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Plants and people

By Jimi McKay
Ian McHarg said of his seminal work Design with Nature that it was "an ecological manual for the good steward who aspires to art"1. Nowhere is this aspiration more appropriate than in botanic gardens: in their maintenance, within their network of conservation and education programmes and also when the time comes to rethink how these invaluable spaces are redesigned for the coming centuries.

So what do we mean by the term "botanic garden"? It might seem obvious, but just as any old painting can't pass as a masterpiece, neither can any diverse cluster of plants be considered a botanic garden. Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) defines a botanic garden as follows: "Botanic gardens are institutions holding documented collections of living plants for the purposes of scientific research, conservation, display and education2." BGCI outlines other key criteria for botanic gardens, many of which stress their scientific nature and their involvement with similar institutions, and of course, the public. It may be necessary to represent not only the flora of given regions, but also the people of the area where the garden is situated.

When the potato was introduced to Europe, it is said to have been planted first in the botanical garden of Padua3 (1545), before becoming one of the staples of many European nations. From these small and relatively humble medicinal plant collections arose such propagation platforms, and much later the attraction of the plants themselves emerged.

There is a sensual pleasure in being in a botanic garden quite different from that conveyed by photographs or descriptions. You can not only see plants but stand among them, and experience their scents and the sound of their leaves in the breeze.

A wander round a local botanic garden can take you on a trip from the Himalayas to the Philippines without leaving the city.   

Following the tender for the new master-plan of the Sydney Botanic Garden and Domain being recently awarded to Grant Associates, working alongside Cox Richardson Architects, we take a look at how botanic gardens are changing.

Parks and squares tend to be built into the urban fabric, so a certain amount of traffic through them is guaranteed. Botanic gardens are set apart, though; they are their own world in most cases. People have to choose to enter, and this is where social inclusion becomes an issue. Research undertaken by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG), University of Leicester, following a commission by BGCI, centres on the social roles of botanic gardens and, among many other factors, contrasts the approaches of traditional botanic gardens with those of newer, less conventional institutions such as The Eden Project. It prompts the question: who are botanic gardens for anyway?  According to the study, botanic gardens want to "broaden their audiences, and to undermine the perception that they are just for a particular elite of white, middle-class, older people4". The Eden Project was cited in this context, as its design ideology contrasts starkly with the typical idea of botanic gardens as being "very formal spaces... places in which active exploration by children is largely discouraged, even frowned upon".

Encouraging play doesn't imply compromising scientific integrity, as visitors should always be expected to bring a different mentality to a botanic garden than they do to a park. With regard to opening themselves up, David Rae (Curator, RBGE) stated: "I think it"s our social responsibility to do that... I think we"re paid by the public and therefore should be open to all the public".

When considering the challenges traditional gardens face, and those of the teams responsible for reshaping them, it could appear that new projects have it easier. Is it more straightforward to start from zero with a clear programme and incorporate changing visitor needs from the outset? Leigh Morris 7 of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh was very positive about The Eden Project, stating that it "is a good example of a new garden with a real focus on social inclusion... It is exemplary in the sense that it is entirely self-funded, receiving no assistance, but it can be regarded as more of a visitor destination, rather than a scientific institution". Botanic garden or not, the public engagement capacity of The Eden Project is widely acknowledged and it could perhaps serve as a useful transition model for older gardens seeking to generate more of their own revenue.

A yet more ambitious new botanic garden is under construction in the Sultanate of Oman. According to the official site of the Oman Botanic Garden (OBG) "when complete it will be the largest botanic garden in the Arabian Peninsula8". In addition to his work at RBGE, Leigh Morris worked as a consultant on the development of the master-plan for OBG for around five years. Given that pressures such as climate change are particularly grave in arid nations, I was curious to know if it will be a precedent for new botanic gardens, given for example its intended LEED Platinum status. "Yes, OBG has a great vision and ambition to be the model for sustainability within the Arabian region. For example, they have constructed a solar P.V. farm to promote the use of renewable energy. Given the low cost of fossil fuel in Oman this is often not considered an issue in the country, but LEED certification is expensive, so that has to be factored in"

Oman has already revisited elements of its masterplan after six years, and plans to update regularly. Morris says: "My vision for botanic gardens is that they have 50–100 year visions and then write 5–10 year strategies (regularly reviewed and updated) to deliver the longer term needs". With some types of space, designers could be forgiven for having a shorter-term view, especially with the pressure to construct in most urban centres. However, in light of the longevity of many of our traditional botanic gardens, thinking in fractions of a century is closer to the mark for both old and new projects.

