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American Society of Landscape Architects


March 2008 Issue

USDA Prime Design
Sustainability-minded landscape architects at a federal government agency want to use their choice real estate on the National Mall as a showcase.

By Linda McIntyre

USDA Prime Design

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is better known for beef ratings and corn subsidies than for sustainable landscape design. But a couple of the agency’s landscape architects are trying to change that by tapping into a network of like-minded professionals and students.

Last November these landscape architects brought a group together in a one-day charrette to brainstorm options for making the agency’s Whitten Building headquarters into a showcase for sustainable landscape design. Now Matt Arnn, acting chief landscape architect for the U.S. Forest Service, and Bob Snieckus, national landscape architect for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (both of these agencies are part of USDA), are working overtime to meld those ideas into a single concept plan for the site.

The neoclassical Whitten Building, built in two phases in the early 20th century, is the only government agency facility on the National Mall, so its staff has a unique opportunity not only to introduce sustainable design onto a beloved if hurting landscape (see “Pall Over the Mall,” Landscape Architecture, April 2007) but also to reach the 25 million visitors from around the world who come to the heart of Washington every year, many of them disembarking from the city’s subway system at the southeast corner of the Whitten Building.

Its existing six-acre landscape might be described as standard government issue: Shrubs have been pollarded or tortured into tight “meatballs” and other formal hedge shapes regardless of their natural blowsiness. Specimen trees, some healthy but many not—even a recently planted Norway maple, listed on USDA’s databases as invasive—dot an expanse of manicured lawn. Planting beds and the steep slopes rising up from a de facto “moat” around the building’s perimeter are draped in English ivy, another invasive.

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