by DEBORAH NEEDLEMAN
MOST PEOPLE SEEK OUT THEIR LIFE’S WORK, but for America’s foremost public garden designer, Lynden Miller, it came looking for her. In the early 1980s, when New York City was racially polarized and its parks were derelict and dangerous, Miller was an artist working from the privileged domain of the Upper East Side. Her friend Betsy Barlow Rogers had recently founded the Central Park Conservancy in order to raise private money for the restoration of Olmsted’s decaying masterpiece in the heart of Manhattan. At the park’s northern edge, adjacent to Harlem, stood an old formal garden, designed in the 1930s, called the Conservatory Garden, which was now overgrown and ridden with trash. Rogers thought it would benefit from an artist’s eye guiding its restoration, and asked Miller to take charge of it. Miller, for her part, thought Rogers was crazy. Miller had a lovely garden in Connecticut she tended on weekends, but what did she know of urban blight, largescale public spaces, fund-raising, or management? Moreover, Rogers’s mandate to Miller was daunting in its scope: raise all the money yourself, make it beautiful, and bring the people back.
But Miller fell in love. She saw through the garden’s unruly mess to its magical past. This abandoned place had clearly once been a formal jewel tucked within Olmsted’s pastoral landscape, and Miller became determined to restore its luster. She did the only thing a woman in her position could think of: she packed up a slide carousel of some English gardens she admired and went door-to-door beseeching neighbors to help her turn this Harlem garden into a Hidcote. Miller heard the same nay-saying refrain over and over. Even if she did transform the garden, it would be trashed and vandalized.
But the lessons Miller learned in remaking that garden taught her otherwise, and have since formed the backbone of her beliefs and her work. With the $25,000 she raised and a handful of volunteers, Miller hacked away at the hardened earth. They replanted one section of the garden—and then another, and another. People began to return. They approached Miller to ask about plants they recognized from an aunt’s or grandmother’s garden, they brought their friends, they snapped pictures of one another in front of the borders. Miller’s plantings not only brought the people back, but this public gift of beauty inspired deep gratitude and pride on the part of the community.
While Miller has gone on in the ensuing 20 years to make many other public gardens in New York City, she has never left the Conservatory Garden. She is still there every week, because what she learned is that if you make a place beautiful, people will come—but only if you keep it beautiful will they stay and respect it. Miller reintroduced to the country the idea that urban places can have the same kind of complex and glorious mixed borders as grand estate gardens. But she recognized that, like their private counterparts, these plantings require not just care, but money to maintain them. In tandem with her design work, Miller has been a tireless proselytizer on behalf of the transformative powers of gardens in the hectic lives of city dwellers and the importance of funding them. When she gives talks—accompanied by her shocking “before” and glorious plant-and-people-filled “after” slides—audience members are sometimes moved to tears, and often to action. Recently, after one such talk, a Seattle developer turned over a $650,000 parcel of land in a distressed neighborhood to the Seattle Parks Foundation for the creation of a garden.
One of Miller’s mentors was the great urban theorist William “Holly” Whyte, whose studies of how people like to use a public space deeply influenced the team she worked with on the restoration of Bryant Park, another once-frightening, now-beloved public space in Manhattan. One afternoon toward the end of his life, Miller took him to the Conservatory Garden. Sitting amid the people enjoying the garden, he exclaimed, “Lynden, the thing I’ve forgotten is horticulture!” Fortunately for New Yorkers, Lynden Miller doesn’t forget, and she hopes to make sure future generations won’t either. H