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Archive for the ‘National Mall’ Category


After two years of internal debate among 17 different federal agencies and the D.C. government, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) released its long-awaited plans for a new Southwest Eco-District designed to undo the worst damage of the massive “urban renewal” projects inflicted on L’Enfant neighborhood over the past decades. Designed to transform the spooky, almost pedestrian-free area just south of the Mall into a highly sustainable, people-friendly cultural and business destination, the Eco-district plan means to take on many challenges at once. As Elizabeth Miller, ASLA, the intrepid landscape architect who is guiding the project, explained, this 110-acre, 15-square block project is meant to showcase “high performance buildings and landscapes” while creating space for 19,000 new federal workers and solving some of the worst pedestrian access problems.

At the beginning of the hearing today, NCPC Chairman L. Preston Bryant, Jr said the project can go a long way to “breathing new life into the city.” While the whole Eco-District may take 20 or 30 years to design and implement, “we have a once in a generation opportunity to make this happen.” He added that NCPC and its many federal partners are eager to move forward because there are some synergies that make the timing right: The Department of Energy (DOE) building is “coming to a lifecycle decision,” meaning that it’s ready to be torn down because it’s now highly inefficient in terms of energy and water use; the Southwest waterfront plans are moving forward, with $2 billion in private sector investment set; and the D.C. government-led Maryland Avenue redevelopment project is on its way.

Miller outlined a vision for an Eco-District that provokes the imagination, at least among sustainable designers. She said the new District will “capture, manage, and reuse water, energy, and waste” and work beyond a single building, leveraging clusters of buildings to create a new system. At the same time, the plan will take aim at the incredible lack of public access — the barriers, the highways, and grade changes — that keep people away, except for the federal workers that have to go there for work.

Diane Sullivan, sustainability planner for NCPC, said a sustainable mixed-use community will arise out of a set of new “guidelines, objectives” that will frame neighborhood development efforts and the creation of new environmental systems.

On developing the neighborhood, Sullivan said that a user survey of D.C. residents found that the lack of amenities was the overwhelming reason why people didn’t want to move down there or even hang out there. So the goal is create a new tree-lined 10th street (or L’Enfant Place) that can connect the Mall to the new Southwest waterfront development while also making that connection itself an exciting cultural destination, lined with 1.2 million square feet in new space for up to 5 new museums, along with farmers’ markets and other draws.


Better pedestrian access is also key to making all this work. In the new plans, Miller said Virginia and Maryland Avenues will re-appear, carving new paths through new buildings as park-like avenues for promenading. Sullivan said the new local street designs cutting up the mega-blocks are still being worked out. She asked, “which streets should be monumental? Which should be local?”

To better get those pedestrians — all those federal workers — to the area, a “better inter-modal system” will be put in place, with a revamped, solar roofed-L’Enfant station, offering both commuter rail and Metro. To ease pressure off Union Station, more commuter rail may be directed there somehow.


The saving grace of the scary L’Enfant Place now is the fountain in Dan Kiley’s Modern-era Benjamin Banneker park, with its dramatic overlook across the Washington Channel. Unfortunately, the rest of Kiley’s park was not well realized. With spaghetti loops of highways cutting through, it’s a matter of taking your life in your own hands to go from the park to the waterfront. In the new plans, Kiley’s park will be completely redone but the area will still serve as a monument to African American surveyor Banneker. The new, more sustainable park will more easily connect to the waterfront while providing a new visual identity for the “eco” part of the district.


Now, on the systems that will make the district more eco: First, many of the old federal buildings will go, getting a revamp so they meet the goals of Obama’s Executive Order 13514, which calls for federal agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy use. The ones that stay, like the famed Brutalist HUD building, will be updated to be more efficient.

Sullivan said the goal is to have “zero-net energy district as measured in carbon.” Pretty near impossible unless fully renewable power is the rule for the new Eco-District. Sullivan said solar PVs and solar thermal systems (for hot water) will be added to the roofs of the new buildings wherever possible, while ground-source heat will also be tapped. A central facility run by GSA, which runs on natural gas, will still be used (but that won’t get them to zero emissions).

Heading down towards the water, the freeway that cuts off the connection between Benjamin Banneker park and the waterfront will be capped with a new layer covered in solar panels.

