will affect the whole of society?  These are not easy questions to answer and climate change is a particularly contested issue.  But can botanic gardens afford to sit on the fence and do nothing?

As part of the biological and cultural fabric of communities in almost every country and ecosystem around the world, botanic gardens have the potential to reach millions of people.  Target 14 of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation requires that everyone should understand the importance of plant diversity and the need for conservation.  What better place to get these messages across than a botanic garden?

Yet, the evidence from our study suggests that botanic gardens are only taking tentative steps towards developing their social purpose.  They reach a narrow section of society, appealing mostly to white, middle-class and older audiences.  Humans depend on plants – so it’s vitally important that everyone engages with these issues.  But how can botanic gardens be relevant to everyone when they are perceived as elitist and exclusive institutions?  

Botanic gardens could do much more to engage with their social role and embrace their social and environmental responsibility.  Examining their audiences and contributing to debates on social engagement are vital if they are to reach the widest possible audiences with their message.  They have unique resources, wide-ranging collections and staff with a huge amount of expertise.  How can botanic gardens reach out to the wider community to demonstrate the contemporary significance of plants in a rapidly changing world?  How can they support communities to live ethically and sustainably?

Exploring the role and resources of botanical gardens

Between June 2009–June 2010 the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG), University of Leicester, was commissioned by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), supported by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, to carry out research exploring the social role of botanic gardens.  With a reputation for quality research and evaluation in the fields of museum learning, education, inclusion and the social role of museums, RCMG’s unique set of skills, experience and perspectives were particularly relevant for this exercise.  Using mixed methods, RCMG examined, conceptually and practically, questions of social inclusion and social responsibility in botanic gardens.  The research offers a way forward, mapping out how they might, as key socially relevant agents, directly engage with the social and environmental challenges of the modern world.

How are gardens working to improve their social contribution?

The research found that botanic gardens are well placed to educate the public on conservation issues and the human role in effecting environmental change.  Botanic gardens are beginning to realize the wider contribution they can make to society and are particularly concerned with developing their activities in seven key areas:

  • Broadening audiences
  • Enhancing relevance to communities
  • Education
  • Conducting research which has socioeconomic impact locally and globally
  • Contributing to public and political debates on the environment
  • Modelling sustainable behaviour
  • Actively changing attitudes and behaviour

Most botanic gardens are now working to broaden their audiences and to lessen the perception that they are only for particular groups.  The University of Oxford Botanic Garden (OBG), for example, is one of many working hard to increase their visibility.  Amongst other activities, OBG runs a public engagement programme every year – using picnics as the basis for a celebration of plants and the natural world.  The emphasis is on family-orientated activities focused around a central theme, such as encouraging people to grow their own vegetables.  The idea of a picnic is inclusive and appealing to almost everyone.

Botanic gardens are similarly enhancing their relevance to communities and have proved they can have significant impacts on peoples’ lives.  When Dave (not his real name) was homeless and living in a hostel, the ‘Great Day Out’ at the Eden Project showed him a way out from the challenging and chaotic circumstances of his everyday life, introducing him to a new, inspiring and absorbing environment.  Taking up the opportunity to volunteer at Eden has helped Dave to turn his life around; now he is living in independent accommodation and looking for a job.  Whilst still on his journey, his involvement at the project has obviously given Dave the confidence to take some very positive, and critical, steps forward.  

Offsite, botanic gardens can also have an impact.  The Botanic Garden Trust, Sydney, works in disadvantaged neighbourhoods to develop communal gardens in disused public spaces.  Staff provide horticultural expertise, advice and training, and, in keeping with environmental aims, gardeners follow sustainable and organic gardening practices.  These are not short-term projects – it can take up to five years to get gardens going – but the impact on the lives of local people can be profound.  Gardens transform derelict spaces and make them productive.  Working on the soil brings people together in a collaborative experience, contributing to a sense of community and ownership.  It can help to develop individual confidence, skills and vocational opportunities.

