BGCI Education Blog

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Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Plans for the future

As I rushed for my connecting flight in Copenhagen, somehow I knew my luggage wouldn’t make it. Unfortunately, I was right and arrived in Riga at 10.30pm with just my handbag. Thankfully I’d packed my presentation for the next day. I was in Riga at the invitation of the University of Latvia to present about the role of botanic gardens in education and future trends. The University wants to revive its botanic garden and as a first step decided to hold an architectural competition. Five teams of architects from five countries traveled to Riga to participate in a four day workshop. It was a fascinating process.

The first day was the competition brief which involved presentations from a range of stakeholders and two visiting ‘experts’, Leif Schulman, Director of the Helsinki Botanic Garden and me. My job had been made much easier thanks to the input of several colleagues working in botanic gardens who sent me really useful information and images about their education spaces (thanks Michael, Jacky, Jeri, Shawn and Trevor!). During the afternoon we were taken on a tour of Riga city, the largest city in the Baltic States. The city is absolutely beautiful and certainly deserves to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then on to the botanic garden which is situated on the left hand side of the river Daugava, a short bus ride away from the centre. The 15 hectare botanic garden has enormous potential. Its main collections consist of azaleas, rhododendrons, magnolias, dahlias, roses, apricots and peaches and hardy perennials. The displays of flowers were lovely and clearly the population of Riga enjoys visiting the garden.
That evening I found time to interview Anta (Director) and Signe (Deputy Director) of the garden. You can see the video on BGCI's website.

An open forum was held during the second day of the competition for the architectural teams to ask questions of the stakeholders and visiting ‘experts’. I was amazed at how few questions were asked, but as someone pointed out to me the architects probably didn’t want to give away their ideas! The final few days the teams were busy working on their concepts and designs. Unfortunately I had to leave on the Friday evening, so I’m still waiting to hear about the winning designs.

Reflecting on the process, I thought it was fascinating. However, I came away concerned that the vision of the garden was being left in the hands of the architects rather than being articulated by the staff of the garden. Perhaps this will come later, but I feel that if the garden has a strong conservation mission then this will drive the design. For example, I was very interested to find out that the Faculty of Biology at the University is involved in a European project to protect and manage the coastal habitats in Latvia. During the Soviet era (1940-1991) access to the coastline was restricted and, as a consequence, the natural habitats have been inadvertently protected. Reading through the brochure that’s been produced on the project, there's no mention of ex situ conservation. The Botanic Garden, for example, would be an excellent place to carry out ex situ research on some of the plant species. I think it would be marvellous to re-create a dune ecosystem to raise awareness about the importance of this Latvian ecosystem and run education programmes on how the public can help protect it - especially as increasing numbers of the public will be visiting the coast over the years to come.

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