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A National Mall People Actually Want To Visit

Right now, the National Mall resembles nothing so much as an empty high school football field. But it could be much, much better.

As a longtime (and loyal) resident of Washington, D.C., I can wax at some length about the many things that make our city great, from the L’Enfant Plan to the Metro to Blues Alley, from Rock Creek Park to our traditional neighborhood architecture. I truly love this city.

And yet. Some of our grandest spaces just leave me kind of blah. Up close, the National Mall – the nation’s front yard, some have called it – is one of them. It works best from a distance: from an airplane, maybe, or from the top of the Washington Monument or the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It used to be impressive also from the portico of the U.S. Capitol’s west front; alas, that view is no longer available to us.

But it doesn't work as a place to experience, to be inside, at least not for me. And one of the problems is that one can’t really be "inside," for the most part. Few of its spaces have a sense of enclosure, and some of them are just too vast for my taste. It’s like being on your random, poorly maintained high school football field when there’s no game going on (albeit with a major federal building or two in the distance).

Now, some of the things that line the Mall – the major monuments and museums, the Smithsonian Castle, the carousel, the ice rink, the East Wing of the National Gallery, we all have our favorites – are fabulous. But the Mall itself feels empty. One goes to the Mall to visit a nearby building, not to experience a great urban park, as one might in London to visit some of the lovely parks and gardens that more or less continuously link some of that city's major sights, from Kensington Palace to Buckingham Palace, and on to Downing Street and the government offices at Whitehall. While our Mall is more formally structured, to be sure, in my opinion it could be majestic and still produce grand vistas without seeming so barren.

There’s a longer post to be written about all this, and how the compulsion to build countless bland monuments to everyone and everything on or near the Mall doesn’t help. But for today I’ll just note that help could be on the way at least for certain corners of it – Constitution Gardens, in between the Reflecting Pool and Constitution Avenue; the Sylvan Theatre site on the Washington Monument grounds; and Union Square, in front of the Capitol. There are design competitions going on to remake all three, sponsored by the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall. You can see renderings of some of the entries with this post. 


I found them on one of the Smithsonian Institution's sites, and also via an unsigned article on the wonderful blog of the American Society of Landscape Architects, The Dirt. ASLA writes:

Many of the world’s top landscape architects and architects presented their designs for three grand projects on the National Mall: Constitution Gardens, Union Square, and the Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre. The competition is fierce because all the design proposals offer elegant, exciting, innovative ideas for solving sticky ecological, security, and public space design challenges. Each proposal may reflect a $100,000 or more of conceptual and design work. But all that work may actually be worth it: the pay-off could be big for these top designers. Some $700 million in public and private funds are expected to be raised to make these projects a reality. Also, in the U.S. at least, few sites would get more visitors than a major new site in the city of monuments.”

Both articles describe and comment on some of the proposals, ASLA noting that each of the entries was prepared by a team comprising both architecture and landscape architecture firms. I haven’t followed the links to examine the proposals in detail, and none of them will correct my biggest issue with the Mall, which is that its wide open spaces are too wide and too open to be people-scaled. 

It may be that security concerns (sigh) are working against creating more spaces that feel intimate, and that’s a shame. But some (not all) of the renderings look provocative in a good way, and I especially like the ones I see for the Union Square area.

Unfortunately, that is the part of the trio whose fate is most uncertain. Congress recently transferred jurisdiction over Union Square to the Architect of the Capitol, and away from the National Park Service, which oversees most of the Mall. As the ASLA article notes, all we can do is hope that the Square’s new custodians will respect the design process that had already been initiated when the transfer was made.  The winning designs for each of the three sites will be announced on May 3.

In my opinion, the Mall has a long way to go to become a place for people, rather than a place from which to view grandeur in the distance.  I would like to see it become the kind of great public amenity that would be a worthy destination for residents and visitors alike, even if the Smithsonian and the other museums and galleries weren’t there. Maybe this process is a start?  

Top Image courtesy Flickr user Stijn Debrouwere. Renderings courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.