Scenic Heroes: Ronald Lee Fleming, FAICP

In the world of scenic conservation, Ronald Lee Fleming, FAICP, stands in a class of his own as a true Scenic Hero. A planner and urban designer, Ron pioneered early Main Street revitalization projects and innovative placemaking strategies. As chairman emeritus of Scenic America, Fleming helped the organization evolve from a largely reactionary group fighting billboard blight to a proactive force promoting scenic beauty on the national stage.

Photo by Bethy Cardoso

His ideas on placemaking are evident in his own gardens, and through his writing and other engagements, he offers suggestions for anyone looking to add more identity, intention, and sense of place to their own spaces. His newest book, The Adventures of a Narrative Gardener: Creating a Landscape of Memory, is both an intimate memoir and a study of the twelve gardens of his Newport, RI, estate.

In this Q and A, Ron shares his insights on what inspired—and continues to inspire—his work.

How did you become interested in urban planning?

Growing up, I built a little “town” on a lot we owned adjacent to our hillside house in Los Angeles County, overlooking the city. I was fascinated by the old western mining towns my very indulgent parents had taken my sister and me to visit. I called this my “ghost town” and had my friends, in Tom Sawyer-like fashion, build the structures, which included the Hangman’s Hotel, a sheriff’s office, two boot hills, and a stream that ran down the hillside on bone-dry hard pack. My parents never complained about the water bill because they liked the fact that I was constructing my own “adventure” playground.

I had an early love of history which led to town planning. I greatly looked forward to seeing Williamsburg on a family cross-country trip in the fifth grade. Here, I saw a formally organized town. Later, I won a fellowship to Deerfield, where I did a required comparative paper on conservative Deerfield with its mile-long main street adjacent to Greenfield. It was chaotic but grew because the railroad went through it. I later submitted this paper to attain admission to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. I didn’t realize that you could obtain a planning degree. Indeed, Harvard had the oldest program in the country. I went on to do innovative placemaking work and pioneered Main Street revitalization.

What inspired the restoration of your historic estate, Bellevue House?

I was fortunate to receive a fellowship while at graduate school at Harvard, which enabled me to see gardens in Kyoto. I later spent a healing period after the Vietnam War visiting English country houses and then visited Studly Royal, Hestercombe, Hever Castle, Iford Manor, and the follies at Stowe and Stourhead. Later, I won a fellowship to the Salzburg Global Seminar and saw the Schloss Hellbrunn, with its surprise splashing of guests at a table. A musician and rosarian took me to visit a daughter of Iris Origo at Villa La Foce. I went to India, and I finally saw the Viceregal gardens in New Delhi which Lutyens designed… I also went to Argentina to see Achille DuChene’s garden rill at the Palacio Errázuriz Alvear, now the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo.

How did you first become involved with Scenic America and what drew you to the organization?

I became involved with billboard policy long before we became Scenic America. When I returned from my healing year abroad after service as an intelligence officer in Vietnam, I testified against the billboard lobby at city hall in Boston… I still remember the arrogance of their law firm, Choate Hall and Stewart, which suggested that any ban on billboards would threaten jobs… I also got to know Fred Farr, from an old family in San Francisco, who had served in Washington on the Highway Beautification Commission, which had been set up by Lady Bird Johnson. I attended their meeting in Washington and met early leaders like Ross Netherton, and women from the Garden Club of America like Ellie Kelly and Marion Fuller Brown, who was a member of the state legislature in Maine.

What is your proudest accomplishment in your years of involvement and leadership with the organization?

We connected Scenic America to early leaders in the Rockefeller and Johnson families. I worked with Martha Fuller Clark, Ryke Longest, and Margaret Lloyd to create memorable events, such as our conference at the National Press Club and dinner reception at Anderson House, which has one of the grandest spaces in Washington. Later, I worked with Congressman David Cicilline, who’d been in the NEA design arts program-sponsored Mayor’s Institute: Excellence in City Design in Washington. He later sponsored the legislation that revived America’s Scenic Byways.

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing Scenic America now? What are the greatest challenges for scenic conservation and placemaking leaders and advocates?

Our challenge is now to link Scenic America to a much broader constituency of scenic and historic small cities and towns attracting Zoom-savvy younger people who want to live in attractive places. Paradoxically, these same places are targeted by developers who want to control planning and zoning boards. This is our constituency, and we have set the bar higher to realize this alliance. Getting the bipartisan support for Scenic Byways is just a beginning. We also need artistic enhancement of infrastructure as in my 2007 Art of Placemaking book.

Your latest book, The Adventures of a Narrative Gardener: Creating a Landscape of Memory, is also a narrative of your life’s story. What was it like writing about such personal experiences?  

It is the only ostensible garden book with a chapter as homage to lost friends and a short, but harrowing, memoir about my Vietnam experience during TET year, 1967-68. This covered my service as an intelligence officer assigned to the Green Berets in Nha Trang, the public affairs office in Saigon, and then something called “the Company.” This was a harrowing Conradian Heart of Darkness experience where I both fought in the war and then later marched against the war in Washington. It was painful to dredge up memories that I had not even told my wife.

Portions of this interview were adapted from a piece that recently appeared in the Garden Conservancy Society of Fellows’ February 2021 newsletter. Ron’s new book, “The Adventures of a Narrative Gardener: Creating a Landscape of Memory” can be purchased here.