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Botanic gardens embracing behavioural science

Botanic gardens embracing behavioural science

*This is an edited version of an article written by Dr Sarah Kneebone for ROOTS, the education journal of the international plant conservation charity, Botanic Gardens Conservation International. Sarah presented at the 7th Global Botanic Gardens Congress in Melbourne, and is the lead of the Education Portfolio at BehaviourWorks Australia.

Behavioural science tools and techniques can be applied by the international botanic garden community to support their impactful sustainability programs and visitor engagement. To incorporate a behavioural science perspective, we start by identifying our audience, our priority behaviour (‘Who needs to do what, where and when’) and design programs to make the behaviour EASY to do, ATTRACTIVE for our audience, SOCIALLY supported by others and TIMELY.

In 2022, Dr Sarah Kneebone and Professor Liam Smith presented at the 7th Global Botanic Gardens Congress, held in Melbourne, on how to use behavioural science to effectively influence visitor behaviour in botanic gardens. The congress was attended by over 400 people representing botanic gardens from around the world.

The congress identified two key take-aways for botanical gardens globally:

1) Need for action across sustainability challenges

Illuminating and sobering keynote presentations from Cristina Lopez-Gallego (University of Antioquia), Professor David Karoly (University of Melbourne) and Professor Michelle Leishmann (Macquarie University) discussed the global situation regarding assessing and protecting plant diversity, the impact of carbon emissions on increasing land temperatures, and the need to use our understanding of changing climates to strategically plant for landscape species selection. These sessions validated our need to take action; the other main theme illustrated the multitude of creative ways in which the botanic garden sector is doing just this.

2)  Addressing challenges through influencing action

The stories of influencing action from gardens and colleagues around the world were diverse, inspiring and energising. Ideas included:

●      Welcoming residential groups for plant conservation education and action. (Limbe Botanic Garden, Cameroon)

●      The BioTECH High School, a botany and zoology focused school running over three campuses and welcoming 400 students per year and the ‘Million Orchid’ project that has reintroduced 450,000 native orchids across Southern Florida. (Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Miami, USA)

●      ‘Friends of’ volunteer programs that raise $200,000 annually through native plant propagation and sales. (King Park and Botanic Garden, Perth, Australia)

●      Ecological restoration programs that engage visitors with the environment, and the innovative ‘Care for the Rare’ program, connecting six regional botanic gardens to grow and showcase a multi-site plant conservation collection. (Royal Botanic Gardens, Victoria, Australia)

●      Strategic signs and selection of 6-8 seasonally attractive native species that led to 29% of visitors buying an average of two plants each at the end of their visit! (Mount Cuba Centre, USA)

●      The practical, focussed, removal program ‘Pest Free Auckland’ supporting community audiences on three priority behaviours (pull a weed, set a trap, plant a tree) has demonstrated a beneficial impact on biodiversity. (Auckland Council, New Zealand).

These two congress themes really brought home the incredible task that botanic gardens, with limited financial and personnel resources - but copious amounts of passion, enthusiasm and drive, are trying to achieve.  However, the sheer scale of the challenge means gardens could benefit from partnership, capacity building, and support from outside the sector.  Specifically, gardens can make the most of existing research, and evidence-based frameworks, tools, and knowledge around what works to encourage behaviour change in their visitors.

Dr Sarah Kneebone (left) at the Congress

Role of Behaviour Change in Sustainable Botanic Gardens

“Botanic gardens have a vital role in behaviour change and visitors expect gardens to play such a role”, said Dr Sharon Willoughby from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Australia

People’s behaviours, rather than their attitudes, beliefs, or values, actually make a tangible difference to sustainability challenges. Behaviours are observable actions, something we can SEE happening (and count!), such as ‘Selecting the meat-free meal option’ rather than outcomes or intentions, such as ‘Reducing meat consumption’ or attitudes, beliefs and knowledge, such as ‘Going meat-free helps protect the environment’.

To address a problem, we first describe our target audience, the group we want to engage with, who they are, where they are from, what things they care about, what behaviours they currently enact, and so on. Then we identify desirable behaviours, things we want people to START doing, rather than stop, and define behaviours very precisely, answering the question ‘Who does what to what, where and when?’

This is because the drivers and barriers, which influence behaviour adoption, will change according to the location and time as well as the action itself. So, we would say ‘The staff member selects the meat-free meal option, at the garden cafe, at lunch time’.

Complex sustainability issues lend themselves to multiple different behavioural solutions. Providing visitors with long lists of sustainability behaviours can be problematic; we risk overwhelming visitors, leaving them paralysed by choice and unable to act or (choosing) only those behaviours that are easiest to perform, rather than the most effective.

We can use a prioritisation tool, such as NERO or the Impact-Likelihood Matrix to select a target behaviour. NERO was developed by asking zoo visitors about their preferences for pro-environmental actions. Visitors preferred behaviours that were NEW, or if known; EASY to do; had high RESPONSE EFFICACY (a clear link between the behaviour and how it helps wildlife) and ON-SITE, so visitors can perform the behaviour whilst they are at the zoo.

Given the commonalities between the sustainability aims and visitor profiles of zoos and botanic gardens, this tool could be used by gardens to aid the selection of target behaviours to form the basis of particular projects, programs, or campaigns.

Planning for Behaviour Change

To increase the efficacy of behaviour change programs, we use an evidence-based framework to answer six key questions that we use to shape the design of behaviour change interventions:

1. What is you problem?

2. Who is your target audience?

3. What behaviours could address your problem?

4. Which behaviour is your priority?

5. What are the drivers (to support) or barriers to (to overcome) that affect whether your audience performs the priority behaviour?

6. How can I make the behaviour EASY, ATTRACTIVE, SOCIAL AND TIMELY?

To summarise, human behaviour is at the heart of many of the greatest challenges faced by society today, particularly those faced by botanic gardens. An under- standing of behavioural science can unlock opportunities to meet these challenges and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Want to know more?

Contact us to partner on a research project or participate in a training course.


Sarah Kneebone F.H.E.A.
PhD, MSc, PGDip, PGCE Education Manager, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute

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