Artist and gardener Lynden B. Miller had been a landscape painter for 18 years and was ready for a break from her studio when in 1982 a friend asked for her help on a daunting new project: restoring New York's Central Park. Lynden's task was to restore the 6-acre Conservatory Garden - a run-down and neglected place that people feared. "I decided I would create something nice there, and then go back to my studio," says Lynden.
People told her she was wasting her time on gardens in the poor part of the city, that they would be vandalized and no one would ever feel safe there. Lynden ignored the advice and began designing plantings for a section of the garden, raised money to hire a gardener and pay for the plants, and then set to work. "The following summer people couldn't believe it," says Lynden. Visitors came from the neighborhood and around the city, and soon the garden was full of people. Lynden never went back to painting. For the past 18 years she has designed public gardens all over New York City, transforming garden after run-down garden, and she's become a tireless advocate for public gardens in her home city.
"Making public places beautiful makes people feel complimented," says Lynden. "You make it gorgeous and they will come. Keep it that way and they will help you care for it. Plants have an ability to transform people's lives."
Lynden is not only driven to beautify public spaces, she's also a stickler for making sure they last. After renovating the Conservancy Garden, she raised a one and a half million dollar endowment to pay for its continued maintenance, including a staff of five full-time horticulturists. As the garden's director, she still oversees its care.
Lynden has designed gardens for Bryant Park, The Central Park Zoo, The New York Botanical Garden, Wagner Park in Battery Park City, Madison Square Park, and Hudson River Park, among others, and she has witnessed the subsequent revitalization of the neighborhoods near the parks.
"When I started the Conservatory Garden, the surrounding areas were rundown," says Lynden. "Now nearby housing projects have landscaping and window boxes. Nobody believed it could happen at Bryant Park. Now there are lovely shops and restaurants near the park. Good parks reduce crime, help teachers and schools, and raise real estate values, bringing more taxes to the city. But until we can create a vocal constituency that will howl like stuck pigs when the parks department gets their funding cut, there will always be other things that come first."
New Yorkers for Parks - a 70-year-old, non-profit organization that last year reinvented itself as an advocacy group - is trying to expand that constituency, with Lynden as co-director and bandleader. She admits to being a political junkie, and ever since she saw the impact a public garden can have, she's had the momentum to make things happen.
She was feeling terrible for the city after 9/11, so she obtained a gift of a million daffodil bulbs as a living memorial to those who died, and raised the money for the shipping. Then, working with the Parks Department, she organized 10,000 volunteers to plant them in the fall of 2001 in all five boroughs of the city. The following year they planted another half million bulbs. The Daffodil Project is now an annual planting with both public and private support.
"I make sure the bulbs go to the poorest parts of the city," says Lynden. "I want them to be in parks where people haven't seen a flower in years." Lynden's ambitious goal is to make New York a better place to live. "I'm a New Yorker," she says. "We roll up our sleeves and get things done."
To learn more about New Yorkers for Parks, visit: www.ny4p.org