Maya Melhem and colleagues recently published a study in Scientific Reports explaining how underutilised green spaces can be transformed into “Ancillary Botanic Gardens”, offering urban residents unique opportunities to learn about plants. Ancillary Botanic Gardens are secondary gardens created by adding educational botanical elements to existing green spaces like parks, schools, hospitals, tourism sites, and more. The authors argue that this concept could bring more botanical education to cities worldwide.
The study comes at a time when people have become increasingly detached from nature, contributing to a lack of appreciation and understanding of plants, referred to by scientists as “plant blindness” or “plant awareness disparity”. Botanic gardens help counter this by providing immersive botanical experiences, but many cities lack access to formal gardens.
The research team analysed 220 established botanic gardens worldwide to identify key physical and functional elements that aid plant learning. Melhem and colleagues incorporated these elements into a practical field checklist and guidelines empowering institutions to give their green spaces an educational botanical makeover.
The Ancillary Botanic Garden model was field-tested at three Lebanese sites, demonstrating how the guidelines and checklist can uncover botanical stories unique to each space. For example, one site’s Mediterranean terrace garden highlighted traditional horticulture, while another focused on trees historically planted in Beiruti estates. This flexibility is important. Melhem and colleagues write:
A key aspect of ABGs is that unlike botanic gardens, both their role and scope are flexible rather than prescriptive and are not benchmarked against international standards. This, however, should not lead to the conclusion that ABGs are ‘mere’ visits to green spaces because they are implemented following a locally driven mission to offer informal botanical learning.Melhem et al. 2023
According to the study, this concept allows the creation of informal botanical gardens that are locally relevant, multifunctional, financially sustainable, and co-created with the community.
By adopting the concept, institutions can increase opportunities for urbanites to reconnect with nature, while boosting their community outreach and environmental commitment. The model empowers organisations to bring out the educational value of plants in their existing green spaces.
One of the most exciting lines is tucked into the conclusion at the end. Earlier in the text, Melhem and colleagues note that:
With over half its case study botanic gardens found in Europe and North America, the research first confirmed the reported imbalance in the geographic distribution of botanic gardens supporting the argument that many cities around the world lack these botanical institutions.Melhem et al. 2023
Ancillary Botanic Gardens would mitigate that imbalance to an extent, but an Ancillary Botanic Garden doesn’t have to remain ancillary. In their conclusion, Melhem and colleagues add:
Finally, it is worth noting that one of the case study sites registered as a formal botanic garden following this research, showing that ABGs may be a transitioning step by urban institutions who chose to further commit to botanical learning and join the global botanic garden community by becoming a member of formal botanic garden organizations.Melhem et al. 2023
So next time you visit your local park, school, hospital or even archaeological site, look at their green spaces with fresh eyes. They may be harbouring hidden stories just waiting to enlighten someone rediscovering nature in the city.
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Melhem, M., Forrest, A., Abunnasr, Y., Abi Ali, R. and Talhouk, S.N. (2023) “How to transform urban institutional green spaces into Ancillary Botanic Gardens to expand informal botanical learning opportunities in cities,” Scientific Reports, 13(1), pp. 1–12. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-41398-6.