For water, the goal is to reduce potable water use throughout the Eco-District by 70 percent and manage all stormwater where it falls. All building greywater will be reused while blackwater will go to the new anaerobic plant. Rainwater will be caught by acres of green roofs (including edible ones), green streets, trees, and planters. What isn’t caught will be funneled into cisterns underneath 10th street and used later. Green infrastructure is then clearly a central part of the strategy. Permeable areas overall are to grow to 35 percent, while the tree canopy is to reach 40 percent (a solid target). (Right now, the barren area has just 8 percent tree cover). While we didn’t hear anything substantive about creating a wildlife-friendly landscape designed to attract diverse species, we hope that’s in the works.


There are more ambitious goals for waste reductions: Some 75 percent of construction materials for the new buildings will be reused, and 80 percent of everyday waste will be diverted from the landfill. A composting program will be put in place, too.

So, how will this all actually work? Sullivan sees some government buildings first getting a light rehabilitation and then others will undergo a full rehabilitation. Three federal buildings will be “re-purposed” as major infill development begins. Then, big redevelopment will start over the freeway. At the same time, critical projects like a new Banneker park and a new 10th street landscape will begin next year.

What’s this all going to cost? Miller and Sullivan said an economic feasibility study only provided some high-level numbers, but they did say the federal government would make back its multibillion dollar investment over 20 years through reduced energy, water, and waste fees; increased revenues from private sector developers; and improved local tax gains.

While we hope this project is a sure thing, new governance structures and partnership and financing agreements will need to be worked out among all the partners, including the private sector developers who are key to making this all happen. Let’s hope this is not a protracted process. As the Eco-District gets moving, it can become an innovative showcase for how to revamp government hubs across the U.S.

Learn more about the bold plans. D.C. residents can attend a public hearing on the proposals on July 19. The comment period will be open for three months. Comments will be incorporated into a final plan ready to go by early 2013. By the end of next year, NCPC hopes to have design competitions launched for a new Banneker park and 10th street, its two priority public projects.

Image credit: ZGF Architects, courtesy of NCPC

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The winners of the National Mall design competition took center stage at the National Building Museum last night. Beating out an amazing set of competitors, these landscape architects and architects presented their visions for Constitution GardensThe Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre, and Union Square, all key sites on the Mall. In a win for us all, these design professionals almost entirely avoided “design speak,” instead using eloquent, even poetic language to describe their approach to the many design, bureaucratic, and financial challenges facing them. Only a few times did we hear off-putting words like “horizontality” or “materiality.” Expertly moderated by John Beardsley, director of the garden and landscape studies program at Dumbarton Oaks, each design team explained their solutions and answered questions:

Constitution Gardens

Adam Greenspan, ASLA, Peter Walker and Partners, and Robert Rogers, Rogers Marvel Architects, said Constitution Gardens is unlike any other place on the Mall, offering a break from the “formality” of the monumental structures and spaces. Unfortunately, though, the gardens, which were created by architecture firm SOM and landscape architect Dan Kiley in the 1960s, are “dying,” said Greenspan. Hundreds of trees have collapsed over the years and been replaced. The soils have “slumped” and the edge of Kiley’s concrete-lined pond has fallen apart.

The original design was inspired by Roberto Burle Marx’s “biomorphic modernism.” Honoring the past design intent, Greenspan said he liked “that it’s an alternate reality, or that it should be.” To enhance this sense of separation from the Mall, the design team raised the outer edge near the street, bringing the grade up by 8 feet in order to create that “ensconced feeling” and block out traffic noises. Paths will cut through the raised grades, creating more defined access points. “There will now be clear entries into the garden,” said Rogers.

The entire space will be dug out and rebuilt to be a “regenerative landscape.” The soils will be reconstructed to provide a more solid foundation for a range of new plants. The majority of spaces will be meadows and lawns, with some woodlands, and new wetland plants ringing the outer edge of a new pond. Plant and animal life will be self-contained within the new gardens. Trees that can survive will be reused. Specimen trees will be moved to new spots. The lake water itself will now funnel in through the Lincoln reflecting pool and will be designed so it can be periodically flushed out with fresh water from the Tidal Basin. It won’t just be an ecological wonderland though; it will also be beautiful. “At the edge of the pond, there will be an aesthetic ecology,” with “clear sweeps of color.”


