Politics and Gardens

In my lecture relating gardens and politics, I look at four key themes to show how designed landscapes have influenced political ideas and actions from man’s earliest attempts to ‘control nature’.

Demonstrating political power

This is perhaps the most obvious link. The luxury of a garden, as a largely decorative rather than a productive green space, was one reserved for those with wealth and usually political power. The ability to control nature, as demonstrated by the ancient gardens of Egypt and Mesopotamia and later French formal gardens, re-enforced the garden owners’ status. Political power could also be shown more subtly by symbolism in the garden: the bringing of water to a city by a benevolent leader was a common theme in Italian Renaissance gardens.

Re-enforcing state policy

In some cases, the political leaders wanted to do more than control nature: they wanted to control the population as well. The Romans understood this and, adapting a Greek idea, they created the first public urban parks. This idea was taken up with great enthusiasm in Britain in the 19th century as an alternative to mass enfranchisement while avoiding a revolution. Gardens could also be used to manage the economy through the tactical use of botanic gardens: indeed ‘economic botany’ (the development of plants for commercial uses) was one of Kew’s main purposes in the mid-19th century.

Creating political legitimacy

Successful conquests are not only about superior military strength, conquerors have to win ‘hearts and minds’ as well. Two of the largest Empires, Islamic and Roman, used gardens as a means to consolidate their conquests through a process of cultural assimilation. Common styles and often names of gardens were created in all reaches of their empires. In this way, the Romans brought gardening to Britain. For the Japanese, the garden style used reflected and cemented the shifting power base from first the Emperor, then to the nobility and finally to the warlords, in tandem with their changing religious practices.

Promoting political ideas

It could be argued that democracy was born in the garden. Greek agorai, the central open space in the city, provided a place for political debate, as did the gardens of the philosophers’ academies. 18th century designed landscapes in Britain became a battleground for the main political parties of the Whigs and Tories. The ‘picturesque debate’ of the 1790s, on the extent to which nature should be replicated in a garden, was fought out against the backdrop of the French Revolution and its aftermath. Political organisations have used gardens to promote their ideas such as the socialists and their, perhaps unlikely, role in the 20th century conservation movement.