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This article was published 21/2/2017 (1576 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
How do we celebrate diversity through biodiversity?
That was the question at the heart of Canada’s Diversity Gardens, the centrepiece of Assiniboine Park’s $200-million redevelopment campaign. Consisting of three new exterior gardens, as well as an interior hub called The Leaf, the new site — which has an anticipated opening date of late 2019 — will replace the conservatory.
It’s OK if you read that sentence and felt somewhat wistful. The conservatory — and in particular, the Palm House — has been a taste of paradise for Winnipeggers, especially in the winter. Even on the greyest days in winter, the conservatory is dependably lush, green and warm, home to more than 8,000 flowers, plants and trees.
It’s a restorative place. It’s also more than 100 years old.
So, when the Assiniboine Park Conservancy was mapping out its vision for a modern horticultural site, Canada’s Diversity Gardens project director Gerald Dieleman and his team looked to another Assiniboine Park success story for inspiration: the Journey to Churchill exhibit, and the stories of biodiversity, climate change and conservation it tells about the North.
It’s one thing to tell those stories with polar bears. How do you replicate that idea with plants?
"Conservatories of the past were really collections of plants," Dieleman says. "They were a symbol of going out around the world and bringing something back home and showcasing it. And that idea is static and not really what we wanted to do. So how do make a plant collection something that’s not static? What came out of that, was a modern purpose for a public garden. We looked at who was coming to the park, and it’s a really diverse population from all over the world. And something that everyone has in common is a connection to plants."
From the air we breathe to the food we eat, to our clothing and medicine, plants are fundamental to our survival. We literally cannot live without plants. Yet we don’t always think about just how amazing plants and trees are. In fact, we sometimes don’t even notice them. There’s even a term for this tendency: plant blindness. Coined by American botanists James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler in the late 1990s, plant blindness refers to "the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment." Many of us see plants as static, and therefore forget their importance, as well as the fact that they, too, are living things.
"We needed to find a way to make (Canada’s Diversity Gardens) an active space that showcases how plants are part of our lives," Dieleman says. "It’s quite easy to lose that connection."
To that end, the new space will act as more of a cultural centre than straight-ahead conservatory, using plants — which will be sourced from specialty nurseries from across North America — to tell stories about people. The programming will fall under five categories: food/drink, health/well-being, beauty/expression, spirituality/consciousness, and sustainability/conservation.
Dov Goldstein is a principal consultant with Lord Cultural Resources, a cultural consultation, planning and research firm based in Toronto. The firm was commissioned by the Assiniboine Park Conservancy to draft a visitor experience plan for Canada’s Diversity Gardens, a project Goldstein says was attractive because it’s something he’d never seen.
"We’ve done a lot of work in gardens around North America and looking at gardens as display gardens, and planting for beauty’s sake," he says. "What we thought was interesting was to look at the diversity of the people of Winnipeg and be able to tell their stories through plants."
To that end, there will be a focus on engagement and discovery. "It’s not just taking a plant and putting a label on it, but actually tell a story about a person, a family, a people," he says.
It will be educational, certainly, but the hope is that the gardens will open a dialogue, and inspire people to share their personal stories and connections with plants. "For example, in the current children’s garden, we grow a lot of vegetables," Dieleman says. "What we’ve noticed, little kids and whoever they’re with are pointing and looking and talking to a gardener. That starts a conversation about how food comes from a plant. It doesn’t come from the grocery store."
Of course the Leaf will still function as a refuge. "We can’t lose that," Dieleman says. "That’s the beauty and expression part of it. The design of the building allows for you to feel like you’re immersed in the landscape, especially the tropical space. A lot of people who live in Winnipeg don’t have the chance to visit these places and experience it first-hand, or alternatively, they’ve come from places that are tropical or sub-tropical and this is a reminder of home."
Dieleman points out that Canada’s Diversity Gardens is more than a construction project. "It’s a new way of interacting with our visitors," he says. Whether it’s working with the education team to develop programming, or designing the menu for the new restaurant that will open in The Leaf, the Assiniboine Park Conservancy is thinking about what role a modern conservatory can play in a community, beyond being a beautiful place to visit.
"It’s a new way of experiencing a garden."