Tom Eblen: How can lessons from Disney World help improve Lexington's urban landscape?

Herald-Leader columnist,Tom EblenOctober 26, 2013 

Katy Moss Warner, center, who once led the American Horticulture Society, was in Lexington last week to promote the economic and aesthetic benefits to city landscape beautification. At a workshop with Lexington leaders Thursday, she talked with Kay Cannon, left, and Ellen Karpf.

TOM EBLEN — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

Beautiful landscapes enrich a city — well-tended flowers, trees, gardens and lawns. But when money is tight, it is easy to see them as frills, as costs to be cut.

What is the value of beauty? What is the cost of ugly?

The answer to both questions, says Katy Moss Warner, former president of the American Horticulture Society, is a lot.

Warner spent last week touring Lexington, speaking and meeting with people as an unpaid guest of Friends of the Arboretum and the Fayette County Master Gardeners.

Warner has a degree in landscape architecture and was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. But she said she learned the economic value of beautiful landscapes during the 24 years she spent supervising a staff of 700 as director of horticulture and environmental initiatives at Walt Disney World in Florida.

Disney spends millions each year on advertising and new attractions to lure new visitors. Warner said she struggled to prove the economic return on investing in landscape until visitor surveys revealed some interesting facts: 75 percent of Disney World's visitors were repeat customers. Why did they keep returning?

"Atmosphere," she said. "The beauty of the landscape. This is helpful information not just for Walt Disney World but for cities. If cities are beautiful, people will come back. Horticulture can drive revenue."

At a lecture Wednesday, Warner said many people have "plant blindness" — they often don't notice the plants around them or realize their value. We move so fast in our daily lives that we fail to notice "the subtle music that truly is the beauty of nature."

Many cities think plants are nice, but not necessary. Study after study shows they are wrong, she said.

When a city's public and private spaces are clean and well-landscaped, people tend to be happier, healthier and care more about their neighbors and community. Urban tree canopies reduce energy costs and calm traffic. Indoor plants filter pollution and make people feel better. Good landscaping increases property values.

In places that are ugly, barren or junky, where there is a lot of noise and artificial light pollution, crime goes up and private investment goes down. People understand, consciously or subconsciously, that they don't want to be there.

"Schools are probably the most derelict landscapes we have," Warner said. "We design them like prisons."

But schools are a perfect place to teach children the importance of natural beauty with school vegetable and flower gardens, and planting trees as legacies.

Studies have shown that gardens make good learning environments, especially for students who struggle in structured classrooms. Warner said the most popular attraction at Disney's Epcot is the vegetable and hydroponic gardens at the Land Pavilion.

Warner is a board member and volunteer for the non-profit organization America in Bloom, which helps cities learn beautification strategies from one another. At a Thursday workshop, she made a pitch for Lexington to participate.

The workshop at the University of Kentucky was attended by Vice Mayor Linda Gorton; three more Urban County Council members; Sally Hamilton, the city's chief administrative officer; and more than 40 leaders in Lexington's landscape, horticulture and sustainable agriculture movements. Earlier in the week, Warner met with Mayor Jim Gray.

This was Warner's first visit to Lexington. She remarked on what a clean city it is for its size, in both affluent and not-so-affluent neighborhoods. She also was impressed by local food and recycling programs, and by good examples of historic preservation and adaptive reuse of old buildings.

In an interview afterward, I asked Warner what she would do to improve Lexington. Her observations were perceptive, especially considering she had spent only three days looking around.

"I think it's a shame that so much of the historic fabric has been lost downtown, but those spaces offer an opportunity to bring back character through horticulture," she said, adding that she thinks the Town Branch Commons plan is brilliant. "That could really be a signature for the city."

Warner thinks Lexington also has a lot of opportunity for beautification by planting native plants, community gardens, installing rooftop greenhouses and by protecting existing assets such as the majestic, centuries-old trees that dot the landscape.

Lexington seems to have fewer walking paths and biking trails than other cities its size, Warner said, so there is an opportunity to create more of them to get people outside and closer to the landscape.

"As a community you also seem to have amazing talent, an amazing spirit, an amazing history," she said. "I do believe that it takes the whole community to make the community beautiful."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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