It Takes One: Lindsay Bond Totten

Stewardship Stories

It Takes One: Lindsay Bond Totten

It Takes One: Lindsay Bond Totten
Pittsburgh, PA
United States

I’ve been associated with the Horticultural Society of Western Pennsylvania for over 18 years, as both a Board member and as the organization’s President (a staff position).  I bring a horticultural and plant pathology background to the project, along with a passion for botanic gardens and some non-profit experience.  I truly believe in the ability of botanic gardens to inspire – on so many levels.  I’m also a registered horticultural therapist, so I appreciate the therapeutic value of gardening and believe botanic gardens are in a unique position to help people continue to garden and enjoy plants in spite of physical challenges.   

I love my adopted home town of Pittsburgh, but the region does not have a major outdoor botanic garden, which really keeps the green industry here from realizing its potential.  Pittsburgh is the largest city in the United States without a major outdoor garden.  The reason for that is unclear – perhaps because of the “smoky city” legacy? – but the Horticultural Society is trying to change that.  I’m honored to be part of the effort (and it is a considerable effort on the part of many hundreds of members and volunteers) to finally make the dream of a botanic garden come true for Western Pennsylvania.

How would you define a cultural landscape?

Our project will build a garden on a 452-acre abandoned coal mine site, which I suppose could be considered a cultural landscape in its own right, since abandoned mine sites are very much a part of Pittsburgh’s legacy.  However, instead of remaining a scarred piece of land pockmarked by subsidence pits and polluted by acid mine drainage, it will be re-born in the near future as a botanic garden attracting 300,000 visitors each year and generating considerable revenue for our region.  We’ll use Western Pennsylvania ingenuity to solve the environmental challenges of this land and elevate it to its “highest and best use”.  In our case, a “cultural landscape” is as much of what we’re planning to become as well as what was once here.

Why did you get involved in the landscape that was threatened in your community?

I couldn’t NOT get involved, when a small group of green industry leaders in this community envisioned starting an organization that would establish as its core purpose the building of a botanic garden for our region.  Having visited public gardens all over the country, I knew what a powerful impact a botanic garden could have on the horticultural community here, and I wanted to be a part of it.  The project, and the people associated with it, have given me more in return than the effort I’ve put into it. Also, I wanted others to be able to experience, as I have, the truly exhilarating – transformational, even – effect a visit to a great botanic garden can have on an individual, especially if that individual is a plant lover.

How did your understanding of this landscape change as a result of your advocacy efforts?

We never anticipated the environmental challenges of the site we chose for the botanic garden.  If we had, perhaps we would have selected another on our shortlist.  That said, the abandoned mine reclamation project we’re about to begin is presenting opportunities we might never have had without it, primarily a national spotlight and access to potential donors that might not have been interested before. The cleanup of our land has definitely slowed our progress, but I wouldn’t change a thing because of the opportunities and relationships our “detour” has fostered.  Now, because of our advocacy efforts, the citizens of Western Pennsylvania get a big environmental and cultural “win” AND a botanic garden!

Did the understanding of others change as well? If so, how?

Our proposal to clean up the land by removing the abandoned mines beneath it was controversial at first.  But as the long-term benefits emerged, it became apparent to (almost) everyone why it was better to tackle the underlying problems rather than build the garden on land that could never again be “fixed” once construction started.  We spent two years recruiting appropriate advocates and enlisting champions, and that effort has really paid off.  We’re about to start the real work now, the reclamation.  To watch the garden take shape in its wake will be like a dream come true for everyone who has worked so long and so hard.  I’m honored to have this forum to recognize all of the intrepid souls who have helped make this project possible.

What is the message that you would like to give our readers that may inspire them to make a difference?

We’ve employed a saying here; I can’t even tell you at what point we informally adopted it as our motto, but it’s helped us get over “speed bumps” on more than one occasion.  The words were spoken by well-known anthropologist Margaret Mead:  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”   There were many times when her words seemed directed specifically at our “small, committed group.”  They served as our compass when we were in danger of giving up or losing our way.