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Does Washington, D.C., Need a Climate-Change Memorial?

This proposed monument would have rising seas slowly drown D.C.’s famous cherry trees.

Azimuth Land Craft

One of the most iconic sights in Washington, D.C.—its Japanese cherry trees, exploding like frozen fireworks each spring—is also likely to be among its first casualties of climate change. As the seas rise, many of the waterfront trees will be subsumed by the muddy Potomac River, perhaps necessitating a laborious relocation to higher ground.

Or, we could just let them perish. That’s the core idea of a new proposal for a global-warming memorial on Hains Point, a riverside park area that’s already a regular victim of flooding. “Climate Chronograph,” which has won the Memorials for the Future Competition put on by the National Park Service, National Capital Planning Commission, and the Van Alen Institute, would install a sloped grove of cherry trees along the Potomac. As the river gets higher, the trees would drown row by row, creating a tangible timeline of global warming from sublime blossoms and rotten, leafless boughs.

Azimuth Land Craft

Azimuth Land Craft, the Oakland architectural firm that designed the memorial, calls it a “processional tidal gauge” that would kill four rows of trees for every foot of sea-level rise. Here’s more from Azimuth’s Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter:

“Climate Chronograph” is slow, offering us an opportunity to shift our current, accelerationist thinking into a longer multi-generational time frame. Locals may witness a gradual progression of rising seas, whereas out-of-town visitors may never experience the same memorial twice. Imagine a young American’s staple eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C.: one row of inundated trees. During a college protest: three flooded rows. When she returns later in life with her children: seven rows of rampikes. Transformation of the memorial mirrors transformation in the world, and bears witness to the changes wrought on a landscape over time. When our children and our children’s children visit, it becomes a legible demonstration of generational-paced change.

The concept is simple enough, yet quietly devastating. And compared to some of the other jarringly immense or poorly considered memorials that crowd D.C., its sylvan beauty—with no gold leaf or chiseled inscriptions in sight—is refreshing. Given the pace of climate action in Congress, though, don’t expect this to be any more than a concept for quite some time.

“Climate Chronograph,” along with proposed memorials from contest finalists, is on display until October 20 in the John F. Kennedy Center’s Hall of Nations.

Azimuth Land Craft

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.