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Reflecting on Botanical Gardens and the Urban Future

Posted On December 05, 2018 | 10:38 am | by Press | Permalink
Bliss and Mellon conference award recipients discuss the 2018 Garden and Landscape Studies colloquium

Bliss Symposium Award

Yoni Angelo Carnice, MLA candidate 2020, Harvard Graduate School of Design

“What role can botanical gardens play in the context of climate change today?” The last question posed at the Botanical Gardens and the Urban Future colloquium was incredibly pertinent not in the sense of how botanical gardens can function as landscapes of resiliency, but in the sense that botanical gardens are among the anthropogenic structures that have created a global system in flux. The conference dived into a deep historical analysis of the creation of botanical gardens, but the historical and circumstantial shifts and evolution of contemporary gardens felt unresolved. It is abundantly clear that conservation and native plant ecology are huge priorities for botanical gardens today, but there is a deficiency of self-criticism of how these spaces are extensions of empire. The existence of these contemporary landscapes inherently condones a history of violence toward and displacement of colonized people. Botanical gardens ideally should not be transgressions that continue to exoticize other cultures, people, and landscapes in pursuit of the production of “paradise,” or to romanticize landscapes by erasing the labor and maintenance of these spaces.

Find out more about Bliss Symposium Awards for Harvard students.

Mellon Colloquium Award

Gaëlle Gourmelon, MLA candidate 2020, University of Virginia

The colloquium gave me a new appreciation of botanical gardens as a blend of science and art, access and education, and plants and design—as well as an exploration of my own role in shaping the landscape as a landscape architect. By examining botanical gardens as an interpretation of “the urban ethic of what nature should look like,” as phrased by Peter Crane, I came to understand this landscape typology as a metaphor for many quandaries in the field of landscape architecture today. Are the gardens we design propagating forms of colonial dominance and objectification? Or are they democratic places of learning for everyone, from the scholar to the farmer? Can they become, as designer Mikyoung Kim hopes, places of “healing inscribed in design”? After listening to these perspectives and learning of the changing future of botanical gardens—from historians, garden directors, and landscape architects—I more fully understand that the purpose, context, and legacy of the landscapes we manage and design today will change. I believe that, with an exploration of the past and an understanding of our current values, landscape design can address these large questions. As Emma Spary concluded, perhaps framing our role as shapers of artifice with natural materials is unnecessary. Perhaps, as she posits, “we are already in nature.” The future of the garden is not to mediate the urban condition and the natural state. It is to express urban “nature” as it is, full of people and machines, as part of the urban fabric. With this new definition, I am left wondering how my urban landscape designs will change as the nature of the city changes.

Chloe Nagraj, MLA candidate 2020, University of Virginia

The range of disciplines represented at the colloquium reflected a remarkable breadth of inquiry into the botanical garden as a spatial type. It was refreshing to look outside the design perspective and learn how scholars, scientists, and governing bodies manage and conceive of the future of botanic gardens. As a longtime resident of Charlottesville and student at UVA currently focusing on public space in Charlottesville, I found Mikyoung Kim’s discussion of her work on the McIntire Botanical Garden particularly relevant. I value her design approach to this garden, which extends far beyond just this landscape typology. Her emphasis on plants’ ability to create and reinforce cultural identity in the wake of violent upheaval, and the reciprocal relationship between civic identity and plants are integral sensibilities to the field. Many of the conversations, both historical and contemporary, touched on how botanic gardens fit into the urban environment. As Peter Crane put it, botanical gardens and wildlife management in cities deal with a tension between a “developing urban ethic of nature conflicting with rural ethic in nature.” This tension carried through many of the conversations on historical analysis, design, and management. The research and conversations at the colloquium were inspiring, and I hope to question and test these ideas, especially the balance between urban and rural ethics of nature in cities, in my work this semester and beyond.

Tabitha Tattenbach, MLA candidate 2021, University of Texas at Austin

This colloquium was engaging, educational, and showcased incredible speakers in the field of landscape studies. Not only did I have the pleasure of watching eight riveting speakers, I also had the opportunity to speak with them personally about their work. This vital engagement with professionals in my field at such an early stage in my career was tremendous. I was able to network, learn more about the world I love, and was shown there is so much to work toward in my field of landscape architecture. Although the colloquium was unparalleled by any academic event I have attended thus far, the icing on the cake was the gift of being shown the grounds of the historic Dumbarton Oaks. If ever there is a time when I am lacking inspiration, I shall close my eyes and return to the green, lush grounds of the most beautiful estate I have ever laid my eyes on and to which I can truly say photos do no justice.

Heather Tietz, MLA candidate 2021, University of Oregon

Attending the colloquium helped shape and deepen my understanding of the rich and varied histories, prospective futures, and cross-disciplinary aspects of botanical gardens, and I especially appreciated the lunch-hour garden tour led by John Beardsley through Beatrix Farrand’s beautifully designed garden. I enjoyed learning about the narratives and inspiration of the first botanical gardens, a combination of interesting civil exchanges, personal curiosity, and concern for human health. Gerda van Uffelen noted that gardens exist because of the people who design and care for them, the plants that compose them, and their place in the environment. Botanical gardens are the materialization of our complex networks and serve many different functions responding to the context of place. We need botanical gardens to continue to learn, enjoy nature, and understand each other. In order to make botanical gardens sustainable, it is important to recognize current factors that inhibit the endurance of gardens and advocate for gardens’ importance, perhaps through new tools in technology. As I continue my studies in landscape architecture and in my future design work, I will bear in mind a few key points mentioned by Mikyoung Kim. She shared that parks and gardens hold both collective memory and intricate personal narratives. Gardens are most effective as multisensory places where people engage with plant life to create new memories. I appreciated that Kim said botanical gardens offer hope and hold the potential to mend our weakened social fabric through the interactions of teaching, sharing, and working together to build stronger communities.

Find out more about the Mellon Initiative in Urban Landscape Studies.