Reviving America’s Front Yard

From Crisis to Vision
An Assessment of the National Park Service Plan for the
National Mall

On March 19 and 20 in Washington, D.C., the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) convened a Blue Ribbon Panel of design professionals representing landscape architecture, architecture, and planning to review the National Park Service’s Preliminary Preferred Alternative National Mall Plan, released in early March.

ASLA President, Angela Dye, FASLA, principal of A DYE DESIGN, Phoenix, chaired and facilitated the panel, whose members were:

  • Robin Abrams, ASLA, AIA, professor of architecture and head of the school of architecture at North Carolina State University in Raleigh
  • Joseph Brown, FASLA, chief executive of AECOM's Global Planning, Design and Development group and CEO of EDAW, one of the world's leading land and community consultancies
  • Fernando Costa, FAICP, veteran city planner and assistant city manager for the City of Fort Worth
  • Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, principal of Reed Hilderbrand Associates Inc., in Watertown, Massachusetts, and adjunct professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design
  • Harry Hunderman, FAIA, senior principal and director of knowledge and communications management, Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc., in Northbrook, Illinois.

To launch the effort, the National Park Service gave a comprehensive overview of the plan, then took the panelists on a tour of key sites on the National Mall — Union Square, the Mall, the Washington Monument grounds, and Constitution Gardens, among them. The following day, panelists discussed and debated the plan’s concepts and proposals and considered them in light of other planning initiatives. The following report presents the panel’s findings and recommendations. We thank the National Park Service for their cooperation and the opportunity to be heard.

The ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel applauds and fully endorses the Park Service’s overarching goals, objectives, and efforts to preserve and enhance the National Mall, a living treasure. The Park Service and other planning entities have worked hard to protect this critical national asset and have clearly articulated its role in our national heritage. 

While we were aware that the National Mall was suffering from financial neglect, it was eye-opening to tour the Mall and see for ourselves the crisis conditions created by the many years of deferred maintenance necessitated by inadequate funding. Despite the Park Service’s best and valiant efforts, deplorable conditions exist throughout this landscape: cracked, broken, and unsafe pathways; sinking seawalls; inadequate and deteriorated restrooms; sick or dying trees; impenetrable turf; and polluted, evil-smelling water features that actually put wildlife in harm’s way. Such problems point out clearly that the National Mall has not undergone serious renovation in more than 30 years. Instead of its role as a symbol of the American spirit, the Mall has become an international embarrassment that calls for immediate attention. 

Documentation of the planning process reveals that, as the Park Service moves closer to a final plan, its early aspirational language has given way to a more pragmatic tone to address critical needs caused by chronic funding shortages. The Park Service now is understandably focused on solving problems, both near and longer term. But the dire conditions of the Mall, and opportunities afforded by other D.C.-focused planning efforts such as “Monumental Core Framework Plan: Connecting New Destinations with the National Mall” by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) call for a bolder vision. This new vision should reach beyond the boundaries that define the various jurisdictions (National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, Architect of the Capitol) and reinforce the National Mall’s significance of place. The vision should highlight the need to:

  • Continually educate our leaders and citizens about the significance of the National Mall and Memorial Parks as a collective expression of our democratic ideals
  • Preserve the legacy of the 1791 L’Enfant Plan and the 1901 McMillan Commission Plan
  • Foster higher awareness of the present crisis conditions of parts of the National Mall that are in need of help immediately—and tie the urgent action required to a grander, more holistic and inspired vision
  • Build a sustainable urban ecology through introduction of sustainable landscape and building practices
  • Foster strong physical, social, and economic connections for the future between the National Mall and other areas of the District of Columbia.

Connecting critical needs with an aspirational vision will catalyze the power of solid planning for the future National Mall and its environs.

We also want to strongly state that the National Park Service still needs to compile a complete design plan that addresses this preeminent public space consistently and comprehensively to better weave the National Mall into D.C.’s larger urban fabric. The plan would also serve to guide all future design and maintenance. In this light, we offer the following suggestions.

