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American Society of Landscape Architects


April 2007 Issue

Landscape architects with the National Park Service face a monumental task: repairing an intensely popular, and intensely damaged, landscape.

By Linda McIntyre

PALL OVER THE MALL 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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