The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society brought renowned urban beautifier Lynden B. Miller to their auditorium Thursday evening to share her process, the power of urban green spaces, and her book Parks, Plants, and People: Beautifying the Urban Landscape.
Since the eighties, Miller, a trained painter, has drawn upon her artist’s eye to create what she refers to as “well-planted places” in some of New York’s most destitute ones. Using the basic design principles of color, light, line, and form, Miller has transformed the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, Bryant Park, Madison Square Park, and the gardens of Columbia, Princeton, and SUNY Stony Brook into lush landscapes.
What Miller discovered in New York was that when left unattended, a public space will give the impression of a dangerous place. Once it’s perceived as dangerous, it will actually become so. The problems that occur when the criminal element enters into a forgotten landscape are not confined by hedged borders, but spill into the surrounding neighborhood to the detriment of residents and business owners.
The challenge for Miller in New York was to take these neglected spaces, clean and green them, and bring the people back. Resistance to her work typically came in the form of naysayers who said these spaces could not be maintained in certain neighborhoods—East Harlem, for example—because people would not respect them. Furniture would be stolen, walls would be tagged, and plants would be trampled (even Columbia University neglected their grounds for years for fear that ”savages” would ruin them.) What Miller found was quite the opposite. As her work took shape, the neighbors returned without hesitation. Almost immediately they began to utilize and take pride in their gardens and parks. Miller says the seemingly innate way people gravitate to a park is universal. “Gardens,” she said “compliment people and make them feel worthy.”
Miller, like William Hollingsworth “Holly” Whyte and Frederick Law Olmstead before her, passionately believes that parks are essential to the health and well-being of urbanites. People need parks as places to rest, recharge, and reconnect. In her writings, Miller has emphasized the critical role public gardens play especially in trying times. (After September 11, thousands of volunteers participated in planting daffodils donated by one of Miller’s Dutch partners as a way of acknowledging the lives that were lost. These plantings have become a tradition across the city of New York creating sanctuaries in the truest meaning of the word.) Borrowing a term from Ken Burns, Miller calls public parks “sanctuaries for the soul.”
Essential to creating a successful public park and creating a sanctuary for the soul are things like moveable seats, water, food, and an inviting landscape of plants. Seating, Miller learned from Holly Whyte, is especially important. People want to come to their parks and stay awhile. They want to be invited into a place that they can comfortably share with others.
In addition to elements like furniture, water, and food, Miller believes that a successful public park is one that flourishes year round. Like a painter carefully arranging oils on a canvas, Miller plants her spaces with all four seasons in mind. She considers what foliage is left in fall and winter after a magnificent bloom has withered. She uses color to compliment the landscape, buildings, and various plant species. She considers how mixed borders and different plant shapes will comfort and intrigue visitors year-round. And most importantly, she considers the maintenance the plants will require as they grow.
Miller notes that for a garden to be sustainable, it must be maintainable. Without proper (long term) maintenance a garden will fall into disrepair and become a dangerous space detrimental to its neighbors and its neighborhood. Without maintenance, a park cannot serve its people and should not even be planted.
Her common-sense approach to public gardens is as impressive as her eye for beauty. It is from this place of practicality that she offers five priorities for a successful garden or park: money, energy, volunteers/ambassadors, a person who knows plants, and stubborn optimism.
Money is listed first on purpose. In her experience, fundraising and advocacy are as much a part of creating a successful public park as is proper planting. Forging public-private partnerships and securing private donations is an essential skill that anyone looking to beautify their city must acquire. Entrepreneurs and real estate investors would do well to recognize the potential returns on an investment in a public garden as it could lead to a revitilazation of community and economic growth.
Her advice for people looking to beautify their Philadelphia landscape is to plant where you can. Utilize backyards, urns, window boxes, and tree pits. Consider planting things close together even if it goes against your gardening tastes and plant things that will have an immediate impact so the public does not have to wait for something to happen. And while she did not condone trespassing—well, not directly—she did say that law enforcement would hard-pressed to reprimand someone for beautifying a vacant lot. Most importantly, Miller advised planters not to “dumb it down.” Trust that the people your planting for are worthy of the beauty.