Ecological Gardening Still Fashionable in Chicago
Millenium Park, which includes the Lurie Garden, has displaced Navy Pier as the top tourist attraction in the American Midwest (both are in Chicago). Today’s Chicago Tribune tells us that Millenium Park was visited by nearly 13 million people in the second half of 2016, while Navy Pier had 9 million visitors for the entire year.
There is a connection between this development and a contemporary horticultural debate. Recently a number of garden writers have argued that the naturalistic style associated with Piet Oudolf, one of Lurie’s designers, is getting old and tiresome. For an entertaining discussion of this argument, read Tempest in a Flower Pot by Tony Spencer in his The New Perennialist blog.
Suffice it to say, critics of Oudolf view the choices we make about our gardens (public and private) as essentially matters of fashion. Fashion by its very nature needs frequent change, and Oudolf-style garden design has, in their view, essentially outlasted its welcome.
I should back up here and note that Millenium Park includes several major attractions in addition to Lurie, including Pritzker Pavilion, Crown Fountain, and the Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as “the bean”. (Although one day I was approached by a German-sounding gentleman who asked where he could find “the potato”.)
However, there is no doubt in my mind that Lurie Garden is fundamental to the huge popularity of Millenium Park among tourists and native Chicagoans alike. (I’ve never really been that fond of Navy Pier, which seems to me like a cross between an upscale Coney Island and a shopping mall.)
Lurie and similar gardens retain a powerful appeal that goes deeper than horticultural fashion. The way they combine an urban setting with idealized elements of a natural landscape is both exciting and comforting. They speak to our desires and fears at this moment in the history of people and the planet.
These days citizens of the developed world live for the most part in metropolitan areas. We like our urban comforts, but at the same time many are anxious about environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity. Ecological gardening integrates a naturalistic ambiance into our urban world, providing beauty but also reassurance that our connection to nature is not entirely and irrevocably lost.
It is right and proper that we should find this appealing, it seems to me. As writers like Douglas Tallamy have argued, the future of our environment depends in part on the choices we make for our urban and suburban lots. The ecological approach to gardens developed by Oudolf and others provides us with inspiration and direction as we try to make choices that allow our public spaces and our tiny gardens to collectively contribute to a healthier planet.