There is great opportunity embedded in the crisis level of needed maintenance if the Park Service’s overall strategy ties together these bottom-up critical needs with a top-down “Grand Vision” plan for the future. Some opportunities we identified within the Park Service’s plan include:

Union Square: While we support many of the concepts underlying the plan’s recommendations for this critical area, this bridge between the Capitol grounds and the Mall, at the intersection of major connections to the city, cannot be fully realized without addressing the areas beyond the managed by the National Park Service. Its potential as an active destination with flexible, multi-purpose visitor facilities needs to be thought through in a broader context. To enhance the Park Service’s vision, one idea we propose for consideration is that Union Square be the site of an international urban-design competition for the entire area, incorporating not just the square but stretching from Constitution Avenue to Independence Avenue to fully integrate the square with the Capitol grounds and provide natural connectivity to the U.S. Botanic Gardens. Another idea is to host an international design forum, bringing the most accomplished and knowledgeable design experts together to explore a design vision.

The National Mall and Civic Facilities: First, we fully endorse Congress’ declaration of no new construction on the National Mall beyond what has already been approved. In addition, there has been a disturbing trend in past years to create individual visitor centers of interpretation for monuments and memorials. The panel strongly opposes any additional such development because, while well intended, it fragments the Mall and diminishes the way the memorials and monuments were intended to be experienced. In the same vein, the panel opposes the Park Service’s stated plans to incorporate what the panel views as excessive signage on the Mall.

While food service, respite, and restroom facilities should be available at strategic points along the two-mile stretch of the National Mall, the panel recommends the creation of a central visitor facility to address the National Mall and the monuments and memorials contained therein.  One option for such a visitor center could be the renovation (and, if necessary, environmental remediation) of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building. We envision the currently unused building, located not far from the Smithsonian Metro stop, as a potential welcoming center to orient visitors to the layout of the National Mall, introduce the full ranges of monuments and memorials that dot its landscape, and provide comprehensive interpretive displays to reduce or eliminate need for individual facilities. A model for this approach already exists: The Smithsonian Institution Building, otherwise known as the Castle, now serves just such purposes for the Smithsonian’s 17 museums plus the National Zoo, among its other uses.

Sylvan Theater and Washington Monument Grounds: In agreement with the National Park Service, this is one area that needs to begin with “removal,” specifically of the temporary visitor-service tent adjacent to the monument and the 1917 Sylvan Theater to its east. We further endorse the Park Service’s finding that this offers an appropriate potential site for centralized visitor services.

Tidal Basin: We agree that the reconstruction of the seawall is critical to the preservation of the Tidal Basin Area. We also endorse the idea of building the seawall a few feet farther into the Tidal Basin to allow for the widening of walkways, which will improve pedestrian movement and help protect cherry tree roots. The panel also strongly supports the integration of bike trails in this area, as well as throughout the National Mall.

Constitution Gardens: We specifically applaud the Park Service’s plans for Constitution Gardens as “a rejuvenated garden and destination for relaxation and enjoyment.” Their vision is to embrace and enhance this area’s unique character as an “eddy within the mainstream” of the National Mall’s design. We suggest that Constitution Gardens may become the new site of Washington’s equivalent of Central Park’s “Tavern on the Green.” Any plan for this area should also be considered in light of the National Capital Planning Commission’s vision, as contained in the Framework Plan, of linking the northwest corner of the National Mall to Kennedy Center and, ultimately, the Potomac waterfront.

We applaud the Park Service’s determination to bring sustainable design and maintenance practices to the National Mall and believe strongly that developing a healthy, functioning urban ecology is essential to the National Mall, and to Washington, D.C., as a livable city. In particular, we believe the following suggestions would strengthen the Park Service’s plans.

Stormwater: Management requires integrated planning.  We agree that irrigation systems should not use potable water and recommend that the Park Service investigate use of water from large water features such as the Tidal Basin for irrigation or, as noted in the National Capital Planning Commission’s Framework Plan, pumped from the basements of buildings in the Federal Triangle area (an ongoing issue), which now flows directly into the overtaxed sewer system. Collected rainwater runoff from roofs and collection of air-conditioning condensate would be other sources to explore for irrigation purposes.

Soil health: We encourage the Park Service to commit all necessary resources and the best, most current research to regenerate the soil, the very foundation for a new, dynamic biology on the National Mall. This may involve augmenting existing research with new investigations. If needed, the Park Service should convene a panel of soil experts for scientific investigation to fill such gaps in the research and help in creating a coherent and effective overall approach.

