ASLA Panel of Landscape Architects, Architects, and Planners Endorse Park Service Plan for National Mall
Designers keep NPS aware of the Mall’s many meanings and uses
Summary: The American Society of Landscape Architects voiced strong support for the National Park Service’s (NPS) preliminary plan for renovating the National Mall at a press conference in early April. Representatives of a panel assembled by the professional association spoke of the agency’s “heroic” efforts in maintaining the Mall in the midst of a “crisis of maintenance,” and largely supported the measures the Park Service intends to pursue to repair the monumental swath of property stretching from Capitol Hill to the Lincoln Memorial. The most substantive point of discussion between the ASLA panel and the NPS centered on how to ensure that the Park Service is aware of the Mall’s status as a symbolic space of various and shifting meanings, all of primary national importance, and all of which require nuanced and diverse renovation strategies.
The ASLA panel on a tour of the Mall. Photo by Jim Richards. Image courtesy of ASLA.
“This plan must address the many layers of this place,” said ASLA President and Panel Chair Angela Dye. “It’s an international symbol, it’s a national stage, it’s an urban civic space, and, of course, it’s a neighborhood park.”
“The Mall isn’t just one thing,” said panel member Robin Abrams, AIA, an architecture professor at North Carolina State University. “It’s a gradation that goes all the way from Union Station, which is a piazza, down to Constitution Gardens, which is a park. Everything should reflect an understanding of that.”
The six-person ASLA panel included landscape architects, architects, and an urban planner and met in March for two days with the NPS to take tours of the Mall to formulate their response to the Park Service’s preliminary plan.
This collaboration gave the panel an opportunity to document the Mall’s long list of ills. The ASLA group says that the National Mall and Washington, D.C., monumental core suffer from cracked and broken pathways, sinking seawalls, sick and dying trees, soil that’s been compacted into a concrete-like density, and stagnant water features that are harmful to local waterfowl. During a tour of Union Square on the west end of the Capitol, Dye pointed out haphazardly placed asphalt sidewalks that slice through the Capitol grounds at seemingly arbitrary paths next to informal, ad-hoc pathways formed by visitors’ own circulation preferences. Further west on the Mall, gravel paths placed over former paved roadways formed puddles far too large and plentiful to be easily avoided after a morning of steady rain. Some of these issues might have been addressed with the $200 million allocated for the Mall in the original version of the federal economic stimulus bill passed in February, but when this measure became politically sensitive and was derided as funding for “sod,” congressional legislators removed it. The Mall already has $395 million in deferred maintenance costs, according to the NPS.
“This symbol of democracy should sit among the world’s top public spaces, yet deplorable conditions are an international embarrassment,” said Dye. “The landscape falls horrifically short of its promise and importance.”
Congress and the president will still have to approve any funding for the National Mall, and Dye says they have good reason to. She asserts that such a project will create jobs in the midst of a recession and can show other cities how to develop green and sustainable infrastructure. Neither the ASLA panel nor the NPS have budget estimates for the preliminary plan yet.
Nor would the panel or the NPS consider what’s been planned so far a definitive design effort. “We’re not doing a design here,” says Susan Spain, a project executive at the NPS in charge of the preliminary plan’s development. “We’re doing a diagram of what can happen where.”
The to-do list
The panel’s response serves primarily to guide the NPS though the various professional lenses by which the diverse group sees—the built environment, the natural landscape, and the city’s urban fabric. The NPS has called for a wholesale renovation of Union Square and the adjacent Grant Memorial, and the panel agrees with this. But they’ve also advocated for an international design competition to remediate this site. “It shouldn’t be something that’s solved through a master plan by the Park Service,” said Abrams.
Harry Hunderman, FAIA, a panel member and principal at Wiss Janey Elstner Associates in Northbrook, Ill., stressed the need to knit together this urban plaza with the surrounding infrastructure. “It’s hard to look at Union Square as an isolated piece of land without looking at its relationship to the termination of Pennsylvania Ave. on one side, Maryland Ave. on the other, and the Capitol grounds on both sides,” he said.
