University of Delaware
Office of Public Relations
The Messenger
Vol. 5, No. 4/1996
Stressing the importance of urban green space
     For Judith Zuk, Delaware '77M, the chief executive officer of
Brooklyn Botanic Garden, urban green space is a natural and
necessary coexistence. The concept of a garden serving multiple
missions of public service, science and education occurred to her
several years ago during a visit to the New York Botanical
Garden. But, the seeds, so to speak, were planted much earlier.
     Looking back, Zuk says she realizes she was affected early
on by some influential, amateur gardeners. "I remember as a kid
growing up in New Jersey that I always loved being out in the
garden.... My grandmothers were both great gardeners and our
landlady was a frustrated gardener, whose husband had paved over
most of the gardening space.  She spent the subsequent years
reclaiming the asphalt," she says.
     After earning her master's degree in public horticulture
administration from UD, Zuk realized she needed more practical
experience with plants. So, she spent a year in England getting
hands-on experience at the Royal Horticultural Society gardens.
"There is no better way to learn plants than to get right in
there amongst them, digging around," she says.
     Eventually, Zuk wound her way to Brooklyn, after stints of
work and study at Swarthmore College and Cornell University. "For
me, coming to Brooklyn was something like coming full circle.
When I was studying botany in Newark, N.J., one of my teachers
had this great vision of creating a botanic garden there. I guess
I caught a bit of his vision...that gardening and horticulture
could have a very positive effect on the citizens of an urban
environment. So, when I was invited to interview for the Brooklyn
position, one of the things that had led me to this profession in
the beginning was suddenly in the forefront."
     Zuk has held her current title of president of the garden
since 1990. As the chief executive officer, she reports directly
to the board of trustees and supervises a staff of about 130. "My
responsibilities are increasingly removed from the day-to-day,
hands-on running of the garden and directed toward fund-raising.
We have a $9 million budget that needs to be raised annually.
While some $600,000 of that comes from endowment income, the
balance must come from public, private and earned income."
     Zuk celebrates her location, even as the city pulses just
beyond her gates. "I think we are the finest urban, botanic
garden in the country. There are many gardens that are equally
good, some more beautiful, but we are the one that is most
centrally, smack-dab in the middle of the city," she says. "What
we provide for the people around us is an extraordinary
combination of things. Brooklyn is the largest of the five
boroughs in New York City. We have two and a half million people
in Brooklyn alone, which means that one of every hundred people
in the U.S. is a neighbor of ours. Of the 80 square miles in
Brooklyn, 52 acres comprise the garden.
     "There are just thousands of people hungry for some green
space; they crave beauty, just as they crave the natural
environment. They really treasure the garden. There are 93 ethnic
groups in the borough, and people don't always live peacefully
among each other out there in the street. But, when they come
into the garden, it is as if the surroundings transform them. It
is a very civilizing, very inspiring environment."
     The garden is committed to educating children. "I know what
you can do if you take a small child and you feed positive ideas
into his head. He will carry them with him his whole life," Zuk
     The garden considers itself part of the educational
infrastructure of the surrounding communities in which it exists.
"At times, what we provide is not just a supplement to what the
regular school system is doing, but a replacement, because so
many schools are now operating with less resources," she says.
     Since the early 1900s, city kids have been invited to grow
and tend plants in the garden. Children may attend sessions in
the spring, summer and fall; many of them stay on to become
junior instructors. "It is a very successful way to teach kids
gardening, responsibility and mathematics," Zuk says. "They have
to measure and add, and they have to learn to cooperate because
they garden in pairs." A handful of promising young gardeners
also enter the junior botanist program. "They are 10 to 12 years
old, capricious, smart as tacks, and we have high hopes that a
few of them will become scientists," she says.
     Beyond the educational programs already in place, Zuk has
other goals. She would like to completely renew the garden
features-structures and plantings-which are now 85 years old. The
garden staff also is working to expand community outreach
programs, working with schools, block associations and community
groups, creating satellites of the Brooklyn Botanic
Garden-because "even though we get close to a million visitors a
year, we still know we're not reaching everybody," Zuk explains.
     Brooklyn Botanic Garden is something of a dinosaur in that
it is one of the last museums or gardens in the city with free
admission. Due to the "roller coaster of city funding," that will
change this year, Zuk says. "We've been the last hold out,
representing a time when public funding provided these kind of
amenities to all citizens free of charge.
     "I think that, for urban green spaces and urban gardens, the
future is very encouraging because the need becomes greater all
the time. The role that we all play is one of preserving open
space, preserving biodiversity, being part of the educational
infrastructure of our communities and encouraging the plants and
people combination," she says.
                                        -Donna Kinney Speers