Using Botanic Gardens to Promote Social Change

Vergou, A. ., & Willison, J. . (2016). Relating social inclusion and environmental issues in botanic gardens. Environmental Education Research, 22, 21-42.

Over time, the purpose of botanic gardens has evolved such that most botanic gardens are focused on plant conservation and the cultivation of native species. For the past several decades, botanic gardens have also served as venues for environmental education programs. It was only recently that educators recognized the potential for botanic gardens to promote social inclusion. Environmental education researchers have criticized traditional environmental education programs at botanic gardens for catering to specific audiences who tend to be older, middle to upper class, and white. This study provides an example of the various social roles botanic gardens can play in bringing minority community members together to learn about plants, trees, and gardening.

The authors evaluated four community-based education programs at different botanic gardens in the United Kingdom. All four programs were implemented as part of the Communities in Nature initiative, an initiative to help botanic gardens create small-scale community-based projects that connect people with the natural world. The four pilot programs all focused on providing hands-on, outdoor learning experiences for minority communities.

The first program, called Hidden Voices, worked with 112 people from three disadvantaged groups: Asian women struggling from poverty and domestic violence, a community group of drug users, and a group of elderly people with vision problems. Participants in the Hidden Voices group attended multiple sessions at a botanical garden where they learned about gardening, cooking, and nature-based crafts. The second program, called Feel Green, engaged 28 adults with disabilities in environmental and horticulture workshops. The Edible Gardening program involved 23 at-risk youth in a sustainable gardening and cooking project. The last program, Bristol Community Plant Collection, consisted of 100 people from nine different community groups. The community group members collected and planted the seeds of annual plants. Participants in this study included the staff of the four botanic gardens and the 263 total community members who participated in the four educational programs.

The researchers collected data on the Communities in Nature initiative using four methods: 1) one-day observational visits at each botanic garden, 2) interviews with garden staff and participants at the end of each project, 3) evaluation cards filled out by program participants before and after each program, and 4) open-ended questionnaires completed by program participants. The researchers asked participants how they felt about the botanic gardens, their experiences with the educational programs, and the environmental and social issues that were addressed by each program. The data from the observations, interviews, evaluation cards, and questionnaires were analyzed for themes.

Results showed that the Communities in Nature pilot projects had mainly positive impacts on the participating community members. Participants reported improved mental health and increased self-esteem levels as a result of participating in the educational programs. Participants also noted increased levels of cohesion within their communities. Some programs even helped promote physical health. For example, the organizers of the Hidden Voices program reported that by the end of the program, the women were more motivated to go on walks around the arboretum on their own.

The findings also indicated the importance of garden staff responding with flexibility to the needs of community members. During interviews, staff members from all four botanic gardens mentioned the need to structure the programs based on the interests and needs of the community, rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.

However, most participants did not make larger connections between their individual actions and the potential to create systemic change. The authors note that increasing environmental awareness among a population does not necessarily translate to pro-environmental behavior change. Comments from interviews and evaluation cards also highlighted how environmental issues did not feel relevant to the participants' lives. For example, many participants were not interested in the general topic of climate change and did not feel that they were directly affected by climate change.

This study provides a framework for engaging underprivileged populations in environmental conservation. The authors recommend that botanic garden staff think about the type of social and environmental change they want to create before designing educational programs. Educators should develop programs that are relevant to the needs of community members. For example, for disadvantaged youth living in poverty, a lesson in gardening or cooking vegetables will be more immediately helpful than a lesson on climate change. The authors also urge botanic gardens to create programs that encourage community collaboration and not just individual lifestyle changes.

The Bottom Line

<p>Four diverse, community-based programs at botanic gardens in the U.K. promoted social inclusion through environmental education. This study found that this pilot program improved health and wellbeing among participants in the program, and that it was important for gardens to be responsive to these communities. The authors recommend that botanic gardens implement social inclusion programs as a means to involve groups who traditionally may have been underserved. Botanic garden educators should develop programs that meet the needs and interests of disadvantaged minority groups. Finally, rather than teaching about the value of making individual lifestyle changes to protect the planet, educators should help communities learn to collaborate to create systemic change.</p>

Research Partner