What do other botanic gardens think of developing their social role?

If you have been following the Communities in Nature blog then you have been learning how four UK botanic gardens are growing their social role by running community projects with the support of BGCI. But what do other botanic gardens think about the role of their organisation in society? During Eurogard VI, the European Botanic Gardens congress  (May 28th-June 2nd) which took place on the beautiful island of Chios, Greece we (BGCI) had the opportunity to run a workshop on ‘Growing the social role of botanic gardens –towards a new social purpose’.

Participants from European and one US botanic garden discussed the barriers that their institutions face in order to develop their social role in key areas and here is what they came up with:

1)     Actively changing attitudes and behavior

Description of this key area of work: Botanic gardens talk about the importance of changing the attitudes and behaviours of visitors –and society in general- towards the natural world. Society through the combined effects of industrialisation and urbanisation, has become completely detached from the role that plants play in our lives. One way in which botanic gardens see to convey the relevance of plants to their visitors is through making the connection between their daily lives and how much of what they eat, buy, medicate with and wear is derived from plants.

Barriers identified by the participants:

  • It is difficult to measure the impact of botanic gardens actions to changing people’s attitudes and behaviour
  • Many botanic gardens have an entrance fee and are not open access to everybody. So that limits the audiences botanic gardens can reach to influence their environmental attitudes and behaviour.
  • Achieving change in people’s behaviour can be challenging because different strategies may be needed to reach audience from different cultures.
  • Contact period of the gardens and their visitors is usually relatively short and one-off. It is difficult to achieve change within that limited amount of time.
  • Some gardens in the way they are established they are not models of environmental friendly practices so how can they convince their visitors to change their behaviour if they don’t ‘practice what they preach’?
  • A botanic garden is considered by their audiences as a scientific institution or as a beautiful place to visit so it is not perceived as a place that can instigate change to people’s behaviour.

2)     Broadening audiences

Description of this key area of work: Broadening botanic gardens’ audiences is about making their audiences more diverse and representative of wider society – whether by age, ethnicity or socio-economic status. Audience development is about breaking down the barriers which hinder access to botanic gardens and ‘building bridges’ with different groups to ensure their specific needs are met’.

Barriers identified by the participants:

  • For some botanic gardens there are safety issues for children visiting specific areas. There is a need to improve the health and safety.
  • Lack of funding and how the garden areas are established is a barrier for people with physical impairments e.g. people in wheelchairs or visitors with visual impairments
  • Lack of space to develop areas relevant to different groups of the community
  • Lack of technological equipment that will make a visit to a botanic garden more meaningful to specific group audiences e.g. to people with visual impairments

3)     Education

Description of this key area of work: Botanic Gardens provide formal and informal education, from nursery-age children through University students to adults. Education programmes vary from teaching the more traditional science subjects – plant classification, botany, ethnobotany but also sessions that engage with contemporary issues such as climate change, the impact on plant biodiversity, environmental issues, the need to live more sustainably and becoming an active citizen.

Barriers identified by the participants:

  • Families visit the botanic gardens because they consider it as a fun place and they visit the gardens only once. So it is difficult to engage them in educational activities.
  • Botanic gardens are collection focused and their displays are not appropriate to be used as an educational resource. There is a need to make the living plant displays relevant to the education needs
  • Botanic gardens exist because of passionate people not because the government is interested in plants
  • Some gardens experience high level of vandalism
  • Big part of the gardens are closed to the public and they are dedicated only to research

 4)     Modelling sustainable behavior

Description of this key area of work: Botanic gardens are relatively unique in their relationship with climate change in that they can not only show the impact that it will have upon the natural world, they can model some of the necessary adaptations in the form of ‘sustainable behaviour’.

Barriers identified by the participants:

  • Lack of staff in our and other gardens (not staff at all)
  • Lack of finances/space to be allocate to modeling sustainable behaviour
  • Lack of awareness and interest of the authorities and public. The public has priorities related to their everyday life issues – surviving issues – so people will not be not interested in visiting the gardens and looking at the gardens as models of sustainable behaviour
  • Local and global crisis (financial, environmental, social)
  • Some botanic gardens are regarded as monuments of culture with specific purposes that are not linked to modeling sustainable behavior. So bringing changes in these gardens is difficult as it requires changing established parts that have historical significance.

Suggested actions for the botanic gardens to overcome the barriers and become more socially relevant:

  • Increase the accessibility of the gardens for different groups e.g. provide ramps or lifts for people who use wheelchairs
  • Run cultural themed events to attract visitors from different cultural backgrounds.
  • Develop guided tours in more languages
  • Provide funding for groups that come for a disadvantaged background including school groups.
  • Identify what groups of the community are not visiting the gardens and approach them to find out why they don’t see the gardens as a place relevant to them.

Other issues discussed during the workshop

During the plenary of the workshop it was highlighted by some participants that there are botanic gardens that lack of funding and staff and for them it is impossible to undertake a new area of work such as developing the gardens social role. However one of the arguments that were presented in the beginning of the workshop is that there is available funding in the sector of social inclusion which the botanic gardens can start thinking of applying for. Hence the barrier of lack of financial resources could be seen as an opportunity to start looking for funding from sources the botanic gardens haven’t thought of before.

Also, the issue of botanic gardens not having entrance fees was being raised. An example of a botanic garden from Croatia was mentioned which is open access to the public. In one occasion the garden decided to put entrance fees to the temporary exhibition area of the gardens. The introduction of the entrance fees to the temporary exhibition was unsuccessful as it resulted in low visitor numbers for the specific exhibition. An example from the National Botanic Gardens Belgium was provided as the garden is free entrance but there is a small fee for visiting the glasshouses. The low cost of the entrance fee in combination with the services provided as a return for entering the glasshouses has resulted in satisfactory visitor numbers.

In the end of the workshop seven out of the 16 participants of the workshop registered their interest in participating in the future in projects related to growing their institution’s social role.

If you work in a botanic garden or any other informal education institution please comment your thoughts on what barriers your institution faces in relation to becoming more socially relevant or share yout ideas on how organisations may overcome the identified barriers.

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