Toronto Star column – published January 17, 2015
I spotted the young boy first; he was, perhaps, about four years old. Separated by a swath of greenery, I could see his wide eyes popping, looking in the direction of a toy train as it emerged from a dark forest of green growth along a winding track. He was standing hand in hand with his mother while she tried to steer a toddler in a stroller with her other hand.
I yelled to the mom, “Enjoying the gardens?”
“Yes, the kids LOVE it here.”
“Have you been here before?” I asked
“Yes, we are members and come every week. The playground is fantastic. Have you seen it?”
And so went my conversation with an enthusiastic advocate for the Royal Botanical Gardens, while we stood in the midst of jungle greenery in the west greenhouse last month.
Why Botanical Gardens?
Botanical gardens are expensive, labour intensive and, perhaps for some, they are a little intimidating, given that all of the trees with name tags hanging off their trunks are inscribed with long Latin names.
The site of the current Toronto Botanical Garden is expected to be the newest botanical garden on this continent. It is an exciting time for all of us aware of what is going on there.
Why would we encourage the idea of creating a new botanical garden in the city of Toronto at this time?
The answer is not simple, but it is clear.
The Toronto Botanical Garden stands in the geographical centre of the city at Lawrence Avenue and Leslie Street. It is a wonderful four acre space crammed with unusual plants and it employs a variety of garden design techniques that have been rallied from world class talent in Europe and North America.
The TBG makes up for its small stature with imaginative design and intensity: the results can be magical, on a similarly small scale.
Today there is a plan to expand the gardens into a 30 acre parcel of land to the north and west of the existing George and Kathy Dembroski Centre for Horticulture, located in the heart of the existing garden.
Who Knows? Harry knows.
To more fully understand why we should invest in a newly expanded and renovated Toronto Botanical Garden, I connected with the Executive Director of the TBG to get some answers. Harry Jongerden is a middle-aged renaissance man with a vision that is turning a lot of people onto some new ideas.
Mark: Harry, what is the impetus behind the new TBG garden concept?
Harry: When the board decided to change its name 10 years ago it was both a challenge and a promise to the City. With only four acres and $25,000 per year in City support, the TBG does not resemble any other botanical garden in North America. Any cultured city that cares about the environment will have a REAL botanical garden – a place that is part school, part sanctuary, and all beauty of nature.
Mark: The plans for the new garden are well underway. You only recently revealed the first draft of a plan to the public. What are the response and the initial support for the project like?
Harry: General support for the new TBG is wonderful. In addition we have a million dollar pledge and another substantial pledge that I cannot reveal at this time. We need $3 million to get the process underway in earnest. The overall investment is estimated to be about $31 million.
Mark: What additional support is needed to bring this dream to fruition?
Harry: The TBG is unique. The new TBG will be one of the only free botanical gardens in North America. Fortunately, the maintenance budget of the adjoining Edwards Gardens (which is currently operated by the City of Toronto) is sufficient to maintain the new botanical garden. There are no additional operating costs to the City.
Mark: Why a botanical garden versus, say, open green space?
Harry: Botanical gardens provide tremendous social, cultural, environmental and economic benefits to their cities. We’re significant partners in the world-wide effort to conserve nature and teach people about the importance of plants and healthy ecosystems. We’re also powerful generators of economic benefit to our cities.
Garden tourism is the largest tourism sector in North America. The botanical gardens of the U.S. generate more revenues than the entire U.S. gaming industry. Ten percent of all tourists visit the local botanical garden when they travel. Two percent of all tourists travel specifically to visit a botanical garden. Multiply 2% of Toronto’s tourists times the average length of stay and average daily spending and the number comes to over $250 million in tourism dollars per year attributable to Toronto’s future botanical garden. And that means about $57 million in new tax revenue to the three levels of government. It’s no wonder that elsewhere cities support their botanical gardens.
Mark: The math is exciting! It is not like a major tourist attraction is opened every day here in Toronto. I think that it is important to note that Ripley’s Aquarium was the first major tourist attraction to be opened in Toronto in over 25 years. What is the biggest hurdle to opening the new TBG?
Harry: I see no hurdle to creating a new botanical garden. The City has our business plan and they have seen the data that compares botanical garden operations in cities across North America.
It is so obvious what Toronto is lacking and it is going to be easy to facilitate the creation of a new, great cultural institution. The fact that this will not add to the City’s annual operating budget makes realizing our vision a certainty.
We (the people of Toronto) are too cultured, intelligent, and well-governed to sit on these plans and do nothing.
During my interview with Harry he waxes about his commitment to the new vision for the Toronto Botanical Garden. “For those of us who believe in conserving nature and making the world a better place, there is no better place to start. People come to visit botanical gardens mainly for the beauty, but they leave having learned something about plants and healthy ecosystems.
New York City has five botanical gardens; Montreal spends over twenty million dollars a year on its botanical garden; Toronto spends $25,000.
Remember: botanical gardens are amongst the great achievements of civilization. This is Toronto’s time!”
As I reflect on Harry’s enthusiasm I am reminded of the recent trip that I took to see the botanical gardens of Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. These are botanical gardens of the highest order with no admission charge. In Sydney there are over 3 million visitors a year.
At Kew Gardens in London they employ over 200 full time staff who research plants, in part, as potential sources for treatments of all kinds of human maladies from ebola to cancer. Perhaps, to some extent, the future of human health is linked to the future of the botanical garden as we know it.
If you have followed my 3-part series on botanical gardens here in the Star I hope that you are now thinking of them as much more than a collection of trees and flowering plants. Contemplate the economic (tourism), environmental (quiet space, cleaner air), societal (a gathering place) benefits. On top of that, consider the opportunities for learning.
My friend, Alvin Law, says, “Learning is the best gift we give ourselves. It can transform us from nobody to somebody and is the great equalizer.” (Alvin’s Laws of Life, www.alvinlaw.com)
A new botanical garden will need our help in every possible way in order to become reality. No doubt we have not heard the end of this one.