Why should botanic gardens grow their social role?

There’s an urgent need to find new ways to inspire people’s love and understanding of the natural world. The pressing environmental issues of our time have developed as a result of people’s actions on and relationship with the natural world, and it is in changing these that solutions will be found. But this is a challenge when more than half the world’s population lives in cities where they may have limited contact with nature, little understanding of its role in their lives and less motivation to protect it (or vote for people who will protect it).

However, botanic gardens are predominantly located in urban areas. They provide extraordinary oases of natural beauty and expertise, and are committed in their very DNA to the preservation of biodiversity. At the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in London, we are convinced that botanic gardens can play a critical part in tackling issues of environmental change, indeed are uniquely well placed to do so. That’s why since 2009 we have been supporting BGCI’s ‘Communities in Nature’ initiative to develop the ‘social role’ of botanic gardens, first through the research ‘Redefining the Role of Botanic Gardens’ and then through the pilot projects which are showcased in this blog.

But botanic gardens are open to everyone – and often free. They have excellent formal and informal education programmes. They lead cutting edge research on conservation and adaptation. What does it mean to develop a more social role? And why might botanic gardens want to do it?

Two reasons, or maybe three, spring to mind. If plants are to be protected, then people really matter – and that’s all the people, not just those who have the means, education or background to incline them to visit botanic gardens. If botanic gardens are really keen to change people’s attitudes and ideas, the more they can understand about what people need in their lives and how what botanic gardens have to offer could meet those needs, the more successful they’re likely to be. Developing a more social role is not just about setting up innovative projects with local communities, it’s about thinking through the implications of putting people at the very heart of the mission and purpose of botanic gardens.

Secondly, there’s a quiet local food growing revolution happening all around us, but much of it is under the radar, un joined up, ad hoc and/or in need of expert direction and support. Botanic gardens could be at the forefront of the revolution – and in some places they already are – providing the leadership and expertise to focus and encourage new more sustainable ways of living, especially in the communities who need it most and have the least access to the resources necessary for success. And in leading the revolution, botanic gardens could help ensure that innovations are always in the best interests of plants as well as people!

And yes, thirdly, from what I’ve seen so far, I think there are a number of other benefits. Of course, I have a vested interest in saying this and there’s no doubt that developing a more social role has its challenges, as the evaluation report ‘Growing the Social Role: partnerships in the community’ makes clear. However, it can also be inspirational for staff and develop their skills. It can provide access to new government and other funding streams. It can provide new relevance to the social and political context in which the gardens operate and put them at the centre of vibrant, successful local communities. And last, but not least, as I hope the films we are making of this year’s projects will show when they are released later this year, sometimes, it can also be great fun!

Louisa Hooper, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

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