Within the man-made pond, a new reflecting pool, a circle, will act as a separate basin. There, a ring around the circle will enable kids to launch toy boats. In winter, that part can be turned into a skating rink. This won’t be a tiny spot for a single loop though. Greenspan said the skating rink is “hockey rink-sized.”

Rogers said a new pavilion will be built on the site of the original SOM proposal, but be brought closer to the lake to create a “dynamic engagement with the water.” A clear frame of a building — a “simple thing you move through for circulation” — will provide a “threshhold moment” for visitors. There, large sets of stairs will help the National Park Service better handle the crowds. The upper level, which will include a restaurant for both tourists and locals alike, will offer a “respite, a view out onto the gardens.”


The goal of the design is to “maintain the clean, clear geometry of the lake,” said Greenspan, while “maintaining the optimism of Modernism on the Mall.” As seasons change, paths will also emerge through the trees to the nearby Vietnam War memorial. Still, this is a new place. “With the change in vertical grade, planting systems, we will change the vibe.”


Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre

The National Mall is the nation’s “center stage,” a vital place for “communion,” said Marion Weiss, Weiss/Manfredi, the architecture firm on the project. Originally intended to be the place where the dynamism of Shakespeare Theatre was brought to the Mall, the Sylvan Theatre has a “great history.” While the team will respect that history, Skip Graffam, ASLA, OLIN, said the team will also “charter a future course for the site.”


The Sylvan Theatre is at the edge of “very popular spaces” on the Mall so it needs to be flexible and resilient to foot traffic and concert use. It’s also a challenged site because that’s where all the tour buses park, spilling out many of the 24 million tourists who visit the Mall each year. Focusing on the site as an edge, Graffam said one of the key design goals was to better connect the site to the Tidal Basin, while also enabling different sized crowds. Their vision laid out how the space could expand to hold 100, 1,000, or even 10,000 concert goers through a bowl shape, peeled-up to hide the buses and facilities behind. The new bowl-shaped amphitheatre will “open its arms to the Washington Monument.”


A Sylvan Grove will help extend the tree canopy and connect the trees of the Mall and Tidal Basin. The team is also taking advantage of opportunities to “reconnect the southern monument grounds to the waterfront” so more people can access the water and nature. Elm trees, set in boscs and allees, will serve as a foundation for a new habitat designed for both people and nature. “There’s also a conservation element. We’re removing 60 percent of the turf,” said Graffam.


The back-side of the peeled-up amphitheatre will serve as a “gateway,” with a pavilion shrouded in landscape. Rain garden-covered roofs will help keep the “topography low.” Within the facilities, there’s a new cafe that mimics the grove, with roof structures that create the effect of light pouring through a forest. 


Weiss thinks the new space can be a “high-performance landscape,” providing both a space for performances and many types of biophilic experiences. “The site can be magical.”


Union Square


“This is a site with identity problems,” said Peter Cook, Davis Brody Bond, the architect working with landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) on Union Square. “Where is it? No one knows.” In fact, it’s the 27-acre space that holds the 6-acre reflecting pool right in front of the Capitol building. Over 200 years, the site has evolved. French architect and urban planner Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who designed the city with African American surveyor Benjamin Banneker, saw the spot as a public space, a plaza for the masses. Later plans covered the site in trees. Only with the McMillan plan was the Mall — and all that public space — created and the fountain and plaza brought back. At that point, the “site became an extension of the Mall,” though, losing its identity.

At its best, the space is a “grand gesture,” which gives visual form to the Capitol, said Rodrigo Abela, ASLA, the landscape architect who runs GGN’s east coast projects. But, mostly, it’s a “underwhelming, underutilized site” that hasn’t lived up to its potential for “very powerful experiences.” The site is part of the critical line running through the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial so this project is crucial.

GGN and Davis Brody Bond’s design “takes the full square and breaks it into parts.” To keep the monumentality of the Mall, there’s a new reflecting pool, much narrower than the current one. Two national gardens on either side better knit the site into existing pathways to Union Station, the Mall, and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.’s undulating Capitol Hill grounds. Breaking the site up introduces “multiple scales” and provides “greater definition to an amorphous space.” Now, there’s a “space that draws you in.”