When discussing the direction gardens must move in, Morris couldn't have been clearer: "The main change currently within the botanic garden community, is the transition from botanic gardens being predominantly spaces full of grass and labelled trees, to being more dynamic and socially inclusive spaces. Botanic gardens were traditionally about storing collections, keeping records, and keeping people away from the plants. Education and closer interactions with plants is really the key way that botanic gardens need to evolve". And work is in full flow at RBGE, with the demonstration garden catering for social-inclusion projects and working allotment beds for students, as well as on-site consumption of produce in both of the garden's cafés.

It wouldn't be hard to start feeling that 'sustainability' and its associated terms are becoming yet more buzz-words. I asked Morris what the Royal Botanic Gardens are doing to contribute to the well-being of the environment. "Well, we have sustainability groups, recycling bins, recycled paper, and so on. We also have used green roofs and wind turbines in our new visitor centre and we are aiming to lead the way more, and to be bolder. We are planning to knock down our research backup glasshouses/ experimental building (located behind the palm house and other collection glasshouses at RBGE) and replace them with a much more sustainable building". At a time when so much lip-service is paid to environmental issues, RBGE is investing in long-term solutions.

Moving on to the Sydney Botanic Garden and Domain masterplan tender, I spoke to Keith French, director at Grant Associates, about its work on both the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore and the Sydney project. On the surface the two gardens might appear to have little in common in terms of programmatic or spatial requirements, given that Sydney has almost two hundred years of established history and Gardens by the Bay is brand-new. All the same, I asked whether the Singapore project had assisted in the masterplan tender for Sydney. Contrasting the two projects, French said that "Gardens by the Bay was more about a grand vision, where the Sydney botanic garden is more about careful surgical interventions into a historic landscape". He outlined what it could be argued is the central challenge of all successful botanic garden design: "A key question for both projects is: how do you connect people with plants? And I think it's about bringing the wonder, strangeness and magnificence of plants and nature into our city spaces". This wonder and strangeness so inherent to plants depends on placement, and the overall structure into which collections are set will fundamentally determine to what extent visitors truly feel the plant-human harmony we should be striving for. But it's not only about how people see plants.

Fundamental in any master-planning consideration should be connectivity; the idea people have of a garden is critical in guaranteeing its long-term survival. French commented on the progressive fragmentation of the Sydney site, explaining that it was "due to the erosion of the edges of the Gardens and Domain, the severance of the site by infrastructure and the nibbling away at the edges". So the first issue is a perhaps more practical one of major separations between parts of the site, though. French added that "Improving legibility is a key consideration, how people navigate around the garden and how you read the landscape".

It's not enough just to create links; visitors have to feel that these sites are connected. French added a final point about the Sydney project as a whole: "Some areas of the gardens lack design consideration, and these have to be taken into account as well. The site needs an overall framework so that it can progressively develop over the next 25 years and continue to be one of the world"s great botanical gardens". Quarter century thinking.

That brings us to what is arguably the most important species in any botanic garden: not the giants swaying in the afternoon breeze, but the weary visitors resting in the shade beneath them. If the work of botanic gardens is to mean anything, it is their visitors who must spread the word, increasing awareness about biodiversity, habitat loss and climate change.

Jimi McKay is a landscape architect who is currently based in Barcelona, Spain.

McHarg, I. L. Design with Nature. John Wiley & Sons Inc.          New York, USA. 1992
BGCI, August 2013:
The earliest academic botanic garden still in its original location:
Dodd, J. and Jones, C. Redefining the role of botanic gardens –  towards a new social purpose. BGCI, Richmond, England. 2010.
Leigh Morris, Associate Director of Horticulture (Learning), Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE). President, Institute of Horticulture (IoH).
OBG, August 2013:

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