Parks, Plants and People by Lynden B Miller

February 3, 2010

in Book Reviews, Reviews

Parks, Plants and People by Lynden B Miller

Reviewed by Michelle Chapman

When I started to seriously consider and write about the nature of our public spaces last year, I was surprised to find a lack of literature providing an introduction to the subject, or a detailed case showing their value in today’s society.

Therefore, the recent publication of Lynden Miller’s volume on the subject is to be welcomed. She’s a major advocate for the value of parks and public open space in the USA, having spent over 25 years designing and renovating them, particularly in New York.

Despite no formal training in garden design, in 1982 she was invited by Elizabeth Rogers, Central Park’s appointed administrator, to head a project to restore the Conservatory Garden, a six-acre formal area in the northern part of the park. In the early 1980s, Central Park was seriously run down and had become a haven for drug addicts and worse. As a consequence it lay derelict and largely ignored by most New Yorkers.

Lynden Miller achieved a spectacular revival in the garden’s fortunes. Influenced by the work of Gertrude Jekyll and using her artistic flair, she provided colourful plantings with something of interest for every season which attracted the public back to the park in vast numbers. Today Central Park is the second most visited attraction in New York, a testament to the revival in the park’s fortunes from the dark days of the 1980s. She also pioneered the use of public-private funding and mainly volunteer labour to achieve her goals. This became the blueprint for the revival and commissioning of many more parks and gardens in deprived areas throughout New York.

Her personal account of the revival of the Conservatory Garden and the dozens of others she has worked on form the backbone of the book. In her introduction she sets out to make a convincing case for benefits of our public spaces from social, health and economic perspectives as well as from her own experience. She’s found her restoration projects have not only changed the fortunes of the public spaces she’s worked on, there’s also been a noticeable positive ‘ripple effect’ outwards into the surrounding area. However, whilst she puts forward a powerful argument, it’s hampered by being largely anecdotal. A few more references would have helped to convince those more sceptical than I, but later on in the book she does hint at having some difficulty in finding documented evidence with which to back her case.

The first portion of the book is Miller’s account of her work over the past 27 years. It’s an impressive CV and includes restoration of The New York Botanic Garden, Central Park Zoo, many parks (both old and new) plus the plantings of several college campuses. For me the most notable amongst the latter is Stony Brook University, where the stark 1960s Brutalist architecture has been softened by the addition of trees and plants into a much more welcoming landscape.

There then follows a primer on how to design a successful public space. Her key elements for success are based on: meeting visitors’ needs; providing a safe and welcoming environment; ensuring the space is well maintained; and providing an appropriate mix of trees, shrubs and perennials for all seasons. These key elements are then looked at in detail in subsequent chapters and it was pleasing to see maintenance featured prominently as I believe this factor is often overlooked in many of our open spaces in the UK.

After this section, Miller considers the techniques needed for successful project completion including administration, advocacy, fundraising and volunteer recruitment. At this point she steps outside the comfort zone of her own experience and includes some examples from elsewhere, such as Chicago. I believe the book would have been strengthened further if these examples had been given a chapter in their own right, particularly as an opportunity to showcase examples of other types of planting such as the naturalistic movement has been lost. I was also surprised to find no mention of New York’s latest innovative open space: the High Line.

Whilst there is much to admire in this book and what Miller has achieved, I did have some difficulty in deciding on its potential audience. Landscape architects and designers will find the design section is too simplistic for them; planners and amenity horticulture practitioners will find some of the other chapters rather uninformative. The best audience is probably any community groups wishing to start their own project. However, I’m not sure this group is a particularly large one and whether they would actually know this book exists. I suspect Miller has tried to make the book satisfactory for all these potential audiences in order for it to have the widest possible appeal. However, by making it ‘one size fits all’, I believe it falls short of expectations.

Often authors are urged to write about what they know and Miller has exploited this strength. However, it’s also the book’s weakness. Expansion to include different planting styles and many more examples from around the world would make it a much more useful reference, not only in the USA but for a worldwide audience. I would have also liked some exploration of ‘street level’ planting and design, which are only hinted at here. There are lessons to be learnt from Miller’s experience in the UK, especially as government and municipal funding for our open spaces is set to be squeezed still further. Exploration of lottery fundraising, for example would have helped to make this book more relevant to a wider audience.

One further gripe. A book about open spaces and public planting should be well illustrated. Most of the many pictures in this book are thumbnail size which serves to detract from the points they’re designed to illustrate. They can also be read as a narrative in their own right, which I initially thought was a very good idea until I found the same arguments being repeated again and again.

However, despite these drawbacks, Miller’s book is far better than having no introductory guide at all, and a good reference section at the end of the book has given me lots of additional material to explore.

Michelle Chapman

Michelle Chapman’s website

WW Norton & Co
Lynden B Miller
ISBN 9780393732030

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