Zooming into the terraces (above) that now line the central reflecting pool, you can see the 3-foot grades that lead down to the water, which sub-divide the spaces and offer increased security. The water itself will now be changeable. There are cascading pools running perpindicular to the east end of the grand water-scape. Jets can be turned on on weekends and used for special events. Walkways enable visitors to now walk through the pools, instead of hoofing it all the way around the edges. One or more areas of the water can be turned off, expanding the space for public events or protests. “Flexible spaces enable a diversity of expression,” something the current design fails to do.



Reducing the depth of the water to 2-inches means far less water will need to be collected from nearby buildings and underground. The team argues this makes the new feature far more sustainable (and beautiful). Indeed, right now, the reflecting pool is a great place to see dead birds and trash floating. The goal is to create a “high-performing space” that can be used 24/7.


After the presentations, Beardsley asked pointed questions, wondering whether the new designs truly are more sustainable, considering the designers almost all introduce more complex planting and stormwater management systems. Given the National Park Service barely has the funds and capacity to handle what’s there now, can the new systems work? The design teams argued that turf is actually harder to manage than more ecological systems. Also, the introduction of dedicated hardscapes — paths for people — mean “the plantings can be given a chance to survive.” These days, so much of the vegetation looks trampled, under siege from the hordes of tourists.

Can the designs accomodate future unexpected uses?, Beardsley wondered. Rogers said “creating focused, controlled entry points” will help limit those unexpected uses. Beardsley also asked whether the new buildings proposed in all sites will alter the careful balance struck on the Mall, which tilts in favor of the landscape. Weiss says her buildings, at least, “submit to the larger landscape. We respect the broader landscape, putting the Monument at center stage.” Rogers thinks his new pavilion in Constitution Gardens is “just enough building,” and given it’s set within the tree canopy, “doesn’t engage with the rest of the Mall.” There were more questions about lighting, the economics of these spaces, and security, which will all need to be answered once the money is raised and designs move towards implementation.

Image credits: (1-5) Constitution Gardens / Peter Walker and Partners and Rogers Marvel Architects, (6-10) The Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre / Weiss/Manfredi and OLIN, (11-15) Union Square / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol and Davis Brody Bond

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The Trust for the National Mall announced the winners of the national design competition for three distinct sites on the National Mall today. While the competition was stiff, the jury went with Rogers Marvel Architects & landscape architecture firm Peter Walker and Partners for Constitution Gardens, landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol and architecture firm Davis Brody Bond for Union Square, and landscape architecture firm OLIN and architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi for the Sylvan Theatre at the Washington Monument Grounds. Each team is a collaboration between a landscape architecture and architecture firm, a joint 50-50 effort.

A number of winners have already done beautiful work in D.C. OLIN redesigned the Washington Monument grounds, a project defined by its subtle and elegant approach to security, and the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, one of D.C.’s most beloved spaces. Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, which won the National Design Award for landscape design last year, recently broke ground on the new landscape design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, expected to open on the Mall in 2015. They also created one of the most unique public spaces in the city: the Kogod Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery.

Former First Lady Laura Bush, Honor Chair of the Campaign for the National Mall (and lead fundraiser for the new landscapes and buildings, which are expected to cost hundreds of millions), said: “The design competition produced beautiful, thoughtful solutions to improve this iconic space.” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Hon. ASLA, added: “The National Mall Design Competition concepts are grand, respectful, sustainable, and beautiful; in short, they are worthy to be a part of this important and iconic space.” Caroline Cunningham, President of the Trust for the National Mall, sees these projects as not only best practices in urban park design but also “models of sustainability.”


Indeed, the mall needs some models of sustainability. It has taken a long time for sustainable landscape design to come to the nation’s capital, but Susan Spain, ASLA, project executive for the National Mall at the National Park Service, has publicly committed to using Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) guidelines to revitalize the landscapes in the federal zone. In fact, right now, much of the National Mall is being dug up and restructured with highly sustainable soils, grasses, and water management systems that will not only better cope with the 25 million visitors and thousands of events that occur there each year, but also provide the foundation for a more ecological system. We hope the three winning design teams will also use SITES best practices in these high-profile projects.


