PALL OVER THE MALL
Landscape architects with the National Park Service face a
monumental task: repairing an intensely popular, and intensely damaged,
By Linda McIntyre
Photo Courtesy of National Park Service
The National Mall is a mess, an expanse of suffering turf in
compacted soil, crumbling hardscape, stagnant water, stressed trees, and trash.
For first-time visitors to Washington, this prospect, in the heart of the
nation’s capital, is bad enough. It gets worse, though, if they linger:
Bathrooms are notoriously scarce and difficult for tourists to locate, there is
little parking, public transportation options are hard for visitors to
decipher, circulation is poor, and signs are hidden, uninformative, or missing.
And while there are various options for eating in the museums and other
attractions right on the Mall—the central part of the larger National Mall—or
at nearby cafés and restaurants, those unfamiliar with Washington are not let
in on the secret.
For a landscape that functions as the nation’s front lawn,
host to hundreds of celebrations and protests every year, as well as some of
our icons of art, culture, and history, this is a travesty (see "Subject to the
Vagaries of Power," Landscape
Architecture, January). But how to preserve, let alone beautify, a landscape
that is visited by more than 25 million people every year? For many public
parks, the answer would be simple: restore the landscape, give it time to
recover, and put limits on public use.
That’s almost impossible at the National Mall, which is not
only a national park, but the country’s most prominent forum for events,
protests, and celebrations. Limits to demonstrations and commercial activities
on the National Mall have been the subject of frequent First Amendment
litigation. While the National Park Service (NPS) has some regulatory authority
over these activities—they have to be "legally consistent with the special
nature and sanctity of the National Mall," according to the NPS—thousands of
permit applications are approved every year, generally on a "first-come,
first-served" basis, resulting in approximately 14,000 annual "event days."
After all, in the words of the United States Court of Appeals for the District
of Columbia Circuit, "It is here that the constitutional rights of speech and
peaceful assembly find their fullest expression."
Now the NPS is embarking on a long-range planning process to
try to continue providing for such expression while mitigating its impact on
the landscape. As required by federal law, the agency is collecting comments
from the public as it prepares its National Mall Plan. At the time of this
writing 17 commenters, according to NPS landscape architect Susan Spain, the
project executive for the planning process, had identified themselves as
landscape architects, though none of the local ASLA chapters—Potomac, Virginia,
or Maryland—have intervened in a coordinated fashion.
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