The recreational garden as society’s living museum

The influence of botanical and recreational gardens on society as we know it today is undeniable; especially in the last 10 months. Indeed, one public park in England saw an increase in visitors of 640% between the summer of 2019 and 2020 (Covid drives huge increase in use of urban greenspace, 2020). In the last eleven months, as a global pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns confined the public to their homes and locales, open spaces and greenscapes have helped to bolster wellness, morale and education. However, this is not a novel idea, as the use of various tools such as design theory and the panopticon effect have long been used to guide visitors spatially as well as in how they interact with displays. In this essay, I will paint the museum as the blueprint for the educational, recreational garden. I will touch on the historical purpose of public gardens, their role in bringing communities together and how they can be modernised to suit modern values.

In its inception, the museum was not as we know it today – it required much more than a day ticket to enter. In fact, early museums were simply private collections following the precedent set by the Florence-based Medici family. Noblemen commissioned and collected artefacts, artworks and precious objects, as a display of their wealth and superiority (Chen, 2013). Later, simply owning these luxurious items was not enough; an individuals’ collection indicated their levels of taste.  After the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment in the early 1700s, rapid modernisation and various industrial revolutions, a shift in power and lack of order gave rise to museums as a tool for educating and controlling the general public and lower echelons of society.

Worldwide collections were curated and displayed in carefully designed buildings. In fact, it was not enough to simply invite in the public and encourage education, the atmosphere and design of these institutions helped to further shape their learning. For example, visitor circulation was considered, with predetermined paths being laid out, using subconscious habits such as invariant right: the theory that when visitors enter a space with “exhibit objects on both walls, they tend to turn right in the absence of other stronger attracting cues” (Whitlow, n.d.). In addition, the panopticon effect was often utilised on split-level viewing platforms, making visitors feel almost as deliberately surveyed as the exhibitions themselves. In theory, this social conditioning and a culture of surveillance was intended to “raise the levels of general education and culture” (Rodini, n.d.), by encouraging groups to conform to the rules and societal norms of the environment. Somewhat crassly put by the first Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Sir Henry Cole, he hoped that this atmosphere would “civilise” visitors by “furnish[ing] a powerful antidote to the gin palace.” (V&A – Building the Museum, 2019). In other words, Cole hoped to keep the working classes out of the pub, and that a prolonged exposure to this educational setting would be assimilated, perhaps through osmosis.

While recreational and botanical gardens may be missing the four walls and fluorescent lighting, their design, history and purpose, was almost identical. Noble people and royal families commissioned expeditions to faraway lands, hunting for exotic flora. Private collections were displayed by these wealthy individuals and tropical plants were kept alive in specially created glasshouses. As with museums, as time passed, these noble families either donated collections, opened up their estates to the public or – in the case of the Royal Botanical Gardens Kew (RBGK) – handed it over to the public. At the RBGK, the same emphasis on order we can see in early museums has lived on, encouraging people to move en masse throughout the park, first taking a right towards the café and Temperate House, as well as the Broad Walk. The movement of visitors is not primarily a tool for socialisation but allows curators and designers to steer the public towards a series of features, in a specific order, which ultimately creates the desired effect. As in museums, there are certain norms that are “known or quickly learned by visitors and are followed by them with a remarkably high degree of compliance” (Trondsen, 1974). For a time, these open spaces were reserved for the upper classes. However, when they were opened to the public, there had to be order.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, prosperous individuals and middle to upper class families naturally gravitated to open spaces. The layout of cities such as London is testament to this. In his book The Making of the British Landscape, Francis Pryor brought attention to this “move by the well-to-do towards open spaces, where their houses could be viewed to better advantage” (2011). This is particularly notable in areas such as Hampstead Heath and Blackheath. Pryor goes on to say that while there were important ‘public’ gardens in areas such as Vauxhall and Ranelagh Gardens, “they were never intended for the use of ordinary people, any more than country houses, whose many visitors were invariably from the upper classes” (Pryor, 2011).

Subsequently, the emergence of municipal parks and gardens changed the social trajectory of the lower and working classes. In fact, the first public park of London, Regent’s Park, was only open to ‘subscribers’ for its first 15 years (Uglow, 2005). These open spaces were intended to improve the health and social lives of the lower classes.

A report from 1843 stated:

“with a rapidly increasing population… the means of occasional exercise and recreation in the fresh air are everyday lessened… It is of the first importance to their health on [Mechanics or Manufacturers’] days of rest to enjoy the fresh air, and to be able… to walk out in decent comfort with their families; if deprived of any such resource, it is probable that their only escape from the narrow courts and alleys… will be the drinking shops, where, in short-lived excitement they may forget their toil, but where they waste the means of their families, and too often destroy their health.” (Parliamentary Select Committee on Public Works)

The parallels in language between this extract and that of Sir Henry Cole above are significant in their positioning of the institution as a socialising tool to quash undesirable and anti-social behavior. When the first local authority park Birkenhead Park was opened, granting free entry to the general public, there were rules to follow. The location boasted sports grounds and boating lakes but there was a ban on alcohol, gambling and swearing. The sentiment was simple: if you wanted to enjoy the vast benefits of these open spaces and their facilities, you would have to fit in, and the hope was that this changed behaviour would linger long beyond the park gates. While Cole’s metaphorical ‘gin palace’ has since been replaced by franchised gastro pubs and you are unlikely to be thrown out of Hyde Park for using vulgar language, the sentiment of keeping the order is evident in recreational and botanical gardens, as well as municipal parks to this day.

