Why Gardens Matter

With summer approaching, life in metropolitan areas moves to the great outdoors as people spend more time in green spaces and gardens. Often at a premium in cities, these spots are sought out primarily for providing rest and escape, but they also carry historical and cultural significance around the world.  The garden walks throughout our network explore the differences that make each style unique, as well as the similarities that tie them together, such as finding contemplative space for religion in gardens in Kyoto and Rome. We asked five docents from our network, “Why do gardens matter?” to understand how these spaces vary from country to country, and had them share their favorite spots in their cities.

Russell Square Gardens, London

London: Modern-day Londoners have Henry VIII to thank for emphasizing the importance of green space by creating the Royal Parks throughout the city in the 16th century, which has made London one of the greenest cities in the world, and the greenest in Europe. Since that time, beauty has also come from disaster; our docent and native Londoner Sarah Jane Kitching notes that “the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz of 1940 have had surprising benefits in creating little pockets now filled with gardens especially in the crowded streets of the old City of London.”

Don’t miss: Sarah Jane prefers the quiet, country-like atmosphere of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which is the largest square in the city and features tennis and netball courts.

Ninna-ji Temple, Kyoto

Kyoto: In her recent publication Kyoto Gardens: Masterworks of the Japanese Gardener’s Art docent Judith Clancy highlights the various aspects of creating a Japanese garden, which centers around rock placement. She says, “All else is centered on where the rocks are. Even directing a slight curve in a stream—a well-placed rock will not only divert the flow but aerates the water.” These aesthetic elements come together to allow the viewer to breathe in the setting and let the imagination expand.

Don’t miss: The climate in Kyoto allows flowers to bloom year-round, which gives Judith the chance to experience hana-meguri (following the flowers) and appreciate the seasonality of Japanese gardens.

Villa Medici, Rome


Rome: Docent Theresa Potenza is the author of Creating and contemplating the Renaissance Garden, focusing on the use of geometric space in Renaissance thought and oral tradition. She notes how Roman gardens are deeply connected to theological meaning: “In the pagan religion, nature collectively symbolized the gods, so it was an important theme in art seen throughout ancient Roman paintings and reliefs; therefore, the manipulation of nature in that period was important as well. ‎ Likewise in the Christian religion there is the garden of Eden and the theme of paradise. Similar design techniques, mainly mathematical order, were prevalent in both garden and city design, aiming to create heavenly spaces on Earth.”

Don’t miss: Theresa finds the geometric gardens of the Villa Medici to be not only a calming and contemplative space, but also the best example of the use of Renaissance design theory in natural space.

Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

Paris: The city is perhaps most well-known for its tradition of formal gardens, such as Palais Royal or the Jarden des Tuileries, which was the first public garden in the city. Designed by André le Nôtre as a predecessor to the gardens of Versailles, the Tuileries is what docent Jacob Simpson describes as primarily “mineral”, composed of gravel and sand and laid out in geometric alleyways. Reminiscent of the Italian style, these gardens were in stark contrast to the leafy, verdant English-style parks that later came into vogue in the 19th century, such as Parc Montsouris, as a way to bring air into the city and provide a stronger sense of being in nature.

Don’t miss: Jacob enjoys the varying topography and altitude of Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, noting that it feels like a true escape from the city.

Public Gardens, Boston

Boston: The famous, 46-acre Boston Commons were established in 1634 and used primarily as a utilitarian space to plant crops and keep livestock. As spending time outdoors became fashionable in the 19th century, the adjacent Public Gardens and Commonwealth Avenue Mall were developed to provide space for Bostonians to stroll. Docent Patricia Todesco notes that both gardens and mall feature an “ornamental, nuanced landscape” patterned after 19th-century gardens in Paris and London.

Don’t miss: Patricia enjoys the Rose Kennedy Garden in Christopher Columbus park, which she helped design, as well as the Japanese viewing garden, Tenshin-en, in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the victory gardens in the Fenway.