Are Kew Gardens a Public or a Private Site?

“As one of the most powerful arenas of cultural debate, mediating between the public and private world, the designed landscape is essentially a manifestation of personal and historical ideology” (Taylor 1995: 201). 

However, the extent to which a designed landscape mediates between the public and private is constantly changing and in the case of Kew Gardens, sometimes difficult to discern. In this essay (illustrated with my own images) I am going to be questioning whether Kew Gardens is primarily a public or a private site, looking at its royal roots in colonial history and exploring how it has developed into a highly public space heavily reliant upon tourism.

 Botanic gardens such as Kew were initially the children of the European Renaissance, boasting specimens from around the world for scientific study in what is often seen as an attempt to study and control nature. Incredibly private spaces, such gardens were often under the control of royalty or aristocracy, a show of their power and intelligence. Indeed, Brockway (1979: 461) illustrates the rise of the botanical garden as a “vital capital asset”, drawing on the examples of the tea trade, and the transfer of cinchona and rubber to exemplify the worth of Kew Gardens, as ”furthering the national welfare” (ibid: 451). Its shift to state control in 1841 shows the importance of Kew in this capacity; a “royal hobby…made into a state institution” (ibid: 452) in order to capitalise on its potential as a colonial tool, “the botanical centre of power within the British empire” (Bonneuil 2002: 16).

 In contrast to the tight restrictions of public access to the valuable private spaces of these Botanical Gardens, the 19th Century saw a huge increase in the building of public parks across the country. 19th Century authorities saw public parks as not only “improving the nation’s physical health; they were thought to increase mental health too” (Jordan 1994: 86) and sought to attract the masses with “horticultural displays, music, and facilities” (Jordan 1994: 86). (Interestingly, Kew Gardens now provides all of these, this summer putting on an array of festivals and activities to attract holiday-makers and plant-lovers)

However, the increasing emphasis on these parks as a place of public recreation was not always met with agreement, as this creation of an open recreational space available to all was to many “new and, to some, unpalatable” (Taylor 1995: 202). Numerous upper class citizens had developed “a very real fear of the threat of barbaric behaviour believed to be inherent in an uneducated, newly urban, working class” (ibid.), and it is easy to see why those in positions of higher power were somewhat apprehensive about allowing this public into the highly ordered Botanic Gardens. Nonetheless, the Gardens did go public, perhaps a result of  “the rich…think[ing] that they must educate the poor in order to ensure their own safety” (Cobbett, cited in Taylor 1995: 202).

Nowadays as a public site, Kew has a great focus on the importance of education. Children under 16 enter freely, and noticeably large numbers of supervised school children wander the grounds, learning about the Gardens’ history and its myriad of functions. This demonstrates the potential of Botanic Gardens “to provide informal learning experiences that not only promote the importance of plants, habitats and conservation, but also influence the values, attitudes and actions of their visitors” (Ballantyne 2008: 440). The Gardens boast a huge amount of educational exhibitions and events throughout the year, ranging from guided walks and talks to photography and vegetable growing lessons. However, with the exception of a few walking tours, these attractions come at a price, leading us to question how publicly available this education really is when it is only accessible to those who can afford it. Indeed, Ballantyne (ibid.) goes on to suggest that “it is generally accepted that the majority of visitors to botanic gardens do not come to learn per se” but merely to appreciate the surroundings and the beauty of the gardens.

 One way in which visitors can appreciate the gardens in this way as well as gaining some free education is by experiencing the Treetop Walkway, where visitors can “see how trees work underground…then climb 18 metres into the canopy for a birds-eye view of Kew Gardens” (Kew Guidebook 2014).



Furthermore, the importance of the public is reflected somewhat in Kew’s highly ordered and aesthetically pleasing design. Desmond (1998: 272) describes the paths in Kew Gardens as having “only a utilitarian function, a means of public access”. 


Indeed, the public are free to roam across the Gardens however and wherever they wish, yet the extent to which they actually take advantage of this opportunity is interesting. The majority of visitors at Kew tend to stick predominantly to the paths, and where they leave them they follow the slight tracks of other visitors who have passed before. Even if untouched areas must be crossed, it is interesting to note that visitors take every possible care to avoid damaging areas of flowers or plants, as if the public innately understand that although this is a public site, it is first and foremost the domain of nature, and we do not have the right to damage it. 


However, can a site which requires an entry fee ever be considered completely ‘private’? Surely by only admitting those who can afford the £15 ticket Kew admits a certain similarity to the cafes described by Harvey (2006: 20), as a site for a “selective public…allowed for commercial and consumption purposes”. Indeed, those who cannot afford this charged are visually restricted from the gardens, the lavish and imposing Victoria Gate creating a visible barrier between the admitted public and those outside the gardens.  


Furthermore, the encouragement of purchase of membership (which is indeed more economically viable for the frequent visitor) creates a sense of an elite class of visitor. 

