René Pronovost

Director, Montréal Botanical Garden | Space for Life

Wednesday, November 28, 2018 9:12 am

Researchers, the public and governments are taking notice that gardens and picturesque landscapes provide unique contributions to human health. On October 30, 2018, the NCC’s Urbanism Lab partnered with Canadensis to explore the many benefits of green spaces in our cities.

Three industry experts gave their particular perspectives on this topic:

Tell me about your organization and your specific role.

René Pronovost: As director of the Montréal Botanical Garden, an institution that is part of Space for Life, along with the BiodomeInsectarium and Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium, I contribute to the group’s common mission of bringing people closer to nature and protecting our planet’s biodiversity. Our mandate is communication, conservation, research and education.

Harry Jongerden: The Toronto Botanical Garden is Toronto’s only botanical garden. We are actually the smallest botanical garden in Canada. Because of the disparity between the size of our city and the size of our garden, we’re about to go through a 30-acre expansion. This is my focus as executive director.

Alice Hutton: The Royal is a specialized mental health care centre that provides both in-patient and out-patient care to residents in eastern Ontario. In my role as a lead facilitator for Champlain Pathways to Better Care, I work on collaborative projects with mental health and addiction organizations and programs at the local level.

Is there a project you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of? How can it be adapted to Canada’s Capital?

René: One of the projects that has marked my career and which still inspires me today is the renaturalization of the riverbanks of the St. Charles River[French-only web page]. We removed concrete from the riverbank and restored a natural ecosystem that is vital to the health of the river. In the early 20th century, big cities turned their backs on rivers and lakes. Our challenge today is to re-establish the importance of waterways, and place more value on the ones within our cities.

Ottawa River South Shore Riverfront Park Plan

This plan reconnects people with the historic Ottawa River by reimagining and transforming the riverfront lands adjacent to the parkway to create an iconic Capital park.

I’m also proud of the Pathway to Phytotechnologies, an ambitious project of the Montréal Botanical Garden which aims to solve urban environmental problems by putting plants to work.

Harry: I’m most proud of my work on the award-winning VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre in Vancouver. It’s a “living building” that generates its own electricity, and lives with its own natural water supply. There are very few buildings like this in the world. I believe this type of building can be adapted to Canada’s Capital, although with some challenges due to the cold climate. There are challenges where all living buildings are located. For example, electricity is a challenge for Vancouver, as sunny days are limited.

Alice: Professionally, where I work at The Royal, there are many natural features that help people better connect with nature, including

  • forested area landscaping which includes lovely curved paths and six indoor courtyard gardens within the hospital
  • in-patient rooms that overlook these gardens
  • a butterfly garden
  • therapeutic vegetable garden plots

All of these elements can be adapted at a larger scale, in other locations, to benefit the national capital. We have to consider how we design for green spaces and gardens, because of the profound impact they have on our mental health [and] well-being. We do have a fair amount of access to nature and agriculture through the NCC Greenbelt and community garden programs in Ottawa.

How can botanical gardens create a more thriving and connected capital?

Harry: I believe a botanical garden in Ottawa can do that. In Toronto, we have just received a significant grant to develop a project, in line with our master plan, that helps us better connect with our visitors and partners through technology. It plays an important role in telling the stories about our plant collections to people and conservation institutions around the world. This will enable us to deliver our messages in multiple languages and reach more people.

René: An important part of the mandate of the botanical gardens is to educate as many people as possible about environmental issues and, ultimately, to develop citizen participation. Being present in the communities, outside the garden, is a very big challenge. That’s why we’re developing innovative programs that allow citizens to invite nature to their homes and encourage them to green their surroundings. The My Garden program, for example, acknowledges people’s actions, and issues certificates to citizens who are responsible for gardens that have a positive impact on biodiversity.

How do gardens and landscapes contribute to our health? Can you give me an example of a specific project?

Alice: This is a short story shared by the Assertive Community Treatment Team (ACTT) at Montfort Hospital. ACTTs are a community-based program for individuals with severe and persistent mental illness who generally have had 40-plus days of hospitalization over the last couple of years. This team was working to increase activity levels for these individuals, among other clinical care. One individual was very withdrawn and isolated. They noticed that this individual liked flowers, and started to incorporate colouring flowers as an activity.

Colouring flowers led to walking outside to find and look at flowers, so it was an opportunity to increase engagement, activity and interaction, as well as the opportunity to spend more time outdoors in a more natural environment. This is linked to Roger Ulrich’s seminal 1984 research study, which showed that patients recover more quickly from surgery if they have a view of nature from their window.

Some accessible writing that has inspired me to explore this topic more fully include

René: Studies demonstrate the benefits of nature on physical and mental health. A literature review [French-only] published by the Institut national de santé publique du Québec emphasizes that the closer green spaces are to one’s home, the more positive effects are observed. So, it’s essential that we think of our parks and gardens as a gateway for connecting with nature and increase accessibility to them, especially through public transit.

Harry: There is a lot of empirical evidence that supports the health benefits of nature. There is a phenomenon known as forest bathing that has been measured to produce an increase of serotonin levels in people when they experience nature. The mind and body respond positively to nature.

Who benefits the most from gardens and green space in the downtown core?

René: Citizens who are nearby are the ones who benefit the most from gardens and green spaces in a downtown area. Sixty percent of the visitors to the botanical garden are from the greater Montréal metropolitan community. If citizens are appropriating the spaces around them, it is because they are feeling the need to connect with nature and that their surroundings are too mineralized.

Harry: People of all ages can benefit from gardens and green space in the downtown core. Children need to play in nature. Millennials are very interested in food and where their food comes from. We’re seeing a lot of young people coming to our food demonstration garden and signing up for workshops. The older generation appreciate that nature can take them back to their youth. Many of us live in cities, but we have roots in the country. It brings us back to a calm place in our lives.

Alice: I would say the beauty of gardens and green spaces is that they can be an equalizer amongst urban populations, as long as they are accessible to the public. For example, community gardens can increase access to fruits and vegetables amongst those who live in poverty.

Why should the public care about botanical gardens? How can the NCC/government work more closely with organizations like yours?

Alice: There is an interest in increasing garden space and the activities around gardens. This includes creating planters in urban areas. I think the NCC can play an important partnership role in supporting garden development—both botanical gardens as well as community gardens.

René: First, because they are beautiful, and beauty is a factor that discourages vandalism. For example, if you put beautiful parks and facilities in a community, you will see the rates of vandalism decrease. Also, because a tonne of important knowledge is accumulated and contained in botanical gardens. The benefit is that what a visitor learns is not forced. The choice of strolling around, relaxing and visiting an exhibition where he or she will learn more is completely up to the visitor.

Harry: Big city gardens attract over a million visitors per year. It’s an experience of nature that lifts them out of their everyday lives. Most of us live in a high degree of artificiality in our homes, workplace and the infrastructure that surrounds us. Gardens help us get back to something elemental and pure.

Governments have been supporting nature for recreational and tourism purposes, but they need to start viewing it as an essential component to human health and sustainability. Increasingly, people are being alienated from nature and we need to help them gain a better understanding of their place in a fragile natural world.