Q&A with Brooklyn Botanic Garden President Adrian Benepe
This month, Adrian Benepe joins Brooklyn Botanic Garden as its seventh president. Benepe comes to the Garden as a longtime advocate for urban green space, notably as New York City Parks Commissioner from 2002 to 2012, and most recently as a senior vice president at the Trust for Public Land. Throughout his career he has been committed to expanding access to urban green space, adding more than 800 acres of new parkland during his tenure at NYC Parks and leading a national campaign at TPL to ensure than all city dwellers have a high-quality park within a ten-minute walk of home. At a time of historic challenge, Benepe shares his thoughts on the role botanic gardens can play in sustainable cities, resilient communities, and our collective mental health.
What’s the most important difference between a park and a botanic garden? Why do we need both?
Many people see parks and gardens as interchangeable, but I don’t. They do share a common heritage. Parks go far back in history, but gardens go back even further—to the creation myth—and they occupy a special place in many cultures and in people’s lives. The word “garden” itself comes from a root word that means guarded or enclosed, and that gets at the very different purposes gardens and parks have. Parks are open almost 24/7. They’re there for you to come and do what you want—play sports, have big events, spread out. They’re largely recreational. But a garden’s principal role is as a protected place for plants and for people to interact with plants.
So a garden offers people more of a chance to focus and observe?
Yes, that’s part of it. There’s this phenomenon I’ve seen when people enter a garden, in particular an enclosed garden. You can see people’s behavior change, and they adopt a slower pace of walking, as if they sense that they’re about to have a different experience than on the street. They slow down, they look, listen, smell, breathe deeply. All sorts of physiological things have been found to take place—heart rate and pulse go down and relaxation sets in, so it’s a mental health break. Gardens play a very important role in our psychological health because of the long, deep connection between people and plants.
Beyond that, a botanic garden is also a scientific institution—and that’s an important part of our mission. Not only do we provide a protected place for people to interact with plants, but we also curate and document our plant collection very seriously. The Garden’s scientific role has also shifted as environmental issues have come into play, and that’s something I’d like to explore even more.
The biggest challenge facing us right now is the impact of climate change—and botanic gardens have to think about this in two ways. First, what impact will climate change have on our plant collection? There’s no doubt that this will be profound, particularly if you think in terms of the next hundred years, which is the lifespan of many trees. One hundred years from now, Brooklyn will be a much warmer and wetter place. The sad reality is that some species—for instance many of our conifers—will no longer be with us. Plant hardiness zones will have changed—they’ve already started to. Warmer-climate pests like the woolly adelgid will have wiped out some of our conifers. Fungal infections will increase and many of the London plane trees will die. We will have to take all of this into account as we plan and curate our collection.
Equally important is to think about how plants can mitigate the impacts of climate change. A botanic garden should have a role in developing solutions and making the city more resilient. Plants absorb and store carbon—not just big trees, but also grasses and other plants. Plants also trap particulate matter and so help mitigate air pollution, and they help reduce the urban heat island effect. Open spaces like parks and gardens also absorb stormwater runoff—and BBG has been designed to do even more of this, which is really important. As the climate gets wetter, we will need many more ways to capture more stormwater so we don’t see combined sewer overflows.
Do you see the Garden contributing to sustainability efforts beyond our gates, in the city at large?
Yes. All across the city, more green infrastructure is being added to help, and I think it would be interesting for BBG to see how it can play a role in maximizing that impact. What would that look like? So one thing the City is doing is putting in specialized bioswales and tree beds to capture stormwater. They’ve started with pretty plants that can tolerate both wet and dry conditions without a lot of maintenance, so you see things like black-eyed Susans. But is that the plant that is going to absorb the most heavy metals and other pollutants that flow in from the streets? Maybe we could experiment with different plants with more leaf surfaces and uptake behaviors that might be better at absorbing toxins. This is something I became interested in as parks commissioner, and I found it’s not being studied much.
Who should be visiting BBG most? What kinds of things would you like people to gain from their visits?
A wise friend and colleague once said proximity does not equal access and access doesn’t equal inclusion. I think the Garden has done a good job with both access and inclusion, but I think there’s room for growth in terms of programs and collections. We want to first make sure we can give everyone access financially. We’ve set aside free community tickets and waived admission for kids under 12—are there ways to include even more potential visitors? And then we want to make sure everyone feels welcome once they’re here and to represent all of the cultural diversity of Brooklyn in our programs and collections. For instance, Brooklyn has a very large Caribbean community—I’d love to see our Caribbean collections as well-known as our Japanese Garden. There is so much cultural significance in plants around the world—in what crops people raise, what foods they eat—and also a lot of religious significance.
We also need to make sure the Garden is as accessible as possible to special audiences and to kids. I want all the amazing children’s programs and collaborations with the community to stay strong—our partnership with Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment (BASE) high school, the Garden Apprentice Program program—all of our educational programs are so important for building the future. And I’m really looking forward to the day when we can resume our in-person programs.
What are you most excited about in your role as BBG’s president?
I’m excited about getting to know the staff and looking forward to walking around the grounds talking to people. BBG has all the hallmarks of a truly great botanic garden and its horticulture is the basis for this—if we don’t have great horticulture, we’re not succeeding. I’m excited to get to work toward building it to be even better.
I am extraordinarily impressed by the amazing job the staff has done during the pandemic—the leadership, the operations staff who were there the whole time, gardeners, custodians, maintainers, security guards—the way everyone has kept it all going, even when no one was coming in. They kept the plants alive, kept the weeds from taking over—it’s a near-miracle. The staff has sacrificed a lot during this time and I’m hoping to be able to repay them as soon as possible.
How do you feel about being based in Brooklyn?
I’ve lived all my life on the Upper West Side, but it’s exciting to come to the great cultural heart of Brooklyn—the Garden, Prospect Park, the library, the Brooklyn Museum, extending to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Many people consider this to be heart of New York City, not just Brooklyn.
What stands out about your past visits to the Garden?
One of my first memories of visiting as a child is of the Japanese Garden—and I remember it being really enchanting and very special. I’d never seen anything like that. Later, I started bringing my own children to explore more. The thing I’ve always loved about it is the way that unlike many other botanic gardens, which can feel a bit rarefied, Brooklyn Botanic Garden feels like a garden of the people. That’s one of its great strengths, and I’m looking forward to continuing that part of our mission and making it even stronger.