Lady Bird Johnson plants pansies in Washington D.C. as Sec. Stewart Udall and others look on. [LBJ Library photo #33986-16 by Robert Knudsen.]

The value of beautification

Nov 06, 2012

by Adrian Higgins

[originally published online by The Washington Post on October 31, 2012]

Lady Bird Johnson has to be considered a rare figure in the political realm of Washington, a long-term thinker who understood the enduring value of beauty.

The former first lady, who died in 2007, is remembered as the driving force behind the 1965 Highway Beautification Act and by Washingtonians of a certain age as the founder of the Society for a More Beautiful National Capital. Its members transformed many pockets of the city, conspicuously along Pennsylvania Avenue and in Rock Creek Park, where they planted 200,000 spring bulbs.

Way back then, she told audiences that “I am quite sure that ugliness . . . has contributed to riots, to mental ill-health, to crime.” The need for beauty might have been more dire then — it was a period of trashed rivers, rank pollution and urban decay and restlessness — but we still have the ugliness of decay and, worse, a return to the indifference to it. All too often, our public buildings and green spaces are not fixed until they are on the verge of collapse. Think of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, or the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, or the U.S. Botanic Garden.

Almost half a century on, even Johnson’s plantings have run their course. The National Park Service has been doing some planting of daffodils in recent years next to Rock Creek Parkway. The effort got a big boost, literally and symbolically, on a recent Saturday when dozens of volunteers showed up to plant a grassy slope in one of the most heavily traveled sections of the parkway: the cloverleaf embankment where southbound traffic exits to Pennsylvania Avenue NW, below the Four Seasons Hotel.

In a kidney-shaped bed about 120 feet by 30 feet, the workers installed 1,500 perennials and 4,500 daffodil bulbs. The effort was organized by the Rock Creek Conservancy, a group established (under a different name) in 2005. read more

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