Over the centuries, public gardens like the Arnold Arboretum have welcomed visitors to their grounds and enhanced those visits with opportunities to learn about the garden’s plant collections and landscapes and to reflect and relax. In recent decades, many gardens have expanded the garden experience through art exhibits and performances of musical and theatrical groups on the grounds.

However, most visitors to public gardens are those with the means to travel to the garden and the resources to pay for admission, when a gate fee is charged. For residents of underserved neighborhoods, even public gardens that offer free admission may be largely unknown due to a lack of public transportation, the absence of bilingual signs, or a perception of the institution as unwelcoming and catering only to higher-income or white members of the community.

To thrive in the twenty-first century, public gardens must respond to their elitist reputations and invest in programs and policies that are inclusive, caring, and relevant to a wider audience. No matter their size or budget, it is time for public gardens to assume their responsibilities as community institutions and to focus on outreach to all community residents. As plant-based scientific and educational institutions, public gardens have the expertise and the experience that can help address challenges such as unsafe neighborhoods, poor quality science education, limited access to fresh and healthy foods, a lack of job training and job opportunities, and degraded environments.

In support of the role that gardens can play in addressing these challenges, studies have shown that as streetscapes become greener, they attract more activity and engender more pride in public spaces. When young children are provided with hands-on science and nature instruction, they are more likely to succeed in school and see science as a possible career alternative. When previously incarcerated individuals are given training and offered jobs in the green industries, they are far less likely to return to prison. And when under-resourced residents are given the tools to build and grow community gardens, their diets and health also improve.

The most successful initiatives arise through partnerships. As we demonstrate in our book, Public Gardens and Livable Cities (Cornell 2020, foreword by Scott Medbury), many initiatives to improve quality of life in our cities result from partnerships between gardens and other community organizations, neighborhood groups, municipal agencies, and private entities. There are a number of reasons why such partnerships make sense for public gardens. First, to be accessible to an increasingly diverse population, many programs need to be based where people reside or gather, rather than at the gardens themselves. Also, addressing environmental hazards in our poorest neighborhoods and connecting people with plants supports the priority that many public gardens now place on environmental stewardship. Through collaborations, gardens can be invaluable to initiatives that involve urban greening, while their partners contribute social capital and other organizational, financial, or logistical aspects.

Public gardens can learn from organizations that have already entered into partnerships that resulted in successful initiatives. Our book provides multiple examples of partnerships that gardens have formed with school districts, municipal governments, community foundations, businesses, and neighborhood associations. Some of those partnerships are described below. In each example, partners have brought their particular strengths to the project, with the result that together they have had a far greater impact than any could have produced on their own. Community impact is possible across a variety of sectors, including public safety, food security, educational quality, and economic development:

Promoting Neighborhood Safety and Well-Being

Many underserved neighborhoods are still feeling the effects of the federally supported redlining initiated in the 1930s. Unequal access to mortgages, inadequate park development, and absence of street tree plantings are all manifestations of how discriminatory housing policies still impact low income and communities of color. To provide all communities within their borough with opportunities to reverse these trends, Brooklyn Botanic Garden created the Greenest Block in Brooklyn contest in partnership with multiple local block and civic associations, the Brooklyn Borough President’s office, and engaged funders. The residents who plant and beautify their individual streets are not only improving the environmental quality of their surroundings, they are also building social ties, enabling them to better address neighborhood concerns related to crime prevention, economic development, and other quality of life issues. The prizes awarded to the “greenest blocks” also serve as points of pride for residents, encouraging them to sustain their beautification efforts in subsequent years.

Access to Healthy Foods and Promoting Healthy Lives

Underinvestment also strikes poor urban communities in the paucity of food choices. Neighborhoods that lack access to a full range of grocery items, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, have been termed “food deserts” and are often associated with high rates of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes, health issues that take a toll on our medical system.

