Friday, April 6, 2012

Don Rakow Explains the World of Public Gardens at the 92 St Y

The 92nd Street Y has earned an unparelleled reputation for presenting impeccable and compelling news lectures.
Their ability to identify an issue and the expert that embodies the nascent topic seems almost uncanny. 
Yet, decades of having their finger firmly on the pulse of what everyone will be talking about at dinner parties or NPR or effecting cultural news trend reporters and well, bloggers, is a well-defined skill set.

And so it was recently when the 92St Y – brought about my friend, Helen Conover, hosted Donald Rakow, PhD, the Elizabeth Newman Wilds Director of Cornell Plantations, as well as Director of the Cornell Graduate Program in Public Garden Leadership and co-author of Public Garden Management A Complete Guide to the Planning and Administration of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta.

(I am so honored to have been asked to contribute to this seminal resource book. 
I provided chapter 19, Public Relations and Marketing Communications.)

The lecture at the 92nd St Y was a well-attended event with the audience seeming to consist of equal parts eager, tell-me-more-public garden enthusiasts and loyal Big Red, Cornell alumni and supporters  -- of which I am a card-carrying member because my beloved father is/was a Cornell graduate: class of ’47, engineer – who worked diligently for the alumni and volunteered for years as the Garden State’s first line of recruitment for would-be students.  I possess many fond family memories of his Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house and Triphammer Road and the beautiful gorges and …
It’s a spectacular campus, to say the least – of which the audience and Rakow are duly proud. 
Hint: Take a visit.

Dr. Rakow is an authoritative, engaging speaker.  Dr. Rakow makes his points clearly and with distinction. 

He takes you down the garden path with a soft-spoken Mr. Chips kind of class and style – illuminating a world of which most are only aware of peripherally – or to extend the metaphor – most people’s knowledge of public gardens is what they see at the garden’s border. 

The magical, special, pragmatic world Dr. Rakow showcases is that of the overwhelming, unabashed dedication and embrace of the world of public gardens.

To most green garden lovers it’s a “you say tomato/I say tomato kind of issue.”
But that notion or thesis is, in fact, the starting line of the topic and the book, Public Garden Management.

He knows how to cultivate a topic many are not aware of and at the same time, demystify that same subject they just learned about.  He is an artful explorer – tacking and jibing where needed.
He is a sensitive teacher.

His talk, supported by salient PowerPoint images and appropriate text  - a presentation that he is clearly comfortable with – nay – eager to deliver – consists of a broad overview of what a Public Garden is and what it is not.  

The more intriguing element is why this distinction is important…

But first up is “setting the stage.”

“Virtually all Public Gardens work from a mission statement” said Dr. Rakow.  Their intent is just the same as fine art museum.” 

From my years working at the cultural institutions that are New York’s botanic gardens, the distinction is that a public garden is a living museum.

I’d often say to the press eager to learn about a public garden – “while the beauty and mystery of say, a Picasso or a Monet, is undeniable -- here at the botanical garden, the art is not only beautiful and compelling and rigorous, but it changes. Every day.”
Put that in your cultural swag bag!

Dr. Rakow went on to describe and explain the unique categories of public gardens, including:
·      Botanic garden
·      Aboreta
·      Pleasure garden
·      Historic garden
·      Zoo

See, and you thought you knew all about “gardens.”
Here is another world of exciting garden adventures to be explored.

Public Garden Criteria
There exist some clearly defined criteria for public gardens, according to Dr. Rakow.

A public garden and an arboretum need to be curated – this is a clear difference from a park. 
“Some people think of gardens as parks where they go to play Frisbee,” noted Dr. Rakow. “At Cornell, we changed that situation and turned the lawn into a meadow” he said smiling to the chuckling audience.
Further, “We worked with the athletic department to carve out a space for the Frisbee enthusiasts; so it was a win – win” he added.  

No brainer – or not – but a public garden must be open to the public – not just open on garden days or for benefits.

Public Gardens must have professionally trained staff.

It is most important for the Public Garden garden to show what role plants play in our lives. 
Dr. Rakow pointed out the role of botanical gardens and their key services of science and education, in addition to horticulture and public programs.  Public gardens serve their communities very many like plant-based universities.

Moving on to other key criteria defining public gardens is the issue of Social Justice! 
Be still my heart.
I attend more lectures than most people have shoes in their closets and rare is the speaker who talks about social justice, much less one that provides a ready solution.

Dr. Rakow talked about public gardens’ ability to respond to the needs of the people and the community.
“Too often a garden doesn’t serve local demographics.”
There is a white middle class or top 1% that supports a botanic garden but a local community might get overlooked- for a variety of not so good reasons.

Dr. Rakow cited Chicago Botanic Garden as public garden that serves its local community:
The Green Youth Farm and Windy City Harvest and Cook County Boot Camp programs teach youth about urban farming and harvesting that can lead to their College First Program: a paid internship, college level initiative that follows students after college.
“They stay with them,” said Dr. Rakow, citing a success rate of 90%.

Public Gardens also need to welcome the public to the public gardens in their own language, noted Dr. Rakow.
Queens Botanic Garden in New York City is an example he cited as having the most ethnically diverse garden audience of any in US -- so they interpret the garden in many languages; not just English.

The First Nations Garden in Montreal is a good example of a garden that caters to their Native Quebec Americans to build understanding for them and their culture.

Public gardens also offer celebrations events for their particular populations.  These programs can also create opportunities for tourist attractions and can further raise the garden’s profile.

