Travelogue to the Edinburgh Botanic Garden

20. October 2023

Within the framework of the project seminar “Nature, Space and Biopolitics: Understanding the Conservation Regime in Planetary Urbanism,” we spent the last year investigating the refiguration of the modern institutions of botanic gardens. Together with 15 bachelor students of urban and regional planning and 4 students of urban design and landscape architecture, we empirically examined two of the most important European botanic gardens from an interdisciplinary perspective: the Botanical Garden in Berlin and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

We, that is Séverine Marguin (sociologist) and Jamie-Scott Baxter (architect-planner), conducted the seminar with support from Louis Speer (sociologist) at the intersection of three disciplines: architecture, urban planning, and sociology – a good constellation to grasp sociospatial change. We began with the assumption that cities and their institutions are changing to cope with society’s accelerated transformation and emerging needs in times of socio-environmental crisis. At the same time, the urban landscape is stratifying with different protective measures of conservation. Botanic gardens present an excellent case to study the tension between preservation and processes of change. Situated at the intersection of cultural, green, and knowledge spaces in the city, botanic gardens are currently being challenged by three transformative processes on a planetary scale: anthropogenic climate change, decolonization, and rapid digitalization – all three processes challenge the core idea of conservation.

The course was roughly divided into two parts: In the winter semester 2022-23, we focused on the Botanical Garden in Berlin, looking, from different perspectives, at the relationship of the garden to the city in shifting times. Building on the winter program, we planned an excursion to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh for the summer semester. Through the comparison with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, we hoped to work out commonalities and peculiarities that depend on the historical, political, cultural, and scientific context in which the two botanic gardens are embedded. Especially with regard to the colonial past of the institutions and the discursive ways in which it is addressed in the present, a British case seemed to be a very interesting site to gain insights from.

Through different contacts in the field of political ecology, we were put in touch with staff members of the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh (RBGE). In particular, we would like to mention Sam Staddon, whom we met within the framework of the Pollen Conference, and who is pursuing an inspiring critical reflexivity on the topic of conservation. In preliminary zoom-meetings, the spark was immediately lit: our two interlocutors in Edinburgh, Alexandra Davey and Suzanne Hermiston, showed great interest in our re-figurational spatial approach and its potential for understanding the tectonic shift in which botanic gardens are currently caught up in, having to rely heavily on their modernity and needing to overcome it at the same time. Prior to our trip, we made an ambitious list of expectations – we were so excited to spend a week in the garden! Alex and Suzanne managed to fulfil them all and prepared a fantastic program: alternating between guided tours, interviews with members of staff, a public presentation of our work on Berlin, and brainstorming for future cooperation.

Field Trip to Edinburgh

On May 8, 2023, we began our five-day field trip to Edinburgh. During our stay, we were given unrestricted access to the garden and to many of the areas not open to the public, such as the research glasshouses and the laboratory premises. The Research Centre of the RBGE served as a kind of hub for our research throughout the entire period: here we were able to conduct our interviews in a large seminar room, work there in the individual groups and explore the surrounding areas (library, herbarium, etc.). By dividing the larger group into four smaller groups, each of which was limited to one of the four central spaces of the RBGE – the herbarium, the laboratory, the garden, and the glasshouse – we were able to follow the topographical sampling we used for Berlin and thus ensure comparability with the Berlin data. The methods used were mainly interviews, go-along interviews, but also ethnographic mapping with sketches, photography, and informal conversation. Material was also collected from the rich archive (especially older maps). For the latter, the bachelor students in urban planning benefited from a lecture on ethnographic drawing and sketching by two master students in urban design, Jona Möller and Anna Eckert. This lecture was meant to give us a sense of how planners and designers can put on paper and record things that they perceive and find important for a reconstruction of a specific place.

We met with a wide variety of people who gave us generous insights into their day-to-day conservation work at the botanic garden, including the head gardener, plant scholars, the lab manager, herbarium employees, members of the executive board, and the custodian of the living collection. At this point we would like to share three fascinating findings that have thoroughly challenged our previous Berlin-centered analysis:

a. Shift from continental geography to bioregions:

2: Visit of the research glasshouse at the RGBE
(© Johanna Dorsch).

