Cornell University Press

Creating Livable Cities through Public Garden Partnerships

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As the current COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates, our cities are dynamic, complex social systems that falter when critical components are missing. When residents are deprived of their basic needs of shelter, food, education, and the ability to earn a living, urban centers break down and the quality of life is degraded. While it is largely the responsibility of the government to maintain these critical components, to thrive, cities also depend on the resources and collective action of community organizations, institutions, and individuals. Among those community institutions is the public garden.

Lesser known than other museums, public gardens are museums with living collections open to the public with professional staff dedicated to educational and scientific missions. They include botanical gardens, arboreta, historic gardens, and display gardens. After focusing inward for much of the last two hundred years, public gardens in the United States are now firmly established within their communities and are seeking opportunities to improve the cities that surround them and the people who populate them. 

Among those community institutions are public gardens.

Given their plant-based expertise and their ability to bring together organizations and individuals interested in inclusive solutions, public gardens have expanded their outreach programs and are entering into collaborative partnerships with other community organizations to develop initiatives aimed at impacting their communities’ health and livability. 

Public Gardens and Livable Cities: Partnerships Connecting People, Plants, and Place provides a roadmap for how public gardens, regardless of size or budget, can jump-start initiatives that address particular community needs. The key is to seek out and form partnerships with like-minded local governmental units, community associations, other nonprofits, and for-profit organizations. Collaborative initiatives have had remarkable success in addressing critical urban challenges and supporting positive local agendas.  

Using a case study approach that traces successful initiatives, the authors describe partnerships that have had a positive impact on their communities and identify how those partnerships are formed, how they are funded, how responsibilities are shared, and how they are structured. But collaborations and partnerships don’t always succeed, and the authors identify common obstacles and problems that can lead to failure as they detail the evolution of partnerships that range from loose cooperation to collective action. The emphasis throughout is on the exploration of proven strategies that lead to successful collaborations. 

Using a case study approach that traces successful initiatives, the authors describe partnerships that have had a positive impact on their communities.

In the case of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Project Green Reach, its partnership with Brooklyn’s Title 1 private and public schools began with the realization that the only schools that participated in the garden’s school tour program were those with parent groups that supported outside activities. That realization eventually led the garden to establish a K-8 science education program for Title 1 schools. These programs not only provide free admission and bussing for school tours but also provide workshops, materials, and support to teachers on how to conduct student-centered, inquiry-based instruction, an approach to science instruction strongly supported by research.

The Roots to Re-entry (R2R) program of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society attempts to break the cycle of recidivism, a significant problem in the Philadelphia city prison system. Through a network of partners ranging from local landscaping businesses to units within the Philadelphia government, to private foundations, R2R offers a twelve-week horticultural training program to incarcerated individuals in the last phase of their sentence. The training, which for some participants also includes workforce literacy and job preparedness instruction, concludes with job opportunities offered by local green industry employers.

The Roots to Re-entry (R2R) program of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society attempts to break the cycle of recidivism, a significant problem in the Philadelphia city prison system.

These and the fourteen other collaborative initiatives the authors profile underscore the book’s underlying premise: Challenging societal concerns and priorities cannot be addressed by any one sector or organization. Rather, the health and wellbeing of complex social systems demand the knowledge, resources, and participation of multiple sectors and the involvement of diverse stakeholders. The profiles of all the initiatives are designed to serve as models for future outreach programs and as a challenge to cities and local organizations to think more collaboratively. 

Featured photo from the interior of Public Gardens and Livable Cities: Partnerships Connecting People, Plants, and Place.

Read more about this book.

Donald A. Rakow is Associate Professor in the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He is coauthor of Nature Rx and Public Garden Management.

Meghan Z. Gough is Associate Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Sharon A. Lee is President of Sharon Lee & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in publications for and about public gardens. She is coauthor of Public Garden Management.

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