Trees: We recommend that the Park Service continue its study of tree health, calling on all potential partners, both public, such as the NPS Center for Urban Ecology and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service, and private, such as the Casey Trees Foundation, to help carefully evaluate the health of the National Mall’s trees. We also recommend the end of replacing the American Elms with other varieties as “experiments.”  

We emphasize that designing an environmentally sustainable National Mall requires that these elements all be part of a fully integrated urban ecology.

Water features: We are in accord with the Park Service’s overall plan for water features, especially in terms of ending the use of potable water for public display, developing systems to keep water bodies ecologically and clinically healthy, and rethinking the reflecting pool in Union Square as part of an integrated redesign of that space. In general we recommend extending the vision so that all the National Mall’s water features, current and new, are “of the future, not the past,” meaning that they employ state-of-the-art strategies for environmental sustainability.

Integrating the paving: We agree that the paving system for the entire National Mall area needs a redesign, yet caution about selecting a “one-size-fits-all” uniform solution for the 26 miles of pedestrian paths within the area. We also recommend that the Park Service weigh carefully the pros and cons of replacing the historic gravel on the Mall itself, a feature that is an integral part of its current design in keeping with other major parks around the world, is permeable, is low-heat and has low reflectivity, and which encourages more relaxed strolling. The panel recognizes the maintenance challenges created by such walkways but notes that major parks around the world are able to maintain some form of soft walkway successfully in conjunction with the hard surfaces that are better able to accommodate wheelchairs, strollers, maintenance vehicles, etc. In addition, the panel does not support the concept of paving over the 12th Street corridor but remains open to considering other surface treatments. We also endorse the concept of flanking a restored grass or other surface expanse with support facilities on the north and south to put this area to work for the Mall.

We recommend that the National Park Service:

Develop stronger connections and communications that integrate the National Mall with the surrounding urban fabric—environmentally, economically, and socially. We applaud the close collaboration between the National Park Service and the National Capital Planning Commission, along with other stakeholders, to begin the process of forging a comprehensive plan for the entire capital core that rises above individual jurisdictions. Individual solutions and approaches need to be compared, debated, and resolved to ensure the best possible outcome of these bold planning efforts. Not all of the needs of the National Mall can be met within the narrow precincts of the area consigned to the stewardship of the Park Service, and planning for the National Mall and the federal precincts cannot be done in isolation.  All plans must appropriately recognize that residents’ and visitors’ experiences of the city are not defined by jurisdictional boundaries. This is all federal land, meaning belonging to the people, and should be addressed accordingly. The ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel commends the efforts to coordinate the National Park Service’s plan for the National Mall with NCPC Framework Plan, and we urge even closer coordination as they move forward.

Members of the ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel stand ready to provide continued input as deemed appropriate by the involved entities to help integrate substantive, sustainable design principles into a comprehensive vision for the future of our nation’s capital.

The panel calls on Congress and the Administration to live up to their responsibilities and provide all necessary funding and resources to bring the National Mall back to life and ensure its future as one of the great landscapes of the world and a symbol of our nation.

We would like to end this report as it began, with thanks to the National Park Service for the opportunity to contribute to this all important effort to save one of America’s great treasures and their support of the effort. Also, a thank you to the national Capital Planning Commission for related resources.

Special thanks to:

  • Susan Spain, Project Executive, The National Mall Plan, National Park Service
  • Stephanie Toothman, Acting Superintendent, National Mall and Memorial Parks, National Park Service
  • Steve Lorenzetti, Deputy Superintendent, National Mall and Memorial Parks, National Park Service
  • Randy Biallas, Hon. ASLA, Assistant Director, Park Cultural Resources Program, National Park Service
  • Elizabeth Miller, ASLA, Project Manager, “Monumental Core Framework Plan: Connecting New Destinations with the National Mall,” National Capital Planning Commission
  • Nancy Witherell, Historic Preservation Officer, National Capital Planning Commission
  • The American Institute of Architects
  • The American Planning Association

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©2009 American Society of Landscape Architects