To counteract what is now referred to as Nature Deficit Disorder – a “Last Child in the Woods” affliction affecting far too many children simply because they are separated from the natural world, public gardens offer a bridge to the natural world – even in urban environments where most of increasingly live.
“Let’s Move” type of programs are now in place at museums and gardens he noted.  These programs emphasize both physical activity and the beauty of living museums, aka public gardens.  

Further, most kids have no idea where food comes from, noted Dr. Rakow.  Public gardens are the best vehicles to address this issue and many have developed programs that get kids to understand the life cycle and lessons of plant-based foods.

Public gardens are also leading the way in yet another emerging category: Horticultural Therapy.  Dr. Rakow cited Denver Botanical Gardens and their just-created new Horticultural Therapy program and garden as an excellent example.

Arboreta, on the other hand, focus on woody plants trees, & shrubs.  “The Morton Arboretum is an excellent example,” he said.

In terms of Pleasure Gardens, Rakow cited Chanticleer as a premier example.  “Their primary focus is to show how we can be involved with plants in a display garden–by the creative impulse of beauty.”
This is indeed one wowsy beautiful garden.  I’ve been there twice – and could do the tour endlessly. 
Chanticleer was the site of the 2009 Garden Writers of America Awards that I attended.  My second visit was after a family wedding at nearby Villanova and I’d arranged with the incomparable Director Bill Noble to provide a family tour.  Little did I know we’d get to experience the tour with Bill as our guide! It was a most memorable and magical garden experience,

Because Chanticleer was once a family home, the grounds are scaled to our sense of the romance of a garden.  There is a lifetime of gardening to learn and appreciate and inculcate here.  Enjoy.

Next up to be explored was the category of Historic Sites – those gardens than have been restored to another period or era.
Dr. Rakow cited FiLoLi Gardens near San Francisco as a good example of this category of public gardens.
I took a garden design class at FiLoLi and can testify to the beauty and character and the loving maintenance and care of the gardens there.
It’s very name; FiLoLi is an anagram of sorts – from the words Fidelity, Love and Life.

Historic garden sites must be curated, Dr. Rakow reminded the listeners. 
And if the mission statement or focus is more on the home or mansion, then it cannot be considered a Public Garden.

According to Dr. Rakow, a revolution is taking place in zoos as they embrace the world of a public garden. 
Here, Dr. Rakow cited Tulsa and their effort to create a naturalistic habitat that best relates to the animals.

Significant Trends in Public Gardens

Following up on the success of the groundbreaking book (pun kinda’ intended...) for Public Garden Management, Dr. Rakow said he and co-author Sharon Lee are currently working on their next book about how public gardens are the center of art, research, plant conservation and outreach and healing.
Now we’re getting someplace! 
This is going to be one honey of a book and a topic that is loooonggg overdue, in my opinion.  Applause, Applause.

Another significant trend or issue cited by Dr. Rakow is Plant Conservation. 
There is no more pressing issue of our time, he said, citing Dr. Peter Raven, Missouri Botanical Garden  Dr. Raven forecasts that one third of plants could be extinct by 2030.
Here’s to hoping people care enough to be stewards of our plant world –– the lungs of our world – to make certain we take up our shovels and rakes and well – you get the idea – but take up our arms-as-garden-tools enough to make certain we safeguard our plants and our relationship to them as we do with other cuddly, endangered species.

Another trend is Environmental Sustainability. 
According to Dr. Rakow, a key question or issue should be: does it meet the needs of the present without compromising future generations and their needs?

A good example of best building practices are the structures at the Pittsburgh Phipps Conservatory and botanical garden that uses the most progressive, sustainable buildings now  -- way beyond anything seen heretofore.  The building is scheduled to open this spring as a net zero building  - a living building – that creates all of its own energy – with a net positive energy flow.

A Q&A followed the talk, further providing some very interesting subjects. 

We learned the Cornell Plantations’ outdoor collections contribute to the student body and academics and are integrated into more than 60 courses, including landscape architecture, environmental ecology, and art.

It was curious to learn that our perception of public gardens goes back to 16th century Europe when gardens were created as adjuncts to medical universities and not meat for the public.  In Europe today, many of the gardens still don’t have dedicated public outreach and no social outreach or social justice programs, he noted.

And finally, Dr. Rakow shared how the name “plantations” came to be the official moniker of the University’s outdoor collection.  “The name plantation came from Liberty Hyde Bailey,” he said.  “The name has seemed controversial, yes, but the antebellum south environment was not the reference point for the affirmed abolitionist.”  Rather, Bailey thought that the diversity and complexity of an enterprise engaged in horticulture and botany wasn’t served by the term botanical garden.  Bailey wanted the name plantation, in order to suggest the variety of enterprise taken up by the land from an agricultural pursuit.

After the lecture, I traveled back home downtown with a woman who is keen to develop public programs that engage children in food and garden projects and came to the event to discover how to best go about this.  “How did she learn about the talk? I asked.  From Twitter, she replied. I hoped it was my Tweet, perhaps, that was the sweet call of nature, brining her to the garden world of public gardens.

The landmark book, Public Garden Management is available at Amazon:

About the Authors:

Donald A. Rakow, PhD, serves as the Elizabeth Newman Wilds Director of Cornell Plantations, as well as Director of the Cornell Graduate Program in Public Garden Leadership. Actively involved in horticultural associations and education initiatives at many levels, Rakow is a frequent speaker at conferences and has been honored with the APGA Service Award, for his service on American Public Gardens Association's board of directors and many of its committees.
Sharon A. Lee is the principal of Sharon Lee & Associates, a communications consulting firm, and is the former deputy director of the American Public Gardens Association and the founding editor of the Public Garden, the journal of the American Public Gardens Association.

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