The next step: raise the money. Half of the $700 million will need to come from the private sector. For this big job, the Trust for the National Mall will continue to host fundraisers, which all philanthropists interested in the built environment and the shape of the capital should attend. The Trust will then starting working with the designers and the National Park Service to implement the designs for Constitution Gardens and the Sylvan Theatre at the Washington Monument Grounds. We can only assume that the Architect of the Capitol is also moving forward with the Union Square redesign as there have been no public announcements taking that piece out of contention.  

Explore the winning designs by OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + David Brody Bond, and Rogers Marvel Architects + PWP Landscape Architecture

Other news for landscape architects: Boston-based Stoss Landscape Urbanism, led by Chris Reed, ASLA, won the National Design Award in landscape design this year. The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum said: “Stoss has distinguished itself for a hybridized approach rooted in infrastructure, functionality, and ecology.” Stoss’ projects include the CityDeck in Green Bay, WI; Erie Street Plaza in Milwaukee, WI; The Plaza at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA; and Bass River Park on Cape Cod. Also worth noting: Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, and co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild, won the “design mind” award.  

Image credits: (1) OLIN + Weiss / Manfredi, (2) Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + Davis Brody Bond, (3) Rogers Marvel Architects + Peter Walker and Partners

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Susan Hatchell, FASLA, president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), gave this speech to an online audience of nearly one million Sunday, April 22, on the National Mall. Of the many organizations and businesses represented, ASLA was the only design organization focused on sustainability presenting on the Mall.

I am Susan Hatchell, president of the American Society of Landscape Architects. It is truly an honor to share this day with you.

Earth Day has a very special meaning for me, because the message and principles of Earth Day led me to a profession that I love and admire.

Landscape architects have been Green Since 1899! That is the year ASLA was founded by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, the designers of such iconic landscapes as New York City’s Central Park and the grounds of this very Capitol. 

As we celebrate Earth Day, let’s talk about how landscape architects create a more sustainable, livable, and beautiful world.

From its beginning, the profession’s mission has been to lead, to educate, and to participate in the careful stewardship, wise planning, and artful design of our cultural and natural environments.

Landscape architects design for all of us. We design residential landscapes, bike networks, hiking trails, transportation corridors, campuses, office grounds, green roofs, and public parks. We focus on planning, designing, and building an infrastructure of GREEN that knits all of our communities together.

Flying over many major cities today, you will see a checkerboard of green, growing roofs that naturally cool the air, remove pollutants, and capture rainwater.

Along with green roofs, green streets use trees, swales, permeable paving, and rain gardens to hold and cleanse rain water, instead of letting it pour right into our waterways untreated, full of oil, chemicals, and other pollutants. Green roofs and green streets also cool our cities, make them beautiful, and provide animal habitat.

As landscape architects design beautiful urban spaces, streetscapes and parks they encourage people to abandon their cars and walk. This saves energy and reduces pollution and as a bonus it can also help people lose weight, lower blood pressure, and improve their well being.

In New York City, the High Line Park converted an abandoned elevated train line into a walkable, fun, urban wonder.

In Chicago, the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park recreates natural, native landscapes – a prairie! –  in the heart of a major urban city.

ASLA is working with the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the U.S. Botanic Garden on the launch of the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES). This will be the first rating system for sustainable landscapes, with or without buildings.

Pilot projects of all types and all over the world are in different stages of pursuing SITES certification. The Sustainable Sites Initiative demonstrates how determined we are not to hurt the Earth, but to heal it.

Our communities must tackle so many problems – from decaying infrastructure to natural disasters caused by climate change to health epidemics created by our auto-centric lifestyles. As we work to fix these problems, make sure landscape architects are at the table.

Landscape architects bring history, expertise, and passion to today’s cause of “Mobilizing the Earth.”

Thursday is Fredrick Law Olmsted’s birthday! I hope you will join landscape architects all across the nation — Get outside and celebrate with YOUR environment!

Image credit: Marianne Meyer

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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.

One worrying wrinkle: Congress recently decided to transfer control of Union Square, the 11-acre reflecting pool area in front of the Capitol, to the Architect of the Capitol, a group that may take that piece out of contention. We hope that the Architect of the Capitol will move forward with the process and work together with the Trust for the National Mall to revitalize this critical public space. ASLA’s blue-ribbon panel of landscape architects recommended a re-design in a review of the National Park Service’s plan a few years ago.

A brief overview of design proposals for each are listed below, alphabetically. Each team is a true collaboration, a 50-50 effort between a landscape architecture and architecture firm.

