I went to Hamilton Gardens today with a friend. Met her for coffee then we had a wander round the gardens. My son took visitors from the UK there on Christmas Eve. We also took two lots of visitors, one from overseas, the other from Te Wai Pounamu there in the last month.
I run through the gardens regularly as part of my training route early morning or evenings.
I believe that Hamilton Gardens are the jewel in the crown of Kirikiriroa Hamilton and they are what draws people to Hamilton. For the visitor, there doesn’t appear, on the surface, to be much else. And, let’s face it, it hasn’t had a good press over the years and so is struggling to get over that.
I love Kirikiriroa, don’t get me wrong. Whilst we didn’t choose Kirikiriroa specifically when we moved here from the UK 10 years ago, (it was where the job was that my husband secured) we have made it our home and we are happy here. We love how the centre has developed to become a more cosmopolitan, modern place which is buzzing with people. We have enjoyed, though we certainly haven’t been as often as we wanted to, the exhibitions at the museum. When our children were younger, the libraries were a haven. We have explored the outskirts; places such as Pukemokemoke, Taitua Arboretum, the Sculpture Park at Tauwhare have been and still are, regular haunts. The river footpath is another treasure and one that we are lucky enough to be able to use often as we live in Hamilton East. We can walk into town in 25 minutes and enjoy the changing mood of the river depending on the season, the weather, the time of day.
So, back to the Gardens. As my friend and I walked through today we watched the children running their hands through the fountains, splashing in the pool at the American Modernist Garden. We watched people bending to savour the scents of the flowers, marvelling at the bees and butterflies as they flitted from flower to flower, listening to the cicadas. We witnessed families feeding the ducks, picnicking in the different open spaces and enjoying time together as a family. We saw people working out the time from the sundial, finding where their birthdays were and where the shadow would be. We saw people sitting on the benches, sheltering from the sun, enjoying the space, meeting friends and family.
We wondered how many of these people were visitors to the Gardens and how many were locals making the most of their space during the holidays. When we first arrived in Kirikiriroa 10 years ago, it was a sweltering hot January. We had no transport, so we had to walk everywhere. (We did start to use the bus service after a couple of weeks but we actually arrived on Auckland Anniversary weekend and there was no bus service that weekend!) We discovered Hamilton Gardens in full bloom and fell in love at first sight. Shall I tell you why? First of all, (not the most important factor, but significant) for a family that arrived with very little cash until we could set up bank accounts etc, it was free. There were open spaces for our boys (8 and 12yrs old) to run around. The themed gardens were fascinating (still are), and the afore-mentioned pool in the American Modernist Garden provided a perfect place to cool off. There was so much to explore, we could get to the river, we could find shade, we could picnic. It became our special place.
Since then we have taken every person who has visited us to Hamilton Gardens. They have all been amazed at how beautiful it is and how different it is to other gardens around the world. We have loved how it has developed and not stood still.
Would we have taken them there if we had had to pay $10 per adult to go? I know that the Council proposal is only to charge for the special gardens and not the open spaces or the river sections. But how many visitors wander into the themed gardens as part of their visit, just because they can? In doing so they expose their kids to different cultures, different experiences that have an impact on their learning and their understanding. I have heard kids asking their parents why there are some plants in some gardens and not in others, or why they are laid out differently.
So, rather than moan about the proposal to charge, and enter into the discussion about how much the Gardens are worth, or whether there should be a ‘locals’ rate, or how much setting up the payment system might cost, we have a suggestion. If we believe that the Gardens ARE a ‘pull card’ for Hamilton, rather than charge for them, (which may stop people visiting, anyway) why don’t we capitalise on the attraction by enhancing the experience? What if there is a way of making extra cash to support the Gardens without charging an entry fee which is more likely to deter people from coming than encourage them. If we had had to pay $10 per person over the last 10 years for the people we have brought to the gardens, we would not have come.
One thing that we have always considered to be a weakness of the Gardens is the paucity of refreshments available. Until recently, the cafe was not great. It has improved massively over the last couple of years but is still often under pressure especially in busy times. We heard kids today saying they were thirsty, hot, hungry. What if, we could build on the themes in the gardens to offer refreshments that matched? Afternoon tea and scones in the English Country Garden, fresh cool Lassi or Kulfi in the Indian Char Bagh Garden, Chai in the Chinese Scholars Garden, home made lemonade or iced tea in the American Modernist Garden, Gelato in the Italian Renaissance Garden…… Once people are in the gardens, they get thirsty, they would buy an ice-cream or a drink if there was one on hand. I am aware that many people don’t bother going to the cafe once they have come out of the gardens because of the wait time, so they go home or to another place in the area instead.
Yes, we considered the rubbish that may be strewn, and the space that a permanent structure would take up, that might detract from the attraction of the gardens. But how about committing to recycling and sustainability and not using plastic packaging and providing sufficient receptacles for recycling paper packaging? Handbarrows could be wheeled into the spaces as needed in busy times so a permanent structure is not necessary. They could be designed so that they matched the culture of the gardens, after all, all the countries associated with the themed gardens have street food and drink.
We know that there is far more to a plan like this than meets the eye, lots of factors that we are not even aware of. But surely it is worth considering more creative options….?
We had another idea about involving the local schools to support the Gardens too, so that kids who grow up here have some ownership and pride in a space which is theirs… I’ll save that for another day!