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Botanical Gardens as Ecological Urban Activity Centers

What’s the difference between a botanical garden and an ecological urban activity center? Botanical gardens have been known as lush havens where plants are cultivated for scientific, educational, and ornamental purposes. In the 20th century, they often included a library, a greenhouse, and a classroom for educational field trips. Nice, right? But— yawn. Today, we live in a society where instant gratification is more important than aesthetics. Where understanding the interrelationships between organisms takes the proverbial back seat to fear over not making our daily exercise quotas. And directors of botanical gardens in our city’s protected urban areas have been watching and listening. Ecological urban activity centers are the result.

ecological urban

“The traditional passive activity of strolling through a garden is old school,” says Debbie Hoover, operations director at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. “Botanical gardens are adding challenge courses, concerts, and interactive physics gardens for children.” At SLO Botanical Garden, 5 acres of garden are no longer enough. The nonprofit group’s expansion plans include installing zip lines to provide a steady source of income. Additionally, they intend to create a 150-acre garden with an outdoor amphitheater, paved trails, a visitors center, and an education and research center.

What is an Ecological Urban Activity Center?

Urban ecology is the scientific study of the relation of living organisms with each other and their surroundings in the context of an urban environment. This area of scientific inquiry is important in today’s society, as, according to the United Nations, 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas. That proportion is expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050. Protected open space in urban areas allows the penetration of sunlight and air movement, as well as for planting areas for visual relief. It is also an essential land use element in urban design.

Botanical gardens offer an optimal space to meet multiple outdoor urban recreation objectives. Their existing biological infrastructure can be adapted as exercise areas through protected open space design and management. They have flexibility for dual or multiple use, including necessary facilities, a scope for private development, and provision and accessibility for groups such as persons with disabilities. Through proper oversight, botanical gardens can serve as ecological urban activity centers where barbecue and picnic activities, extensive use by hikers and ramblers, and entertainment venues can co-exist with protecting the vegetation cover and wildlife. Importantly, they’ll continue to conserve the scenic and organic value of the natural space.

Recreating Gardens into Ecological Urban Actvity Centers

SLO Botanical Garden is not alone in its realization that botanical gardens now need to evolve into ecological urban activity centers.  

Since 1914, children have been growing flowers, vegetables, and herbs and learning firsthand about the natural world in Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Children’s Garden. With a focus on greening the urban environment through education, sustainable practices, and stewardship, BBG encourages young people to be participants, not just spectators, in community horticulture and conservation. Here, children 2 to 17 years old can plant their own crops and flowers and harvest them under the guidance of garden instructors. Younger children combine planting, tending, and harvesting with craft making and creative play. For older children, lessons in science and urban ecology accompany the gardening, and teenagers who successfully complete the program can go on to become junior instructors. Over a thousand youngsters now garden in the Children’s Garden every year.

The South Carolina Botanical Garden is home to miles of nature trails and streams, a butterfly garden, a wildflower meadow, many specialty gardens, an official American Hosta Society Display Garden, and a 70-acre arboretum. The Garden is also home to over 300 varieties of camellias, as well as an extensive collection of hollies, hydrangeas, magnolias and native plants. The Garden is a place “where nature and culture meet.”

Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center has an autumn Enchanted Forest event.  Kids and their grown-ups enjoy a guided nighttime walk through Riverside Park and encounter costumed characters along the way. After the hike, everybody comes back inside the Center for games, crafts, and hot apple cider. 

An interactive approach to a plant-rich environment with healing, stress reduction, and physical exercise can offer physical as well as psychological comfort. The Chicago Botanic Garden enables participants to engage with elements of the plant world in a planned, individualized, and expertly directed manner. The Garden is a world leader in providing therapeutic horticulture experiences. It also offers certificate programs for special-education personnel, healthcare providers and administrators, and landscape professionals to explore the multiple health benefits that are available in nature.

The New Orleans Botanical Garden hosts live music, garden shows, educational programs, and more throughout the year. You can try Thursdays at Twilight, the Scarecrow Contest, the Fall Garden Festival, Magic in the Moonlight, plant sales, Garden Party Concerts, even a Spring Garden Show.

The South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center is a 182-acre showcase on Oso Creek. It offers a unique and varied take on botanical gardens. Exotic parrots. Native wildlife in a resident reptiles exhibit. Artistic decorative water features. A vast natural wetlands. A majestic rose pavilion.  This nature center has an unusual approach to environmental education through creative horticultural design and a compelling landscape of wetlands and trails through native mesquite forest. There is a coastal birding trail site with a birding tower overlooking Gator Lake and a recently expanded and remodeled nature’s boutique in the visitors center.

A series of magical, interactive treehouses was featured this summer at the Cleveland Botanical Garden.  Six locally designed, architecturally innovative treehouses were installed throughout the garden, beckoning guests of all ages to come out and play. Kids let their imaginations run wild at “Branch Out,” where each treehouse explored a theme connected to learning and fun. Kids explored art, music, reading, math, and play.  The STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) activities combined inquiry, adventure, and discovery during 2016 summer.

Now in its ninth year, the Idaho Botanical Garden offers a summer concert season in the garden. Picture the sun setting behind the stage and the foothills encircling. You can bring along a picnic or purchase food, beer, and wine.

Bringing Urban Ecology, Botany, and Activity Together

The increasing urbanization of our world results in a series of both local and far-reaching effects on biodiversity, hydrology, and climate, among many other stresses. A habitat immersed in the middle of a city environment, such as a botanical garden, offers an enclave of diversity amidst the backdrop of residential and commercial buildings and paved surfaces.  

Traditional outdoor recreational activities are now consistent with the reimagined spaces and the aesthetic wonder of botanical gardens. The shift begins with recreation, hiking, tourism services, and wilderness areas. Ecological urban activity centers help make intensely populated areas healthier, more livable, and economically competitive through the revitalization and development of parks, green space, and recreation opportunities. Botanical gardens can lead the way.

Photo credit: whologwhy via Foter.com / CC BY