The Emergence of Possibilities: Garden of Knowledge

Heather Wilkins



According to the Quality of Life in New Zealand Cities Survey 2014 (1), population growth and change in our cities impact on the relationships people have with others and their sense of belonging to an area. Informal networks and how people connect with others are important factors for strong communities and social cohesion, which in turn supports social and economic development in our cities.

While a recent study by Auckland Council found that the majority of Aucklanders aged over 50 are satisfied with their lives, health and living standards, and are engaged with their families and communities, there are some challenging trends emerging. Increasing uncertainty amongst the older population around housing affordability, income security and personal security are feelings that many Aucklanders can relate to. What is more confronting are results which highlight that over half of the survey sample were lonely; depression was a factor for a significant minority, and too many experience everyday discrimination because of their age. (2)

Auckland’s population aged 65 years and over is projected to more than double between 2006 and 2031. Over 320,000 people aged over 65 will be living in the region by 2031, and of these, over 40,000 people will be aged 85-plus.(3) As the size of Auckland’s older population increases, so does the need for Residential Aged Care Facilities (RACFs); the way we have traditionally designed RACFs – sprawling single-level dwellings, set into park-like grounds - no longer satisfies either the market demand for independent lifestyle-lead care nor Auckland Council’s desire for a compact city.

These problems are not unique to Auckland or New Zealand. Globally the relationship between the design of RACFs and the surrounding environment is becoming a focus of attention as the world’s population grows and ages. As highlighted by the UK Design Council (4), a child born 50 years ago had a one in ten chance of reaching 100; a child born today has a chance greater than one in four; due to better nutrition, healthcare and safety. However, this does not necessarily imply increased mental or social fulfilment as Chief Design Officer Matt Hunter notes: “As our bodies weaken, so can our sense of purpose in life as well as our social networks… We have added years to our lives, but now we need to add life to our years.”

The links between the social and the physical environment however, have been neglected in empirical and theoretical research in the field of Environmental Gerontology, the study of the interaction between the older person and their social, natural and psychological environments. (5) There are very few examples of the use of community gardening specifically targeted towards older people sharing knowledge with younger generations. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (6) has produced a fact sheet on Elder Accessible Community Gardening, which highlights three community gardens that cater for the elderly. Cultivating Community Through Gardens: pairing gardeners (e.g., young-with-old and experienced-with-inexperienced) provides increased accessibility to community gardens and strengthens the communities where the gardens are grown. Knowledge of effective gardening practices can be passed from generation to generation, along with cultural information about the meaning of food and plants to different people from different times.


In response to the prevailing conditions, Garden of Knowledge aims to improve the quality of life for older people by establishing community gardens inside a residential aged care facility. As part of Committee for Auckland’s Future Auckland Leaders programme the project facilitates a partnership between local youth groups and a RACF. 

The project reduces social isolation and provides an outlet for cognitive and physical stimulation, with additional benefits such as increased interest amongst residents in the content and style of meals provided (raw, fresh from the garden) and participation in wider sustainability initiatives (waste reduction, composting). By bringing young local volunteers in to assist residents with getting out and working in the gardens, the transfer of knowledge is twofold: the younger people learn practical gardening skills from the residents, while the older people learn about what is happening in the lives of today’s younger generation.

Located in Elizabeth Knox Home and Hospital in Epsom, the pilot project has received great enthusiasm and support from staff, residents and volunteers from St Cuthbert’s College and St George-Epsom scouts. To establish the trial gardens a community build day was held to construct four new wheelchair accessible garden beds and refurbish two existing planter boxes. The day was intentionally structured to be non-prescriptive, allowing for interactions between young and old to occur and decisions to be made by the participants. While the beds were not exactly built to plan and plants were put in using the ‘throw-it-in-and-see’ approach, what emerged empowered all those involved. 

The typical role of an older person, particularly one residing in a care facility, is that of a submissive agent and a receiver of information. Transforming this role to a provider of information and leader of group decision-making has not always been easy during the trial period. Physical factors such as ill health, inclement weather and unfinished ground surfaces limiting access, have at times hindered the project. Leaving the students and residents to their own devices early on was a deliberate move to allow self-determination. However, the unstructured nature of the project has occasionally resulted in lack of direction, certainty and confidence. At these times, communication was key. Reassurance that what has emerged and is being done is ‘right’ is often all that is needed; after all there is no singular right or wrong way of gardening. The communication has been in the format of thematic workshops for residents and students to actively participate and record the knowledge gained for future reference, facilitated by the Garden of Knowledge team. As a result, a loose seasonal structure for gardeners to follow and the production of templates to fill in and record the successes of various crops has been developed. The compilation of a garden library will assist in the seasons to come.

In terms of community participation, this project demonstrates that the best intended plans cannot be forced upon people. In saying that, a framework (or parameters) needs to be made clear in order to reach an objective. A second community day was held to celebrate the coming of spring and the successes of the project; activities were planned, morning tea was provided and thank-you gifts were purchased. Despite the thoroughness of the run-sheet for the day, turnout was low; this proved that the balance between providing and engaging is difficult to achieve and that the best results occur when the ideas are generated together. Providing direction and structure that allows for flexibility and spontaneity is a matter of scale. Too specific becomes instructive, too broad becomes inertia. Defining a range somewhere in between these end points allows multitudes of possibilities to emerge. The emergence of possibilities is something taken for granted when we are independent and full of health, but preciously appreciated in what can be the routine-ness of life in an aged care facility.


Heather Wilkins, Landscape Architect, Boffa Miskell

Courtney Kitchen, Architect, Ignite Architects/ NZ Institute of Architects

Emma Dent, Auckland University, Development Manager, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences

Greg Nelson, Environment Support Manager, The Warehouse

Daniel Williams, Engineer, Northern Regional Manager, Hawkins 

Rakel Liew, Major Events Manager Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED)


(1) Neilsen Research (2014) Quality of Life in New Zealand Cities Survey 2014. Local Government New Zealand, Wellington. Retrieved on 20/11/2014 from http://www.qualityofl

(2) Waldegrave, C., King, P. & Rowe, E. (2012) Aucklanders 50 and over: A health, social, economic and demographic summary analysis of the life experiences of older Aucklanders. Auckland Council, Research, Investigations and Monitoring Unit. Retrieved on 08/11/2014 from

(3) Statistics New Zealand, (2009) Mapping Trends in the Auckland Region: Chapter 8. 65+Population. Statistics New Zealand, Wellington. Retrieved on 08/11/2014 from

(4) Hunter, M. (14 October 2014) Opinion: The link between design and care. Design Council, United Kingdom. Retrieved 11/11/2014 from

(5) Phillips, J., Ajrouch, K., & Hillcoat-Nallétamby, S. (2010). The SAGE Key Concepts: Key concepts in social gerontology. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi:

(6) U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (September 2011)Elder-Accessible Gardening: A Community Building Option for Brownfields Redevelopment U.S. EPA Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization. Retrieved on 08/11/2014 from