Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

Social Integration for All

Volume 3 Number 1 - April 2006

Ian Edwards





During the latter part of the nineteenth century a battle raged in Edinburgh over whether the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) should open on Sundays.  On one side was the Sabbath Alliance - Presbyterians who believed in keeping activities on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, limited to those directly related to religious observance. Their opponents were an equally determined group representing the ‘working men of Edinburgh’, who toiled six days a week and were only able to visit the Garden on Sundays.  For more than 25 years they fought over the issue with petitions and counter-petitions signed by tens of thousands of Edinburgh folk. The matter was even debated in Parliament in Westminster, London.  Sunday opening was finally conceded in April 1889, so that ‘working men and their families were best able to take advantage of the humanising, innocent and elevating pleasure of strolling through a Botanic Garden’ (Scotsman newspaper). This was considered a great victory for the working classes and possibly the first direct example of a social inclusion policy being introduced in Scotland.  During the first four Sundays the Garden remained open, over 27,000 ordinary people took advantage of the new privilege.  Sunday remains our most popular day for family visits but how are we doing, more than 100 years later, at providing access for people of all social classes?

Recent research, conducted by market research specialists Ballantyne MacKay and Scotinform, suggests that RBGE audiences remain essentially middleclass and that the perception of the Garden among people in some socially deprived parts of the city is that ‘it is not for people like us’.  However, the Scottish Parliament (our principle funders) recently produced 'Choosing Our Future: Scotland’s Sustainable Development Strategy', with social and environmental justice high on their list of priorities for the newly devolved nation. Clearly it is time for a change and RBGE is actively seeking ways of casting off its stuffy, middleclass image and becoming more socially inclusive by appealing to a broader range of audiences.

Visitor surveys confirm that 84% of our visitors come from socio-economic groups A, B and C1 – the professional or white collar jobs – with only 16% belonging to socio-economic groups C2, D and E. This statistic confirms what we have felt for some time that the Garden only attracts a subset of people from the surrounding catchment area with the wealthier communities much better represented, especially among the regular visitors, than those from poorer areas. The same middleclass bias is reflected in the Friends of the Garden and among our volunteers. School visits show a broader spectrum of social strata (although there is still an over-representation from Edinburgh private schools) who are eager to make good use of the excellent facilities on offer.

RBGE actually sits on the boundary between the middleclass districts of New Town and Stockbridge to the south and local government housing schemes, officially categorised as social inclusion partnership (SIP) areas, to the north. Both districts are equally accessible by foot or by public transport; but the majority of people who visit the Garden on a regular basis and attend events come from the more affluent areas. To try and get a clearer picture of why people from the SIP areas didn’t visit the Garden we asked Scotinform to carry out a number of focus groups with non-visitors, including those with and without small children.  It soon became clear from these groups that there was a common perception that the Garden was not somewhere they would feel comfortable bringing children, fearing they would be watched and that they would have to be on their best behaviour at all times. A few based this on experiences they had themselves as children during an era when some of our security staff could at times be considered officious.  However, when they saw images of recent events, including festival shows, people relaxing on the lawns, and hands-on activities for children, they became much more interested in what we had to offer.  At the conclusion of the focus groups some non-visitors, especially young parents, were responding positively to our ambitious plans for developing visitor facilities and events and universally agreed to give visiting the Garden a try.

Elsewhere within Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage has also commissioned work to determine a baseline to attitudes to biodiversity. The initial research showed the population could be divided into three groups with respect to their concern and involvement in natural heritage issues. These were the ‘carers’, ‘carers and doers’ and ‘non-carers and non-doers’.  Age, education and socio-economic background seemed to be the principle factors determining which group people were most likely to be found in. The people who were neither concerned nor became involved with environmental issues tended to have a younger profile, higher level of unemployment and lower proportion of the ABC1 demographic. This was important evidence to support our campaign to broaden audiences in order to get our message across to people who are currently inactive and apparently unconcerned about biodiversity.

These unsettling results from research have encouraged us to embark on a programme of social inclusion. With financial support from the Royal Bank of Scotland, we have recently employed our first Community Events Coordinator who has been given the task of broadening the audiences visiting the Garden and attending events. In the short time she has been part of the RBGE, she has already made links with different communities within reach of the Garden and is seeking their ideas on ways in which we can meet particular needs. A programme of activities targeted specifically at individuals and communities who previously felt excluded from events needs to be built on the experience of previously successful projects. For the RBGE there have been four areas that have contributed in a significant way to broadening and extending audiences: storytelling, hands-on activities (including practical gardening), art projects and outreach work. A brief summary of successes in these four areas is given below. In the future we hope to expand and develop these areas to widen our appeal to people who currently do not visit the Garden and do not get involved in action for the environment.

Storytelling has proved a particularly powerful means of engaging with audiences, especially families. The Garden’s storytelling programme uses professional storytellers and trained volunteers and has worked in partnership with others including the Scottish Storytelling Centre, who run performance and training programmes, and the charity Children First who have used storytelling and story-making successfully with vulnerable children from areas of social deprivation. The wonderfully evocative settings provided by the Garden can help stimulate the imagination, but the most exciting aspect of this project is the way that the ‘make believe’ aspect of working with stories and the ‘safe but open’ environment of the Garden often combine to help young people open up and share their own personal experiences whether good or bad.