Education programmes are well established in botanic gardens.  Drawing on their strengths, the learning opportunities provided by gardens frequently involve practical, multi-sensory engagement with plants and sites.  But there is considerable variation around the extent to which education is embedded in their respective culture and there is limited evidence of research into learning experiences.

The research of botanic gardens has local and global socioeconomic importance and, in developing medicines and hardier crops, can benefit communities directly.  Closely linked to this research activity is the contribution they can make to public and political debates about the environment.  Most gardens share the scientific consensus that global climate change is a real and significant threat.  Not only do they provide information about climate change, they can also provide models for sustainable behaviour on-site, which show visitors how they might take action and what the impact could be.  However, explicit articulation of environmental values is rarely found.  Many botanic gardens do not want to bombard their visitors with messages of ‘doom and gloom’ or to be seen as partisan or campaigning, which limits the impact that they can have.

Across the sector, botanic gardens are taking action.  However they could do much more.  Work is often achieved through short-term funded projects.  Many are unclear about what their social role really is or could be.  Although some gardens may believe they are socially engaged, the evidence to support those beliefs is not always available.  Botanic gardens need to be much more proactive if they are to become more socially responsible.  This requires an ongoing, in-depth understanding of community need and very clear articulation of the values, social role and responsibilities that the organization wants to have.  If they are to be truly accessible, many gardens will need to change.

What stops botanic gardens from being more socially relevant?

If botanic gardens are to genuinely reposition themselves and redefine their social purpose, more integrated action and further evidence is required.  At the moment there are a number of factors inhibiting this change, but these can be balanced against forces for change which motivate gardens to consider their social role in greater depth.

Change Inhibitors

Forces for Change

  • Politics of climate change
  • Distant from wider policy context
  • Lack of evidence of impact on users
  • Limited funding
  • Diffidence/limited motivation
  • Distant from the priorities of governing bodies     
  • Management hierarchy
  • Collections focused/inward looking
  • Workforce with limited diversity
  • Lack of capacity and skills
  • Historical context
  • Recognized need to address society’s detachment from plants
  • Public funding and accountability
  • Policy – social inclusion, wellbeing, community cohesion
  • Involvement in wider networks
  • Climate change as a broader concern
    Social justice, equality, rights as a global concern
  • Professional passion
  • BGCI

Figure 1: Change inhibitors and forces for change affecting the social role of botanic gardens

Historically, botanic gardens have rarely examined their social role, the implications of which are still felt in their organizational structures and staff populations today.  Gardens are perceived as ‘nice’ places to work, and the impetus for change can be limited.  Many are distanced from the wider national and international policy contexts which can be a catalyst for prioritizing social agendas.  The limited evidence available to botanic gardens about their impact on actual and potential users is a serious impediment to developing their social role.  Without understanding the impact they have, they are unable to evaluate their work or be able to communicate its value to external audiences and funding bodies.

Reviving the human connection with the natural environment is now largely accepted and there is a growing appreciation of the benefits this will accrue for society.  As publicly funded organizations, botanic gardens are also waking up to the reality of greater public accountability and social engagement.  The vocabularies of social policy, sustainability and environmental justice are ever more prevalent in the language of government and funding bodies, and the pressure is on for botanic gardens to engage with this discourse if they are to be seen as relevant.  The challenge for them, particularly in these uncertain economic times, is to find the evidence to support their funding applications.

Botanic gardens cannot do this work alone.  Working in partnership and with key networking organizations will enable gardens to escape isolation and jointly develop new ideas and approaches.  But to achieve this, passion is needed.  The love of plants is at the core of botanic gardens but a passion for social engagement is less visible and more narrowly focused.

Vital steps to achieve a sustainable social role

What does the socially responsible botanic garden look like?  How can they best reposition themselves as dynamic, proactive organizations for the twenty-first century, engaging their communities in contemporary issues for a sustainable future?  

Repositioning an organization requires a re-evaluation of its mission, values and vision.  Botanic gardens first need to ask themselves:

  • Why do we exist?
  • What do we believe in?
  • Who are we for?
  • What do we want to achieve?  