Constitution Gardens

All design proposals seem to focus on ecologically restoring Constitution Gardens and improving access to the lake and nature. All offer new multi-functional structures, some of which are designed to almost seamlessly integrate with the landscape.

Andropogon + Bohlin Cywinski Jackson: For this design team featuring Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm Andropogon, the new Constitution garden could be a place of “respite, regeneration and romance.” The team offers a “biophilic design” that “harnesses nature to transform Constitution Gardens into a picture of healthy water, soil, foilage, habitat, and people.” In the lake, a new waterfall bridge would encourage fun interactions with nature.

Nelson Byrd Woltz Landcape Architects + Paul Murdoch Architects: This design team, which includes landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, offers another biophilic approach, with what looks like a proposal for a major ecological restoration. Reconstructed wetlands will be accessible via boardwalks that jut out into the water, while a performance space somewhat concealed in the landscape offers views of the lake and gardens.  

OLIN + Weiss / Manfredi: OLIN, a landscape architecture firm that has done lots of work on the National Mall, works with Weiss / Manfredi to offer “Living Waters: A Museum without Walls, a model for integrating social activity and green infrastructure into our national cultural landscape.” The design team proposes a “layered approach” that “brings the health of the water and surrounding landscape into balance and introduces a new collection of indoor and outdoor ecologically vibrant destinations.”

Rogers Marvel Architects + PWP Landscape Architecture: Rogers Marvel Architects, which just won the national competition to redesign the Ellipse, presents a proposal with PWP Landscape Architecture that honors the “clear and optimistic legacy of Constitution Gardens through amplified morphology, aesthetic ecology, and pastoral recreation. A vibrant haven on the National Mall.” A pavilion restaurant would look out on the lake and gardens. In the winter, a skating rink would appear.

Union Square

All designs seem to bring Union Square more in line with the existing streets and avenues, while offering an ecologically-sound, secure, and flexible space for free speech.  


Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Hood Design: This design team, which includes Walter Hood, FASLA, recent National Design Award winner, says their proposal integrates “the rich architectural legacies, natural ecologies, civic vitality, and political centrality of Washington D.C. into a new synthesis.” Their proposal would catch water in a basin, and then feed it through a new set of wetlands ringing Union Square. The water cleansed by the wetlands would then feed into a new reflecting pool, which would serve as a platform for speech. A microphone would turn visitors’ voices into waves on the pool.  

Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + David Brody Bond: This team with Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, a landscape architecture firm that has done a number of projects in Washington, D.C. (including the new CityCenter), would create a highly flexible space that can reconfigure itself for different uses. A design with multiple layers and different “rooms,” there are plans for new site hydrologic systems, soils, plants, and sustainable materials. A more limited reflecting pool is found between steps set in lush botanical gardens.

Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect + Pei Cobb Freed & Partners: Landscape architect Ken Smith, ASLA, and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners offers a highly flexible, oval reflecting pool ringed by a “fountain necklace.” Diagonals across the pool serve as dividing lines and show how the pool can disappear in segments if hardscapes are needed for protests. Thick stone benches would provide a place to contemplate the Capitol, while a rich planting scheme would be set within bronze-plated walls, included for security reasons.

Snohetta + AECOM: Architecture firm Snohetta, which is now redesigning the Times Square pedestrian mall, and AECOM, which recently purchased landscape architecture firm EDAW, presents a new “circular and sloping theatre-like platform” that would rise seven feet above nearby streets, perhaps for security reasons. “Vernal gardens” with “integrated benches and new natural landscape forms” will provide a “discreet” security barrier, while also reintroducing the indigineous landscape. On either side of the sloping theatre, a set of “undulating” trellises would mimic the movement of eagles’ wings.

The Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre

All designs create multiple performance spaces and integrate restaurants, restrooms, and bicycle and bus access into the new setting. All the designs would transform a dull, underused part of the mall into one of the most exciting draws, while linking the theatre area with the ecological systems of the Tidal Basin.

Balmori Associates + Work Architecture Company: Landscape and urban design firm Balmori Associates, which has done the master plan and parks for the new waterfront Bilbao, and Work Architecture Company seek to create multiple outdoor performance spaces, including a Sylvan Theatre with its Sylan “bowl,” a recessed natural seating area; Courtyard Stage; Cherry Grove Stage; Oak Grove Stage; along with other outdoor spaces, including a playground, bike rental stand, and restaurant. One key goal is to “impart the feeling that the new landscape belongs there, that it fits within the range of diverse forms and programs of the Mall.”


