One of the biggest changes to take place in botanic gardens in the 21st century has been the adoption of an expanded social role. Botanic gardens remain about plants and their conservation, but increasingly they have become about people as well. We understand that to tackle environmental challenges we need to first look at human behaviours. In my three decades of working in botanic gardens I have witnessed this positive trend from simply allowing access to our collections to embracing all sectors in the community and seeking to actively engage at all levels in our mission to understand and protect biodiversity.

This new enlightened approach within botanic gardens that recognises their role as agents of social change is the subject of a new review by Dr Bernadette Lynch entitled ‘How can Botanic Gardens grow their Social Role?’ Published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (CGF) and Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) it is both summary of the lessons learnt from the recent Communities in Nature programme and a call for action to the world’s 3000+ botanic gardens to develop their social role in tandem with their traditional work in plant conservation and display.

RBGE was pleased to be one of the botanic gardens participating in Communities in Nature study and to have its work highlighted in this important review. Our flagship Edible Gardening Project was established with support from the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery with the aim of supporting the growing, sharing and health benefits of home-grown food among a very broad range of people within the local North Edinburgh community. There have been many successes and a few disappointments along the way but through the Communities in Nature initiative we were able to feed these lessons directly into this review.

Dr Lynch explains how the CGF/BGCI project wanted to establish a ‘community of practice’ among botanic gardens and this network has provided us with a valuable forum for sharing ideas and experiences. At the beginning of the project some practitioners working on the front line of social inclusion felt that their efforts were not necessarily understood or appreciated at a more senior level. This has changed and now there is much more respect for community engagement and participation at the highest levels, including governing bodies and funders.

The review acknowledges that often in the past botanic gardens have been behind museums and galleries in developing their social role but it is also clear that some botanic gardens are catching up fast and the potential is huge. Botanic gardens practical places where hands-on skills remain in the forefront. This, perhaps, gives us an advantage when working with the community in areas of mutual concern like food, nutrition and health, in that we can and do engage in the most direct way through practical activities. Our experience in working with individuals and community groups is that direct contact with soil and plants is really valued in an age where so much experience is virtual.

There seems little doubt that as mental health problems overtake physical health problems in society that botanic gardens will have a vital role to play in promoting wellness and nurturing wellbeing in society. This a new challenge but also reflects our origins a physic gardens – gardens of health. Just as we responded to society’s needs back in the 17th century by growing medicinal herbs and training apothecaries, so must continue to adapt and to lead in our social responsibility by tackling the most prevalent modern ills as we strive to combat loneliness, anxiety and depression.

The new report by Bernadette Lynch on the social role of botanic gardens is available for free on line here: How can Botanic Gardens grow their Social Role?

RBGE is the People’s Postcode Lottery charity of the week, largely in recognition of its work in engaging communities in growing food and leading healthier lives, read more here.