            While this approach may seem heavy-handed, modern day parks and gardens have adopted a more relaxed approach, welcoming local communities to enjoy their local green spaces however they wish. Public municipal parks commonly feature children’s’ playgrounds, sports grounds, skate parks, eateries, cycle paths and seasonal events. I believe this to be a more effective catalyst for social cohesion than the at times condescending and demonising view of lower classes centuries ago.

            The social benefits of green spaces, particularly in urban areas, are significant. A recent report found that almost three-quarters of people felt spending time outdoors in nature in 2020 helped them to relax and unwind (Covid drives huge increase in use of urban greenspace, 2020). The World Health Organisation goes further in their Review of Urban Green Spaces and Health,  stating that these open spaces can “reduce morbidity and mortality in urban residents by providing psychological relaxation and stress alleviation” (World Health Organisation, 2016). Beyond the grand, extensive urban parks, green spaces of all sizes have been proven to be beneficial. From solitary street trees to roof allotments, green spaces are contagious, with more and more architecture firms building garden plans into their proposals. In addition, social benefits extend beyond the visitors, as was exemplified in the FitzPark project, whereby there was an increase of the number of users that spent up to 30 minutes per visit, which led to more customers for adjacent businesses (Woodason, n.d.). Summed up by the Improving Wellbeing Through Urban Nature report of 2018, about 70% of interviewees volunteered that an outdoor location was their favourite place (Jorgensen, 2018). It is patently clear that people have had an intrinsic connection to nature and value time spent outdoors; now it is important that these outdoors spaces are inclusive and vibrant enough to bring even more people outdoors.  

In a recent seminar presented by Nigel Dunnett for the Kew Mutual Improvement Society, the garden designer and ecologist encouraged horticulturalists to meet the public on their level, avoiding highly technical language and alienating themes when trying to encourage a passion for the outdoors and plants in general (Dunnett, 2020). Indeed, upon noticing a patch of flattened perennials at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park he co-designed, he did not cordon off the area or scold the culprits; instead, he paved over this spot, creating a space where people could immerse themselves in the plants. In this same way, local people should shape their experiences of nature and be encouraged to have those important interactions with plants, free of judgement and in an environment where they feel welcomed. This will undoubtedly lead to the integrally related health, social and environmental benefits.

Fortunately for some of the population this past year, urban parks, pocket city gardens and botanical gardens have been only a short walk – and the flash of a members’ card – away. However, for marginalised communities, these recreational, educational and wellness spaces can exist behind an invisible cordon. Converse to their historical purpose of inviting in the non-bourgeois working class and lifting them up through education and social conditioning, contemporary recreational gardens can fall short through lack of representation and traces of colonial violence, domination and theft, particularly in the exhibitions presented at botanical gardens. Fortunately, unlike museums filled with immovable artefacts, gardens change season to season and are alive with new possibilities. By pioneering inclusivity, incorporating multi-use spaces, improving accessibility and listening to communities, the countless societal benefits of green spaces will prevail – for everyone.


Chen, K., 2013. The Disciplinary Power of Museums. International Journal of Social Science and Humanity, pp.407-410.

Dunnett, N., 2020. Future Nature, Transformational Green.

Jorgensen, P., 2018. Improving Well-Being Through Urban Nature (IWUN): What We Know So Far.

NatureScot. 2020. Covid Drives Huge Increase In Use Of Urban Greenspace. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 22 January 2021].

Parliamentary Select Committee on Public Works, 1843. Report On The Select Committee On Public Works. p.3.

Pryor, F., 2011. The Making Of The British Landscape. London: Penguin Books.

Rodini, D., n.d. The Changing Social Functions Of Art Museums. [online] Khan Academy. Available at: <; [Accessed 22 January 2021].

Trondsen, N., 1976. Social Control in the Art Museum. Urban Life, 5(1), pp.105-119.

Uglow, J., 2005. A Little History Of British Gardening. London: Pimlico.

Victoria and Albert Museum. 2019. V&A · Building The Museum. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 22 January 2021].

Whitlow, A., n.d. Right Place, Right Time. [online] Quinine. Available at: <; [Accessed 22 January 2021].

Woodason, E., n.d. Fitzpark: How Small Sites Can Have A Big Impact On Wellbeing.

World Health Organisation, 2016. Urban Green Space Interventions And Health: A Review Of Impacts And Effectiveness. [online] Available at: <,and%20reducing%