Diller, Scofidio and Renfro + Hood Design: One of the few design teams offering proposals for two sites, this design team proposes a landscape that is “figuratively ‘peeled up’ to create a new structure that serves as both outdoor theater and building program, blurring the lines between nature and artifice.” Their design uses the curves in the “peeled-up” areas to create seating for multiple stages, while the underneath of the curves present ecological experiences for visitors and spaces for restaurants. 

Michael Maltzan Architecture + Tom Leader Studio: This team, which includes landscape architecture firm Tom Leader Studio, seeks to renew the site’s “connection to the Tidal Basin, drawing the elms, lindens, and oaks to the Monument. Creating a partnership with, rather than a dominion over, nature, biology, and water keeps with the agrarian philosophies of our Nation’s founders.” The design is defined by a “sweeping, centripetal” design with a multi-purpose facility that has an Oculus at its center. A stage can fold out into a huge pavilion.

OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi: Another team offering proposals in two areas, OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi, would create a new set of amphitheatres, including the Sylvan Grove, defined by a “new wooded canopy and terraced lawn,” and a Sylvan Pavilion for “impromptu performances” that would offer an “all-weather café and multi-use destination.” The design team envisions a highly sustainable “performance” landscape, connecting the Mall to the Tidal Basin.

Explore all proposals in more detail and submit your feedback before April 15 if you want your comments to reach the competition jury.

Image credit: (1) National Mall / Ftsblog.net, (2) Andropogon + Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, (3) Nelson Byrd Woltz Landcape Architects + Paul Murdoch Architects, (4) OLIN + Weiss / Manfredi, (5) Rogers Marvel Architects + PWP Landscape Architecture, (6) Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Hood Design, (7) Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + David Brody Bond, (8) Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect + Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, (9) Snohetta + AECOM, (10) Balmori Associates + Work Architecture Company, (11) Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Hood Design, (12) Michael Maltzan Architecture + Tom Leader Studio, (13) OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi

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The Washington, D.C. National Mall competition is heating up, with finalist teams selected for each site. In a session organized for the finalists by the National Endownment for the Arts (NEA), City Parks Alliance, National Capital Planning Commission, and Trust for the National Mall at the National Archives, Jason Shupbach, NEA Director of Design, said there are many new exciting models that can guide the future of public space, including “evolutionary parks,” which are older spaces that have creatively adapted to new uses, and “revolutionary parks” like parklets, which dramatically diverge from what’s been created before.

What Is the Future of Public Space?

For Tupper Thomas, former administrator of Prospect Park, the future of public space is programs. “Parks are not just a piece of open space where you recreate. Programs create appreciation and help parks become a part of a community.” In the case of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which is considered by many to be Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterpiece, it was about using programs to “get people to go in. Before, people were afraid.” Now, happily, the issue may the opposite: so many people visit each year that the park can’t hold up under the strain and more maintenance funds are needed.

New forms of public space can also come from reusing old buildings and even reconceiving the concept of a monument. Theaster Gates, an artist and cultural planner, has taken a two-story abandoned building in Chicago and turned it into a new form of cultural center in a place where there is a total absence of any community public space. Gates added that the history of monuments is usually linked to a specific history, a special story from a certain time. The new idea of a monument is “not born with purposefullness, they can be a carrier, a monument of the moment, and can accumulate stories.” These old buildings can be monuments, too.

Temporary spaces present a relatively new model. John Bela, ASLA, a landscape architect who started the now global Park(ing) Day movement and founded design firm Rebar, argued that the “idea of temporary has evolved very quickly.” His Park(ing) Day movement, which involves transforming parking spaces into small parks, led to the concept of more designed parklets (see earlier post), and now he’s working on expanding out the parklet model to the street scale with a new “Living Street” project in San Francisco, which will take derelict street and turn into a “living market space.” Bela thinks these types of temporary street park projects are extremely valuable given that 25 percent of San Francisco’s land is streets, far more than the percentage that make up parkland. In addition, temporary spaces like parklets and revamped street parks are examples of “iterative placemaking” that enable city planners and designers to “respond more quickly to the social dynamism of cities.” Instead of going through a lengthy planning process that may not even work, a physical demonstration project can quickly be put up to “test which programs are going to work.” Gates added that the short-term uses of old buildings and sites can co-exist with long-term planning for these locations.

