Global Gardens of Peace: Building Gardens, Healing Communities

Gardens have incredible healing power. They teach perspective, provoke wonderment and offer a sense of hope like few other human constructs. Melbourne based charity Global Gardens of Peace gets this, big time. They’re a passionate crew with an aim to create gardens as a basis for supporting vulnerable individuals, families and communities to heal and grow, all over the world.

We caught up with Andrew Laidlaw, landscape architect at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, and board member and designer at Global Gardens of Peace, to find out more about this incredibly inspiring and important organisation.

Andrew Laidlaw, landscape architect and board member of Global Gardens of Peace

Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself, and your life with plants? I built my first garden at my parents’ home when studying horticulture at Burnley Horticultural College in 1980 and have been designing gardens ever since. I’ve always been interested by plants and learning all about them. I’ve been the landscape architect at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne for the last 20 years. As I have aged and my work has matured, I have become even increasingly obsessed with plants and I feel my designs are defined by the different types I choose to work with.

In my work, I have observed how a well-designed planted garden can change people lives. Wrapping and surrounding people with beautiful plants is a strong motivation when I design private gardens. I am particularly interested in bold dramatic foliage plants and contrasting their form and texture with finer softer textures. I use all types of plants, native, indigenous, succulent, perennial.

Can you also please tell us about the Global Gardens of Peace project? Global Gardens of Peace is an Australian NGO with a mission to provide gardens for psychosocial healing. We believe that gardens provide people with inspiration, healing and growth, and play an important role in rebuilding and uniting communities. GGOP is an apolitical, non-religious organization and our mission is to create accessible and inclusive living landscapes that support vulnerable communities, families and individuals of all abilities.

How did you first get involved with this initiative? I was initially involved in the design of the Children’s Garden at the RBGM and where I was approached by Moira Kelly to design a similar garden in Gaza. The aim of this garden was to connect children with plants through their play.

Was there something in particular that attracted you to the project? I was attracted to the opportunity to use my skills as a garden designer to do something bigger – something that could really make a difference to a community that has suffered for many years. I was thrilled with this opportunity.

What do you think it is about plants that makes them such powerful catalysts for social change? Plants together create a garden.

A garden is a place of beauty that builds hope and respect.”

It’s a gathering and meeting place for the community – it’s something that can be built by the locals for the locals and cared for by the locals. If our connection to plants has been lost, a garden can help us to reconnect.”

Can you please talk us through the design process for planning a garden in a war affected area like Gaza? It is so important that this garden is designed by and for the people of Gaza. As part of the process we set up a number of working groups (conferences) both in Gaza and in Melbourne comprising of Palestinian men women and children and David Wong and Betsy-Sue Clarke who also helped in the design process. The final design draws on the natural environment of Palestine which is so important to the Palestinian people and the rich garden history of the Middle-East.

Landscape concept plan for the Gaza garden
The garden site, Khan Yuonis, Gaza Strip

Can you describe the atmosphere and landscape of Gaza? Gaza is a broken place; there has been turmoil since 1948 and there are refugee sites that are over 60 years old. Most children in year one have experienced three wars. Most of the infrastructure of the city has been destroyed. Raw sewerage runs straight into the ocean and there is very little drinking water left for the people, let alone for farming and gardens. There is very little green space and very few trees.

What kind of greenery will you be planting in the gardens? We will be drawing on the full range of plant material. We have spoken to a number of Botanic gardens within the region and gathered a list of very tough plants that will survive the prevailing conditions. We also hope to use a lot of Australian native plants – Peter Symes at the RBGM has been researching climate matching Western Australian plants with the Gaza climate. There is a plantation that will surround the entire garden and we anticipate many of our West Australian wattles, callistemon and eucalyptus will do well, and grow relatively quickly. There are also a number of plants that are culturally very important to the Palestinian people and we have an area that will specifically focus on these – olives, figs, iris, pholmis, cistus, poppies and thymes will all be featured in this area of the garden.

How do gardens, particularly community gardens, create a place of healing and rebirth? Community gardens can support social interaction and encourage individuals to become part of a team – social cohesion, and working together on a common goal for a better future. They can also provide a sense of achievement – being proud of building something that will benefit the community.

This garden will strengthen individual’s connection to history and their sense of place.”

Once established, what kind of roles will the local community have in nurturing and caring for the gardens? It is our wish that the garden will employ a number of locals to maintain the garden, running a number of small stalls within the space to assist local businesses and provide some funds to help pay for on-going maintenance.

Global Gardens of Peace is an amazing project spearheaded by strong and enthusiastic people intent on creating change. What have you found most inspiring about working on this initiative? The people of Gaza and their unbelievable strength to keep going. There are a number of very special individuals in Gaza who have driven this from the inside. Also, my colleagues, who have worked and worked and continue to do so to get this project complete – we have been at this for over four years and we still have not built a garden. It takes a long time.

What is your vision for the organisation? To build many gardens both in Australia and other places around the world that support community and help connect individuals back to their place.

If you could choose three plants/trees to create a garden, what would they be? I would have to choose a beautiful grass, Stipa gigantica, a beautiful tree, Lagerstroemia subcostata, and a beautiful shrub Pomederris lanigerum. Plus, a couple of good succulents, Aloe ferox and Agave americana ‘Grey Ghost’.

If you were a plant, what would you be? Possibly Eucalyptus regnans, Thymus longicaulis and everything in between.

Check out Global Gardens of Peace’s WEBSITE / INSTAGRAM / FACEBOOK

Local children visiting English/Australian and NZ War memorial in Gaza City
Kids playing in ruins, Gaza City
Kids playing in the street in Rafah, Gaza Strip