In many traditional societies storytelling is frequently supported by practical activities forming critical elements in indigenous education of the young. Hands-on activities involving plants or other natural materials (wood, wool, clay, etc) have also been important aspects of our informal education programme for a number of years. Long before we had encountered the term Nature Deficit Disorder, we had discovered how direct contact with plants and small animals, in our childrens' garden project, could have a beneficial effect on children with social or behavioural problems. Because numbers are small, there are few statistics to back this up but anecdotal evidence has accumulated that suggests regular exposure to nature and direct involvement in nuturing plants reduces incidents of tantrums or aggressive behaviour. Offering any kind of direct nature experience is becoming an increasing challenge in a world where concerns over childrens' safety are continually increasing. However, the ‘safe but open’ environment of botanic gardens, already mentioned, has proved to be important in this respect.

In addition to its scientific displays the RBGE is home to an art gallery with an international reputation and receives an annual grant from the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) for displaying and interpreting art. Interestingly the SAC sees the location of the gallery, in the centre of a public garden, as key to its policy of introducing contemporary art to new audiences - in this case families or adults who visit gardens but would not normally step inside an art exhibition. The RBGE also feels the presence of the gallery increases its audiences, especially young adults in the 16 – 30 age range who are generally under-represented among garden visitors.

The gallery also provides opportunities to carry out art projects in response to exhibitions and target these at particular sectors of the community. A recent exhibition by Alan Farquhar, that included popular music and teenage fashion icons among the exhibits, was used as a stimulus for workshops with young gay men and lesbians who feel excluded from mainstream society. The work these young people produced was considered by the Curator sufficiently creative and original to be displayed in the education space alongside work by the artist. This was a considerable source of pride to the teenagers and their families. In this particular case the connection with the natural environment was not strong; but in other exhibition-related art workshops the Garden has provided an important inspiration or unique backdrop for work that has been produced.

Going out into the community, rather than groups visiting the Garden, loses the crucial aspect of the ‘safe but open’ space which has been critical in the success of much of the above. However, outreach programmes always prove popular and extend activities into new areas, including remote rural locations as well as poorer parts of Scottish cities. The best result would be a follow up visit by the school or community group to the Garden and this does often happen. In remote areas of Scotland, like the Hebrides and the Northern Isle, a visit by an outreach team can bring new ideas or experiences: taking a show about woods and forests to the treeless islands of Shetland for example. Outreach programmes provide us with new insights, and we know not to assume that poverty is an exclusively urban problem, or that children growing up in the country necessarily have a better understanding of their natural environment than those growing up in towns.

Are the problem and solutions I have offered above only of relevance to the UK? After all we all know the British are obsessed by the issue of class! However, my experience of visiting or working in botanic gardens in other parts of the world – India, Australia and the United States – suggests that the need to broaden the social spectrum of visitors, especially those who engage in activities and events, is widespread. The majority of botanic gardens are urban, and it is not uncommon for them to be situated adjacent to socially deprived communities who feel no sense of ownership or involvement. What’s more botanic gardens could sometimes be accused of wanting to maintain this elitist air, with hidden fears about what would happen to their manicured landscapes and precious collections if they became too popular. A good example is the slowness with which many botanic gardens have been prepared to adopt local names on labels, persisting with the exclusive use of scientific names  derived from arcane languages, Latin and Ancient Greek, generally associated with the privileged, privately educated classes.

However, a sea change is occurring and I believe it is led by a general appreciation among botanic garden people that we will only make a real impact in tackling the major environmental issues of our time when the majority of people are convinced that their actions can make a difference. This majority means peasant farmers in the fields and the workers in factories, as well as the well-educated middle classes in their offices. Botanic gardens need to be active in broadening audiences, to include people from all level of society, not simply to comply with government policies on social inclusion but because we all share environmental responsibility for the planet we live on. Maybe it is not simply that the meek will inherit the Earth, but that we will all need to drop some of our arrogance if we want an Earth for future generations to inherit.


L’intégration sociale et la justice environnementale sont des priorités politiques pour la nation écossaise, nouvellement dotée de pouvoirs décentralisés. A Edimbourg, les travaux des groupes de réflexion ont montré que les gens perçoivent le Royal Botanic Garden comme « ennuyeux et bourgeois ». Cette image est un obstacle à la venue du public en particulier des familles avec de jeunes enfants. Pour encourager des visiteurs de tous milieux sociaux, nous avons entrepris un projet de développement du public. Celui-ci associe des études spécifiques sur les visiteurs et diverses activités conçues pour plaire à des personnes de tout âge et de toute origine. Des contes, sous différentes formes, des activités artistiques et pratiques et des programmemes sociaux en direction des plus démunis et des plus isolés ont été utilisés avec succès pour toucher un nouveau public et rendre le jardin accessible à tous.
Il est d’autant plus important de permettre aux gens et surtout aux enfants de vivre des expériences directes avec les plantes, le sol et les éléments naturels que notre monde est de plus en plus dominé par les médias électroniques.


Integración social y justicia ambiental estan incluidas como prioridades en la agenda politica de la desarrollada nación de Escocia. Respuesta de grupos particulares demuestra que la gente percibe el jardin botánico real como ‘demasiado encerrado y para clase media’ y esta es una barrera para que mucha gente incluyendo padres con familias jovenes lo visite. Con el fin de promover un amplio espectro de visitantes nos hemos embarcado en un programmea de desarrollo de audiencia. Esto combina la visita enfocada a la búsqueda con un amplio rango de actividades y orígenes.
Lectura de historias en varios temas, actividades artísticas prácticas y proyectos que van desde pobres y remotas comunidades han sido usados exitosamente para alcanzar nuevas audiencias y hacer el jardin mas completo.
Proporcionando a la gente, especialmente a niños, la oportunidad de tener práctica experiencia con las plantas, el suelo y materiales naturales, ha probado ser especialmente importante en un mundo que esta siendo dominado por medios electrónicos.

About the Author

 Dr Ian Edwards
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
20A Inverleith Row
United Kingdom