In the glasshouses, currently undergoing renovations, we had an insightful go-along interview with Fiona Inches (botanist and biomes glasshouse manager), who described for us the present transformation of the glasshouse. The renovation is being used as an opportunity to empty all the glasshouses – involving a massive undertaking to find a temporary shelter for all the plants – and to redesign the order of the plants in the glasshouses. As a result, the plants will be arranged according to their biomes, rather than according to their ascription to certain geographical regions of the world, which represented for us a first striking difference to the botanic garden in Berlin. This endeavor is about leaving behind a nationalistic conception of territory in favor of a distributed or fractal territory that brings together smaller territories from all over the world that share the same microclimates (like the Spanish Mediterranean coast, with the Californian coast or the South African coast).

b. Self-reflexive decolonial confidence

The colonial heritage of the institution was explicitly addressed by all our interviewees. This was a massive difference from our research in Berlin, where everyone was uncomfortable talking about the colonial traces still ingrained in the spatiality of the garden. In Edinburgh, everyone agreed on the necessity to decolonize the garden across a range of perspectives. The interview with the Head of Public Engagement, Lorna Ewan, was enlightening in this regard, as she explained how the narratives told to the many visitors about the garden were changing to introduce more decolonial reflexivity (for example about the provenience of the plant, etc.). The figure of the “plant hunter” was an interesting topic to discuss and deconstruct as part of the imaginary of the Western-European imperial explorations of the “unknown” world. 

c. Soft Diplomacy and the political role of botanic gardens in a shifting world.

Another striking moment was the great discussion we had with Simon Milne, the Regius Keeper of the Botanical Garden. In an inspiring talk, Simon related the deeply political implications of botanic gardens in a world of shifting geopolitical borders and constellations: how botanical research can be part of the soft power strategies of international delegations to build new cooperations with countries of the Global South; but also how the circulation of plant goods has become a matter of international biosecurity (because of plant health issues) and national interests (because of the potential economic resources that plants represent). His collaborators, especially the head gardener David Knott, stressed this political dimension by foregrounding the link between late imperialism, (neo-)colonialism, and capitalism. These inputs gave us a great deal to think about in terms of refiguration and its political dimensions.

About teaching and researching

In view of our research interest in botanic gardens, this trip proved to be very fruitful in providing us with a comparative case with the Botanical Garden in Berlin. The interesting discussion points for us were the structural differences in the understanding of the importance of botanic gardens, but also in the understanding of conservation – between the two institutions, and between the legislative and financial contexts in which they are embedded. The students’ hybrid maps and final results were very rich and provided a solid basis for a detailed comparison of the most important spaces of the two institutions (garden, herbarium, laboratories, glasshouses).

Reflecting on the didactic process and the learning curve of the project seminar, we can draw a very positive conclusion. The aims of the seminar were to familiarize the students with aspects of interpretive empirical socio-spatial research. The students were introduced to the advanced socio-spatial theory with which the CRC 1265 is engaged, and they were encouraged to contribute to this theory through their own research on botanic gardens. The students learned how theory relates to research design through the development of a robust research question grounded in a research problem. Hereby, they were provided with an overview of methodology and the use of mixed methods for socio-spatial research. In this regard, there was a strong focus on what we at the CRC 1265 call “hybrid mapping”, an innovative approach to mapping that combines knowledge from spatial design and sociology. Over the course of the project seminar, the students gained confidence in the practical application of this critical-creative method as they engaged with and observed the botanic gardens of Berlin and Edinburgh. This progress became evident in the comparison between the groups’ working practices and the groups’ final results in the first and second semester of the year-long project seminar. By the end of the 14 weeks course, they had carried out a concise socio-spatial investigation, created interpretive mappings, developed skills in critical thinking, and contributed to the production of new knowledge on conservation and space.