Bette Midler leads effort to turn abandoned lots into lush gardens
By Sean Conway
Tribune Media Services
May 21, 2009
We all share the need for contact with nature and time spent outdoors, but in some parts of the country these things are luxuries. That’s a fact that’s been brought home to me over the past three years, since I began working with Bette Midler and the New York Restoration Project.
Midler founded the group in 1995 with the aim of buying abandoned lots all over New York, cleaning them up and transforming them into public spaces where people could go to reconnect with nature, enjoy the outdoors and spend time with neighbors.
Most of the lots were in forgotten neighborhoods and certainly not at the top of the city’s beautification list. Midler’s idea was that creating beautiful open spaces where people could gather to spend time outdoors would help restore a sense of community in these often-underserved neighborhoods. So she created a well-run organization, raised funds and enlisted corporate support to rebuild these forgotten places.
Although all the spaces I have worked on for the project are different, there is a common set of principles for creating an inviting outdoor environment, whether you’re revitalizing an abandoned lot filled with trash or just doing something more interesting with your backyard.
â€¢ Start with a clean slate. The first thing to do is clean up. This holds true whether you have a large space or a small one. Get rid of anything that is taking up space but not serving a purpose.
â€¢ Designate areas of use. Think about how you want to use your space.
â€¢ Direct your views. Remember, you are trying to create an area to relax in. If possible, screen out unwanted views with plantings or fencing. If that is not possible, create focal points to focus your attention on something more pleasant.
â€¢ Retain open space. Try not to fill every inch your outdoor space. This is true for large spaces as well as small ones.
â€¢ Pay attention to light. The amount of sun (or lack thereof) will play a significant role in how your space can be used. If the space gets no sunlight at all, don’t plan a vegetable garden.
Finally, always look for that unique aspect of the site to work into the overall design in an unexpected way. In a garden I designed for NYRP with my colleague Jeff Dragan, community movie nights are held using the walls of neighboring buildings as giant outdoor movie screens. With a little imagination, you can transform any run-of-the-mill outdoor space into something extraordinary.
Sean Conway’s television series, “Cultivating Life,” airs Saturdays at 12:30 p.m. on WGN America. His new book, “Sean Conway’s Cultivating Life” (Artisan Books, 2009), describes 125 projects for backyard living. www.cultivatinglife.com.)