The commercialisation of Kew become increasingly evident as one explores the grounds. Since the opening of the first refreshment pavilion in 1888, Kew now boasts 4 restaurants (all extremely highly priced) and a shop, another example of its treading the line between public and private, providing “an exclusive commercial space” (Harvey 2006: 20)


Moreover, the gardens can be seen as being a private commodity in themselves as cultural capital in their Botanical function The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, is evidently intended to be first and foremost function as a botanic gardens; a scientific site. The Kew Gardens mission statement is “to inspire and deliver science based plant conservation worldwide, enhancing the quality of life” (Kew, 2007). This demonstrates both the public and private aspects of the Gardens, in inspiring the public visitors as well as presenting the business aspect of the gardens as delivering a service of conservation. This “economic botany” (Brockway 1979: 453) stems back to Kew’s history as a vital colonial asset. Indeed, although public access to the gardens began to grow after 1840, “the general public were denied access to the Gardens in the mornings, ostensibly to allow botanists and students to work outdoors undisturbed by crowds” (Desmond 1998: 235) producing a pronounced dichotomy between the public world of the visitors and the private scientific site of the botanists.  Even now, the existence of some sort of division within the gardens is still apparent, as the majority of public visitors will be unable to connect with and understand the gardens for the scientific purposes of which they were created. Those with this specific knowledge will have an extremely different experience of Kew Gardens, to the general public who appreciate its aesthetic beauty but may not completely grasp its botanical function.

Throughout Kew’s history there has been a conflict between its role as a Botanic Garden and its role as a public park. Its shift from royal ownership to state control in 1840 came at the perfect time to coincide with the “public park movement, which started in the 1830s”  (Jordan 1994: 85), and boasted the completion and public access of Regent’s Park, Green Park and in 1839, St. James’ ParkUnder state control, Kew became accessible to the public and as a result “confusion and uncertainty about Kew’s legitimate function arose during the 1850s when…the Gardens had to cater for ‘pleasure seekers’” (Desmond 1998: 228).In the subsequent reinterpretation of Kew’s role as a “place of public recreation” (ibid: 180), actions were taken to improve its aesthetic appeal, “at the expense of eliminating beds devoted to species” (ibid: 181), implying that at this point, the public importance of the parks overshadowed its role as a scientific institution.

It has been suggested that “the meaning of new public spaces depended in large measure upon the private interests…they supported” (Harvey 2006: 21). In the case of Kew Gardens this private interest lies in its botanic and scientific work. In making the parks publicly accessible, the Gardens were able to enforce an admission fee as well as prompting donations from visitors (if you buy tickets online this option is presented to you at the checkout). 


Indeed, since the 1871 Public Parks Act, donations of land for public parks have been encouraged. However, “the donor is frequently recognised in the name of the park, and no doubt this was sometimes an underlying reason for the gift” (Jordan 1994: 89). In this way, these parks can be seen somewhat as private, the public result of a personal agenda. 

 Throughout this essay I have demonstrated that Kew Gardens has (and has always had) significance as both a public and private space, existing as a combination of the two. As Desmond (1998: 281) identifies, the role of Kew Gardens is “two-fold: “to promote the scientific study of plants” and “the entertainment of the public”. Indeed, is it really possible for a space to either be completely public or private? Even in the public grounds at Kew there are spaces which are seen to be private by the visitors – none would dare to enter into a gardeners shed or maintenance area. Furthermore, even the public visitors attempt at times to gain a sense of privacy, for example with this area of solitude within a tree, which one must clamber through branches and leaves to reach.


To conclude, Kew Gardens cannot be either a public or a private site, as within this space the two are so intertwined that it is impossible to define them completely as one or the other.


Ballantyne, R., Packer, J. & Hughes, K., 2008. Environmental awareness, interests and motives of botanic gardens visitors: Implications for interpretive practice. Tourism Management, Vol. 29 (3) pp. 439-444

Bonneuil C., 2002. The Manufacture of Species: Kew Gardens, the Empire and the Standardisation of Taxonomic Practices in late 19th century Botany, in M.-N. Bourguet, C. Licoppe et O. Sibum, (Eds.), Instruments, Travel and Science. Itineraries of precision from the 17th to the 20th century, Routledge. pp.189-215.

Brockway, L. H., 1979. Science and Colonial Expansion: the role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. American Ethnologist. 6(3) pp.449-465.

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Conway, H., 2000. Everyday landscapes: Public parks from 1930 to 2000.Garden History, 28(1) pp.117–134.

Desmond, R., 1998. Kew: The History of the Royal Botanical Gardens. London: Random House.

Harvey, D., 2006. The Political Economy of Public Space. In Setha M Low & Neil Smith (Eds.). The politics of public space. New York: Routledge. 

 Jordan, H., 1994. Public Parks, 1885-1914. Garden History, 22 (1) pp.85-113.

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Taylor, H.A., 1995. Urban Public Parks, 1840-1900: Design and Meaning. Garden History, 23 (2) pp.201-221.

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