Botanical gardens, one reads in The New York Times, are having an identity crisis. Flower shows, horticultural lectures, and garden-club patrons are no longer able to pay the bills. So the gardens are putting on cooking demonstrations, building model green structures, and even inviting in dogs ($2 per canine). Would that Seattle had such a problem.
As it happens, my wife and I were recently at the Denver Botanic Gardens, a very beautiful, tremendously varied facility on Denver's Capitol Hill. They filled us with envy for such a facility, particularly in Seattle, which has one of the great gardening climates of the world. The extra draw at Denver, one of the country's largest botanic gardens, was a show of a score of major Henry Moore sculptures, gorgeously sited amid pools, on hillocks, and among the blooms.
Such facilities are the legacies of earlier benefactors, the kinds of worthies who normally contributed and laid out major downtown parks. The Denver gardens used to be closer to downtown, but they suffered from constrained space and some vandalism before moving into a handsome residential district. Denver has the nation's best public support for arts and "scientific institutions" such as the botanical gardens, so these facilities are flourishing. (The mechanism is a tenth of a cent of sales tax spread over seven counties, raising $40 million a year in public support.)
Seattle not only lacks such a steady source of public support. Its founding generations, more bent on making money and living in private splendor than endowing public spaces, shamefully neglected downtown open space. Only a later generation and in a later city, Bellevue, now has a botanical garden and a fine downtown park. Seattle might have had such a grand open space at Seattle Center, but decided to commercialize it instead. Perhaps, at the cost of several billion dollars, we will have that park on our central waterfront some day.
In writing about Los Angeles, Mike Davis depicts what he calls "the destruction of public space," a legacy of the way that city has hardened itself against the poor and undesirable people who might inhabit such risky spaces. Fearful of public space, such cities retreat into "spacial and social insulation." It becomes both harder and more expensive to build the kind of democratic, beautiful, inviting-to-children public spaces that were natural expressions of earlier urban dwellers and benefactors.
Still, botanical gardens, suitably updated, might have a chance. They are becoming demonstrations of urban gardening, locally grown food, edible gardens, and relating concerns about the warming planet to what you might do in your own back yard — not to mention networking over cocktails and music. Good ideas for Seattle Center, perhaps, as well as the waterfront. And you can see it happening with all the enriched programs (farmer's market, dancing at dusk) at the Olympic Sculpture Park, which is turning into our own (accidental) botanical garden. Just as in Denver, OSP is also a magnet for new apartments and those seeking walkable density and urban green spaces in their daily lives.