The panel strongly agreed with Congress’s declaration that there should be no new construction on the Mall, and they oppose calls to build many new visitor and interpretive spaces for individual monuments. The NPS would like to create a central visitor welcome plaza at the Smithsonian subway stop on the Mall, and the ASLA panel has suggested using the adjacent and currently unused Smithsonian Arts and Industries building for this purpose, similar to the Smithsonian’s own use of its Castle building as a visitor interpretive center.
Both the NPS and the ASLA panel have made it clear that they want the Mall to be renovated as sustainably as possible so that its landscapes can be rehabilitated into self-sustaining ecosystems. The ASLA group brought their own Sustainable Sites landscape sustainability rating system (which is currently still in development) into the conversation, saying that using this system on the heavily trafficked National Mall would be an unparalleled learning opportunity for Americans curious about sustainable design. A significant part of the NPS plan concerns pavement and path building features, and the ASLA panel reiterated the need for path materials and features that embraces the different sections, uses, and conceptions of space (park, plaza, and garden) in the National Mall. Abrams, an architect and landscape architect, said this was an issue the panel invested a lot of energy into. “That may have been a bit beyond the Park Service’s view of things,” she said. “The Park Service is doing the best job they can [considering] the massive visitation, but, at the same time, I’m not sure how focused even their greatest experts might be on the design of urban spaces. They’re a park service. They’re not urbanists.”
City and landscape
To come up with the best possible design, the ASLA panel urged intense collaboration among the many agencies and stakeholders (the NPS, National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), Smithsonian Institution, National Gallery of Art, etc.) with jurisdiction over the Mall and its environs. From the panel’s report: “All plans must appropriately recognize that residents’ and visitors' experiences of the city are not defined by jurisdictional boundaries.”
Spain says the NPS has seen an “unprecedented level of cooperation” with the 15 other agencies they have been working with on this plan. The Park Service is asking for lots of professional input on their preliminary plan and has already received 27,000 public comments.
The most important reason to push for inter-agency collaboration is to try to better integrate the Mall into the urban fabric of Washington, D.C. “We have to work together to determine how this great expression of our natural heritage can live up to its immense legacy,” said Gary Hilderbrand, a landscape architect panel member and principal of Reed Hilderbrand Associates.
He suggests using the rich canopy of elms as a device to connect the city to the Mall. “There is an ecology, a biology to the city that must be revitalized,” Hilderbrand said.
Such a connection between the monumental core on the Mall and the surrounding city is a primary goal of the NCPC Framework Plan, and this document and the NPS plan will need to be closely aligned. The Framework Plan intends to reduce pressure on the National Mall by redeveloping other parts of the city to contain the high-traffic monuments that are currently clustered on the Mall. This plan envisions a more mixed-use, urban, fine-grained development model for D.C.’s urban core that can situate tourist vistas and attractions not as isolated objects in a landscape, but as iconic objects in an active and lively urban fabric—quite a change from the city’s arid and empty federal office plazas.
Level of dialogue
Of all the development plans the Mall has experienced in its 200-year history, the ASLA panel paid special attention to the McMillan Plan of 1901. They regarded this as the definitive landscape planning statement since Pierre L’Enfant’s original design for a new capital city street grid with broad, axial and diagonal avenues and view corridors. The AIA was heavily involved in the McMillan Plan’s proposal and implementation, which largely took place during the first three decades of the 20th century. That commission brought together the finest civic design minds of the day (e.g., Frederick Law Olmstead, Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim, and Augustus St. Gaudens) to tackle the development of the nation’s front lawn. Abrams noted that a later renovation plan from the 1960s and ’70s saw Eero Saarinen and landscape architect Hideo Sasaki collaborating on a design for Constitution Gardens. “To me, it’s exciting to think of Saarinen and Sasaki sitting around a table,” Abrams said, “and we need that level of dialogue today.”