The answers to these questions need to be clear, targeted, specific and embedded throughout the whole organization.

Imperative to the repositioning of botanic gardens is the combining of their social and environmental roles.  Environmental and social justice are global concerns and inextricably connected.  It is only by treating them as part of a single problem, and by involving themselves in the key issues, that botanic gardens can really help to combat the ‘five tectonic stresses’ – population, energy, environment, climate and economics.

In the first steps towards achieving these aims, Growing the Social Role of Botanic Gardens is an innovative and experimental project to develop the role of botanic gardens in a socially responsible way.  BGCI, in collaboration with RCMG and funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, are supporting two UK botanic gardens through workshops and practical projects.  Botanic gardens interested in this work should contact BGCI.

With their resources of expertise and knowledge, botanic gardens should be hugely capable of explaining the interconnectedness of people and plants and the potentially devastating consequences of climate change.  By working to enhance their social role they can ensure their contemporary relevance across the social spectrum now and for the future.

The full research report, Redefining the Role of Botanic Gardens: Towards a New Social Purpose, and summary document, Towards a New Social Purpose: Redefining the Role of Botanic Gardens, are available from:


Dans une société où un grand nombre de personnes sont déconnectés du monde naturel, mais où il est prévu que les menaces liées au changement climatique et à l’extinction des espèces s’aggravent, les Jardins botaniques peuvent jouer un rôle important pour permettre aux gens de renouer des relations avec le monde des plantes, les éduquer et leur montrer des modes de vie durables. Contrairement au secteur culturel qui a entamé un virage important vers un plus grand intérêt social, les Jardins botaniques n'ont fait que des pas hésitants pour chercher un élargissement de leur public, et engager des discussions sur les intérêts et les besoins des communautés, alors qu'ils peuvent être également des lieux importants pour aborder les changements sociaux et environnementaux, qui nous concernent tous.

En se basant sur les études du Centre de recherche pour les musées et les galeries (RCMG), à l'Université de Leicester, effectuées pour le compte du BGCI et avec le financement de la Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian – Redéfinir le rôle des Jardins botaniques : vers une nouvelle résolution sociale (2010) – est un article qui soulève des questions au sujet du rôle potentiel que les Jardins botaniques peuvent jouer, en relation avec les besoins sociaux et environnementaux. Il analyse les forces du changement ainsi que les difficultés qui bloquent les évolutions dans le secteur, difficultés qui sont abordées et examinées dans un nouveau projet : Développer le rôle social des Jardins botaniques.


En la educación de una sociedad en donde mucha gente se ha desconectado de la naturaleza, pero donde las amenazas del cambio climático y la extinción de las especies se predicé serán peores, los jardines botánicos juegan un papel importante trabajando en la re-conexión de la gente y el mundo vegetal mostrando módelos para una vida sostentable. En el aspecto cultural a pesar del incremento de acceso a audiencias mas amplias e involucrando preocupaciones y necesidades de las comunidades, los jardines botánicos siguen siendo espacios muy fundamentales para difundir socialmente los cambios ambientales que incumben a las poblaciones del planeta.

 Los resultados de las investigaciones del Centro para Museos y Galerías (RCMG) de la Universidad de Leicester, la Conservación Internacional de Jardines Botánicos (BGCI, siglas en ingles), y la fundación  Calouste Gulbenkian, redefinen el papel que los Jardines Botánicos hacia un nuevo propósito social (2010). Este articulo hace preguntas sobre el papel potencial que los jardines botánicos juegan en cuanto al medio ambiente y las necesidades sociales. Analizando las fuerzas de cambio, y los temas que lo inhiben, así como aspectos que han sido ya tocados y explorados con el nuevo proyecto de,  El papel que desempeñan los Jardines Botánicos  en el crecimiento social.

Jocelyn Dodd, Director
Ceri Jones, Research Associate

Research Centre for Museums and Galleries
School of Museum Studies
University of Leicester

Email: (Jocelyn) (Ceri)