Smithsonian Institution Proposes Drastic Changes to the National Zoo Design

After more than a century of openness and integration with the surrounding neighborhoods and parks, recently the Smithsonian put forth a plan to restrict access to the National Zoological Park in D.C.


More than two million people visit the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park every year, while countless others access the trails, roads, and paths that wind through and along the park property. Frederick Law Olmsted, long an advocate for a park along Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek, designed the zoo to fully integrate with the neighborhood and nature as well as the creek itself. Within a year of the zoo’s opening, locals successfully advocated for Congress to create Rock Creek Park, America’s third national park directly north of the zoo. The Olmsted Brothers, following in the footsteps of their father, designed the park to integrate with the zoo.

After more than a century of openness and integration with the surrounding neighborhoods and parks, recently the Smithsonian put forth a plan to restrict access to the zoo. Major public projects within the Washington, D.C., area must go through review by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). The Smithsonian’s plan, which can be accessed here, seeks to consolidate the zoo’s many entrances from 13 to just three. The zoo, like nearly all Smithsonian properties, has free admission for all. The porous nature of the zoo was part of the design, creating more of a parklike feel than a traditional closed-off zoo. In addition to closing more than two-thirds of the zoo’s access points, including one allowing access from the Rock Creek Trail, the proposal recommends adding perimeter fencing along the entire property, further separating it from other parks and the communities it serves. These plans alone would change the character and design of this beloved zoo, corrupting Olmsted’s designs. However, to make things worse, information was leaked that showed the Smithsonian had future plans to build guard booths and checkpoints at the three remaining entrances. 

While many refer to it as “the zoo,” there is a reason it was named the National Zoological Park. It is not a building, military base, national monument, or any other government structure. It is a park. People were meant to move freely in and out of it whether to see the exhibits, attend an education session, stroll down the Olmsted Walk, or jog along Rock Creek. Creating a fortress-like setting would completely change the purpose and use of the zoo, while creating an atmosphere of fear and caution.

ASLA sent comments to the NCPC opposing the additional fencing, the permanent closure of the 10 entry points, and the proposed security booths. In addition, ASLA urged the Smithsonian to look to the Washington Monument grounds and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial for alternative security enhancements that better integrate with the natural and built settings of the zoo. You can find ASLA’s comments to the NCPC here.

Due to the lack of community engagement by the Smithsonian, public outcry from citizens, and the opposition from ASLA and other organizations, the NCPC at its monthly meeting on July 12, 2018, deferred from making a decision until its next meeting on September 8, 2018. In the meantime, the Smithsonian has been instructed to provide a threat-assessment briefing to the NCPC, conduct community outreach, and update any plans as necessary based on these actions.


Kevin Fry
Director, PR and

JR Taylor
PR Coordinator