To address the negative impacts of food deserts throughout the Bronx, the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) created Bronx Green-Up, a program that annually supports up to 75 community gardens and urban farms throughout the borough. While NYBG provides horticultural expertise and planting supplies to each growing site, the program’s continued success depends on a range of local nonprofit and educational partners. Among these are Farm School NYC, NYC Parks Green Thumb, Butterfly Project NYC, and the Bronx Land Trust. Through its hands-on engagement with communities, NYBG, which was once seen as an elite institution, now feels like a welcoming space for many more of its neighbors.

Prizes awarded to the “greenest blocks” serve as points of pride for residents.

Training and Employment Programs

Throughout our metropolitan regions, prisons are overcrowded, and sentencing is often long delayed. Many incarcerated individuals are likely to return to their past behavior, resulting in a continued cycle of recidivism. Some public gardens in partnership with other community institutions have created initiatives to help break this cycle, especially for non-violent offenders. Programs such as Roots to Re-Entry (R2R), administered by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, treat young incarcerated men as individuals, rather than statistics. The R2R program depends on partnerships with the Bureau of Prisons, the District Attorney’s Office, the Defender’s Association of Philadelphia, and a web of local landscaping businesses and foundations. This synergy of participants allows the R2R program to train participants in horticultural and mechanical skills, and then helps to place them in green industry positions. Moving these young men into paying positions is enhanced by mentors who assist them as they re-enter the world. As a result, the recidivism rates for R2R participants is 30 percent compared to 65 percent for the general prison population in Philadelphia.

Improving the Quality of Science Education

Science education in U.S. public schools suffers from too little time devoted to the subject, a shortage of trained science teachers, and traditional curricula that focus on memorization rather than engaging students in interactive instruction. In many urban school districts, a high proportion of students also suffer from the negative impacts of poverty. These shortcomings come as the nation deals with the consequences of global climate change, loss of biodiversity, and polluted environments.

Through its hands-on engagement with communities, NYBG, which was once seen as an elite institution, now feels like a welcoming space for many more of its neighbors.

The Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG) is addressing these challenges through their multi-stage Science Career Continuum. The initial stage, Science First, is an intensive, inquiry-based summer program designed to introduce middle schoolers to basic biological principles and applications. At the Garden, students are led by a team of public school science teachers and CBG staff in scientific inquiry, investigations, and observations. Those who excel are invited to participate in the College First program for eleventh and twelfth-grade that features a summer-long intensive immersion program at the Garden, including an environmental science practicum, an internship with a CBG scientist, and a monthly session with CBG staff mentors during the school year. Chicago Botanic Garden partners with a range of educational and social services organizations in the execution of these programs, including Northwestern University, City Colleges of Chicago, Chicago Scholars, Chicago Public Schools, and Hive Chicago, a network of nonprofits dedicated to connected learning. The impact of this continuum of programs is stunning: 100 percent of College First participants have graduated from high school, and 94 percent matriculated to two- or four-year colleges. These hardly exhaust the examples—or the possibilities. The partnerships mentioned in this article and others described in more depth in Public Gardens and Livable Cities, will not, by themselves, solve all of the challenges of our cities. But such efforts are making a difference in creating cities that more livable for all residents. They succeed because they involve the collective expertise of both the gardens and their partners; they address real issues as identified by community members; and they reach out broadly to engage partners from across the municipal, not-for-profit, and business worlds. To learn about additional exciting collaborations between public gardens and their partners, visit our companion website at https://blogs.cornell.edu/pglc.

Donald A. Rakow, Megan Z. Gough, and Sharon A. Lee are the authors of Public Gardens and Livable Cities: Partnerships Connecting People, Plants, and Place (Cornell 2020).

From “free” to “friend”…

Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.

It takes resources to gather and nurture these new voices, and we depend on the support of our member-subscribers to make it possible. But membership means more: by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum, you help to keep our collection vibrant and our research and educational mission active. Through the pages of Arnoldia, you can take part in the life of this free-to-all landscape whether you live next door or an ocean away.

For more tree-entangled art, science, and writing, subscribe to Arnoldia by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum.