The pleasure garden reimagined (2024)

Veronica Adepoju has nurtured a love of gardens for more than four decades. She lives in Lagos, a city with limited access to green spaces, but this has not hindered her. Quite the opposite. Having started a landscape gardening company in the early 1980s, in 1998 she opened Jhalobia Recreation Park and Gardens, a two-acre space with topiary, lawns, sculpture and a fountain that’s open to the public for a small fee. Created in an area once used for waste disposal, it was conceived as a place to set the world to rights, says Adepoju, and was one of the first recreational parks established after Nigeria’s independence. “The serenity of gardens opens the mind to possibilities,” says Adepoju. Its success has inspired the creation of other gardens throughout the country, and led to the transformation of other abandoned areas into communal, active spaces.

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Gardens such as Jhalobia, created for enjoyment, connection and enlightenment, have played an important role throughout history. One of the earliest examples of a cultivated garden dates as far back as ancient Egypt, created by Sennefer, the gardener to the pharaohs. Judging by the painted plans discovered in a tomb, the garden was a modelof ornamentation, practicality and seclusion, mixing flowers, vegetables, trees and vines. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were said to have been a gift from Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon to his wife Amytis, a Median princess who missed the green forests of her homeland. Skip forward a few millennia and you have London’s 18th- and 19th-century pleasure gardens – including Ranelagh, Vauxhall and Cremorne – places of topiaried outdoor escape during a period of urban sprawl and moral sanctimony. These became notorious for their excessive and indulgent entertainments. But now, more than ever, such gardens are coming into their own.

The serenity of gardens opens the mind to possibilities

“Gardens and gardening can be uplifting in so many ways,” says Toby Musgrave, author of Green Escapes: The Guide to Secret Urban Gardens. These are places of joy and happiness that offer both private havens and community sanctuaries where social barriers can be overcome, he says. The act of planting is also therapeutic. “Every year, gardens bring with them a mix of hopes and disappointments that we must face with equal magnanimity. Gardening teaches us humility and patience and reminds us that we are always learning.” Agarden has the potential to be a place where achieving the impossible can become the gateway for a new reality.

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OmVed in Highgate, London, is a three-acre urban garden, food project and eco-habitat located behind a busy high street. The land has had many lives – it was once a garden centre and contractor’s yard – but was transformed into an urban garden – filled with ponds, meadows, gardens and orchards – that focuses on food and creativity.

“Seeing the transformation of the site, from a heavily tarmacked land to a flourishing haven for wildlife, has confirmed nature’s ability to heal,” says the garden’s director and founder Karen Pagarani, who describes its every feature “from the wildflower meadow to the kitchen garden to the ponds” as contributing to “an increase in biodiversity”. Most importantly, she continues: “Growing food has become an opportunity for us to connect with our community, realise the need for more resilient food systems, and recover habits that were becoming lost.” At the heart of the space is the garden’s glasshouse, restored by local architects HASA, and used as a venue for art exhibitions, musical performances, film screenings, workshops, talks and yoga. “Creativity is an essential element of our approach,” she adds.

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Increasingly, abandoned infrastructure – railway lines, flyovers, rooftops and empty plots – is being transformed into green spaces. The success of New York’s High Line – a derelict rail track transformed into a garden walkway – has inspired similar initiatives around the world: today visitors can walk Singapore’s Rail Corridor, a 24km former railway line; Seoul sky garden Seoullo 7017, designed by Dutch architect Winy Maas of MVRDV; Chicago’s 606 park and trail; and the soon-to-be-realised Camden Highline. Little Island, a new public park on the site of the former Pier 54 on the Hudson River, New York, is a philanthropic gift to the city funded by Barry Diller and the Diller-Von Furstenberg Family Foundation. Home to more than 350species of flowers, trees, and shrubs, and featuring a687-seat amphitheatre, it was designed by Thomas Heatherwick, with landscaping by Signe Nielsen of MNLA. Nielsen describes it as “a place of joy”.

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Being immersed in nature may not be an issue for all communities, but even in biodiverse landscapes, gardens can still play a crucial role. In the tropical forests of Brazil, the vast botanical park Instituto Inhotim, near Belo Horizonte, spans nearly 140 hectares of tropical forest. The park was commissioned by the mining magnate Bernardo Paz, and the landscape work undertaken by the architect and landscape designer Luiz Carlos Orsini. It was created to “celebrate life in all its exuberance and mystery”, says Orsini, and makes for a particularly striking example of the marriage between nature and art.

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The park consists of nine themed gardens, and features more than 500 sculptures and artworks. Among works by Yayoi Kusama, Simon Starling and Paul McCarthy, a highlight is Hélio Oiticica’s Invenção da Cor, Penetrável Magic Square #5, De Luxe: an arrangement of boldly coloured geometric sculptures that deconstruct the “square”. All serve to draw attention to the biodiversity of the Atlantic Forest and tropical savanna of Cerrado, which face significant danger from habitat loss and fragmentation. The museum is home to more than 4,000 species of both native and exotic plants; there are nearly 20,000 palm trees alone. SaysOrsini: “Nature’s wisdom presents teachings in every detail, and we find sensuality in the forms that seem to dance around the towering volume of tropical plants. Inhotim moves from exuberant maximalism to simple minimalism, from botanical compositions to the mix of stones and nature, which gives a spectacle of balance and sovereignty.”

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In Japan’s Nara Prefecture, Murou Art Forest creates site-specific artworks that engage with the local ecological narrative and protect the land. Conceptualised by a local sculptor, Bukichi Inoue, in collaboration with the government, its mission was to prevent further depopulation of the area by creating a cultural attraction where people, art and nature could coexist. Following Inoue’s death in 1997, it was brought to life in 2006 by Israeli artist Dani Karavan – the result is a multifaceted landscape sculpture that’s an extraordinary ode to traditional Japanese forests and terraced rice fields.

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The gardens of desert landscapes tell further stories of resilience. The Dubai Miracle Garden has asserted itself as the world’s largest natural flower garden, with more than 150 million plants and 250 million flowers. It’s perhaps unsurprising, given the expectation-defying construction feats of the region, that such a garden would exist here, and the result is unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere else. This is a Disney-like world with monumental floral sculptures shaped like teddy bears, a floating princess and a life-size Emirates Airbus A380. Itsmission, according to its founder, entrepreneur Abdel Naser Rahhal, is to get people out of malls and closed spaces, and into nature during the cooler months. By contrast, the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, is a collection of more than 50,000 plants, cactuses and flowers that have adapted to survive. Thematic trails explore desert living, plants and people ofthe Sonoran Desert, and desert wildflowers; it’s a tribute to the beauty and diversity of the ecosystem, while also offering opportunities to learn more about desert landscaping, nature, wellness and food.

What defines a pleasure garden today? Green spaces boost connections to each other and to nature. As Veronica Adepoju says, within such gardens lie “inspiring answers to life’s challenges”. By turning to these gardens, we learn new concepts, embrace reinvention and appreciate new methods. More than anything, however, they are places that provide an escape, a place to dream,find solace and hope.

The pleasure garden reimagined (2024)

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