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Secret gardens: A global tour of hidden urban oases

A new book highlights the secret green oases and local gems hiding in cities across the globe

Cultural Gardens at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, Honolulu, HI, USA. 
InAweofGod’sCreation (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Cities attract residents and tourists alike for their energy. The constant movement and activity, the visual poetry, and the sensory overload can be both engaging and addictive.

But, as anyone who’s navigated a crowded crosswalk or packed into an overstuffed subway car will agree, sometimes that urban exhilaration needs an off switch. That’s often where gardens and community green spaces come into play, offering vital moments of sanity and solitude in an otherwise kinetic urban landscape.

In his new book Green Escapes, Dr. Toby Musgrave chronicles dozens of these hidden escapes. While all urban parks and green space provide important benefits to cities, from shade and cooling to carbon sequestration and even health benefits, the secret oases and local gems collected in Musgrave’s book offer a tranquil antidote to urban life. Due to their small size—and often, devoted volunteers—these tucked-away parks and gardens provide human-interest stories, as well as the thrill of discovery, along with a chance to pause and reflect.

Here are some of the stories of hidden gardens that Musgrave, an author and expert on garden history, discovered during his global quest.

Warsaw University Library Roof Garden: Warsaw, Poland

Biblioteka Uniwersytecka w Warszawie (Warsaw University Library)
Olena Kachmar

Sometimes, you just need to look up. This sprawling rooftop, designed by Irena Bajersks and opened in 2002, features streams, solar panels, and pergolas covered in silver lace vine. Those strolling through the lofted garden, one of Europe’s largest rooftop green spaces, can gaze at views of the River Vistula or peer into the library stacks below via catwalks lofted over glassed-in rooms below.

Chelsea Psychic Garden: London, England


Chelsea Physic Garden, London, UK.
Courtesy Chelsea Physic Garden, photo by Haarkonp.

An olfactory delight, this secret space was established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London as a teaching space for those working with medicinal plants. First open to the public in 1983, the space is crammed with herbs, plants, and one of Europe’s oldest rock gardens, built in part from pieces of Icelandic lava.

Vancouver Public Library: Vancouver, Canada


Vancouver Public Library, Vancouver, Canada.
Courtesy Vancouver Central Library/Photographer: Vincent Lam

Opened earlier this year, this stunning rooftop space designed by landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander is a beautiful realization of a planned “garden in the sky” originally conceived of by architect Moshe Safdie. Oberlander’s nearly 26,000-square-foot landscape floats amid the skyline, a recreation of the plants and trees found on the shores of the nearby Fraser River.

Cultural Gardens at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport: Honolulu, Hawaii


Cultural Gardens at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, Honolulu, HI, USA.
Andrew Zarivny

One of the world’s most calming airport lounges, this sumptuous outdoor garden, found amid the terminals of Honolulu’s airport, contains a multicultural array of plants, bridges, and waterways. Designed by landscape architect Richard C. Tongg in 1962, the space is split into three areas reflecting some of Hawaii’s biggest cultural influences: Hawaiian, Chinese, and Japanese.

Estufa Fria: Lisbon, Portugal


Estufa Fria (Greenhouse), Lisbon, Portugal.
GeoTravel

A series of three somewhat hidden gardens, the Estufa Fria has transformed a former basalt quarry into a maze of tropical and subtropical plants. A one-hectare lath roof made from wooden slats—the largest such structure in the world—covers collections of ferns, palms, and cacti.

Butterfly Garden at Changi Airport: Singapore


Butterfly Garden at Singapore Changi Airport, Singapore.
Claire Takacs

LaGuardia, you have a long way to go. Inside Terminal 3 at Singapore’s celebrated Changi Airport, a two-level tropical butterfly habitat puts most airports to shame. More than 1,000 butterflies flitter among a natural-rock waterfall, palms, and even orchids. If that’s not enough, the entire space is illuminated at night.

Lavigerie Garden, Church of St. Anne: Jerusalem, Israel


Lavigerie Garden, Church of St Anne, Jerusalem, Israel.
Alamy: Fadi Al-barghouthy

Talk about a green space with history. Located near the city’s Temple Mount, this square, courtyard garden adjoins one of the best-preserved “Crusade churches” in the city, a Romanesque structure built in the early half of the 12th century. Named after a bishop, the garden and church are believed to be located on the site of the Virgin Mary’s childhood home.

Shuzhuang Huayuan: Xiamen, Taiwan


Shuzhuang Huayuan (Shuzhuang Garden), Xiamen, Taiwan
Paulz

A hidden coastal garden built in 1913 by Taiwanese businessman Lin Erjia, this well-choreographed arrangement of pools, rocks, bridges, and manicured plantings includes serene ponds as well as dramatic pathways to the sea. The grounds also contain a piano museum, which occasionally means visitors are treated to an unexpected performance while touring the gardens.