Italian Gardens

Renewal and rejuvenation at Royal Roads

For some people, Royal Roads University is all about the past. Situated in Hatley Park, a National Historic Site, it boasts a 111-year-old fairy-tale castle as the centrepiece of an Edwardian estate. Long before that was built in the early 1900s, the property was a significant gathering place for generations of the Esquimalt (Xwesepsum) and Songhees (Lekwungen) First Nations people.

For some, notably its students, Royal Roads is all about the future. Whether they’re working toward an undergraduate degree or, mid-career, seeking to expand their professional horizons by taking part in masters and doctoral programs, they see in it a path to building their best lives.

Now, in the present, the university is working to preserve its past as an enduring gift to its future — and to the community that surrounds it.


A Vision in Bloom is the name of the $100,000 fundraising campaign aimed at maintaining and beginning the upgrading of the university’s stunning and serene gardens and grounds. It’s an appropriate time for such an initiative because, at no other point in Royal Roads’ history — first, as a family estate; then, for more than five decades as a military college; and, for the last 25 years, a university — has its value to its community been so profoundly needed and appreciated.

The campaign is an example of one key goal of RRU’s vision for its second 25 years — “Invite In, Venture Out” — says Philip Steenkamp, the university’s president and vice-chancellor.

“Increasingly, we are focused on inviting the community in,” Steenkamp says.

“People speak about Hatley Park as being the Stanley Park of the West Shore,” he says, “so, in a sense, it’s a free, accessible backyard for all of the residents… to come and to play and to restore themselves, and to get all of the benefit of being outside.

“Having lived through a year like no other in recent history, we really believe that this place is a force for rejuvenation, for community and economic recovery.

“It’s a treasure, it’s a local treasure, and it’s one, which, in order to preserve it and to reimagine it, and to embark on this exercise of rejuvenation, we need the support of the community.”


Here’s what Royal Roads aims to do with the support sought by A Vision in Bloom:

  • The Japanese Gardens: Update the Japanese Gardens, with its unique plantings, iconic water wheel and serene surroundings.
  • The Glass House: Restore one of the last historic greenhouses in Canada, which has been used for decades to start and grow fruits, vegetables and other plants.
  • The Food Garden: Re-launch the walled, 5.26-acre food-production garden to provide fresh produce for the cafeteria on campus as well as for the surrounding community.
  • The Apiary: Expand the existing apiary to provide support and protection for bees, which are invaluable pollinators.
  • The Commemorative program: Install new legacy benches and other opportunities to celebrate someone special.

“We believe there’s an opportunity here for us to reimagine and rejuvenate this amazing place, these spectacular gardens,” says Steenkamp, whose says his favourite spot on the campus depends on the season, from the lush Italian garden in summer to the woodland, where hellebores emerge in spring.


RRU’s grounds and gardens “are a terrifically important storytelling opportunity for the local community to connect with the history in the area,” says Jenny Seeman, the university’s archives manager. “Having people go through the gardens really puts you in touch with… all of the different stories of the site. In a very visceral way, it connects you to the history of the community.

“Even just walking through the forest, you’ve got these ancient stands of Douglas fir and western red cedar, and you can completely get lost in the forest and transport yourself back hundreds of years. And then you come into the built part of the campus and you’re in this Edwardian area.

“Whatever you want to get from the site,” Seeman says, “you’ll find it, because it’s all there, it’s all in the gardens and surrounding forest.”

In addition to its built history, “the site has huge significance to the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations. There’s ample evidence on site of areas of habitation and use of the land.” That includes evidence of habitation as well as cultivation of camas, a food source, and use of an intertidal clam bed.


“It’s a national treasure,” says Carolyn Levesque, RRU’s associate vice-president, operations and resilience. “It must be protected and, in certain instances, restored and preserved.

“It’s invaluable, in the sense that you can’t put a price on it,” she says, calling the campus not only a noteworthy site on Vancouver Island that has become “embedded” in the South Island community but, also, a destination for others.

Residents of that community seeking solace, comfort and consolation — and the healing powers of the outdoors — have made ample use of the Royal Roads forest and foreshore, groomed gardens and wild meadows throughout the pandemic, and those lands are usually a destination for nearly 20,000 visitors each year.

But those outdoor spaces are also “integral to the programs we offer,” Levesque says. “The academic program and the physical place that we enjoy are not two parallel streams that never converge. They are closely intertwined.”


President Steenkamp agrees, saying Royal Roads boasts a spectacular setting popular with visitors and students alike, and that setting is a piece of the education process, whether as a place masters students can go for respite during the intensive on-campus portion of a blended program or the site of research by faculty into issues such as the climate crisis and food security.

And that educational focus is one reason A Vision in Bloom and the community contributions it will attract are crucial to the future of RRU’s venerable grounds and gardens.

“Our primary mission has to be the academic mission,” says Steenkamp, noting that as a public institution, the university’s funding must primarily focus on teaching and learning. While RRU sets aside budget for the ongoing upkeep of the grounds, there isn’t enough available for the kind of work hundred-year-old gardens need.

At the same time, Royal Roads’ recently launched 25-year vision includes a commitment to “support and preserve the vibrancy and sustainability of this special place for all the generations that are going to come.”

“So what we’re really asking the community for is help to preserve the local heritage, for us to help strengthen the community engagement to find more ways to invite the community in… and to enhance the understanding and the uptake of sustainable environmental practices.

“For all of these good reasons,” Steenkamp says, “we’re seeking donor support. And A Vision in Bloom will mark the beginning of this work.”

Join us to restore garden heritage, build food production or celebrate a friend or loved one in your life.