How Can Public Spaces Fullfill the Needs of Their Audience?

Thomas believes the quality of design has a huge impact. Prospect Park may have been designed 150 years ago, but “Olmsted was ahead of his time. He had it right.” Olmsted designed the spaces to be flexible so now areas of the park are used for cricket while other host art exhibitions. It’s also about letting different communities access the park in different ways. A drummer’s grove, for example, reaches a certain audience. Education is very important. One of her goals as head of Prospect Park was to work with schools and libraries to get children to the park, where they can then “go home and tell their parents about the park” while creating connections to the spaces. 

While the Southside of Chicago may seem like a dangerous place from the outside, inside, there are just a “bunch of cool people who think this is home,” said Gates. Some people there need the city’s services, but many others need public spaces. Gates said his goal was to make his new community center forged out of abandoned buldings “seductive.” Once the building was cleaned out, he made sure he brought in the best jazz in the city. A backyard lot became a spot for the “best movies in the city.” Given the “expectations are so low,” the movie nights were a huge hit, even bringing in visitors from outside Southside.

The young generation, a key audience for parks, spends lots of time online, so leveraging social media tools is increasingly important. Bela said the Web and social media tools were central to the success of Park(ing) Day, which was designed to be open source, with free image use. An Ikea-like guide, a “Park(ing) Day how-to manual,” was also created so people could see models but also create their own. “The project then went viral and spread around the globe. The extent of the creativity was amazing. There were lots of diverse approaches.” Some better than others. Bela said you can see good from bad design based on how accessible the spaces felt, how inviting.

Do Public Spaces Need to Accomodate Protest?

“Every public space needs to accomodate protest. Every protest in the U.S. took place in parks,” said Thomas. While parks can be designed to provide spaces for protest, there’s also the issue of “the management of public spaces.” The Occupy Wall Street movement largely took root in privately-owned parks (POPs) because New York City regulations mean protesters can’t stay out or sleep in a park overnight.

Gates went further, arguing that “people around the world are losing their right to convene.” In the Southside of Chicago, where there are few conventional public spaces, “people stroll or convene on the corner.” They are then arrested for loitering and “locked up” as a result. Parks are increasingly off limits, either by design or through regulations. In effect, the fight for “spatial movement and political rights” are intertwined, meaning “our rights are infringed upon when a space isn’t available for protest.” The good news: “There’s not enough design we can do to stop people so that’s great.”

For Bela, “public spaces are a practice place.” The public defines how a public space is used and what it means. “The biggest protests we’ve had in years happened in POPs. It’s amazing that they didn’t happen in public spaces.” Furthermore, Bela thinks communities that create “niches for resistance – ‘Protest Here'” are missing what it means to protest. He pointed to landscape architecture students at the University of California Berkeley, who, once told the Occupation Wall Street movement could no longer have their tents on the campus, decided to fill tents with balloons, exploring the concept: Where is protest even possible?

“We need to be sensitive to the whole emotional range of people,” said Gates. While some city officials and park managers may seem some types of emotions as OK and not others, they need to be open to communities expressing anger, frustration, and other negative emotions, but also respecting the public space. Thomas said parks can be set up for electricity and water so there’s inherent flexibility.

What Public Should Landscape Architects Design For? 

Landscape architects “fall into a trap by designing for the public. There’s no one public. It doesn’t exist,” argued Bela. Instead, landscape architects should “design for how people actually use a space, not how they would like them to use it.” Following this idea, it’s not possible to replicate a huge success like the High Line park around the country because that park was driven by “vocal, committed community activists” from Chelsea. The process of creating public spaces then needs to be inclusive, diverse, robust so those other unique High Line opportunities, whatever they may be, can bubble up from their own communities.

Bela thinks this approach is increasingly important given the public planning process is largely broken. “I see more consultants in these meetings than members of the public, or there will be a few professional protesters who represent their own interests while saying they speak for the community.” Bela thinks landscape architects and planners can “get around bad planning meetings by testing new things physically,” projects like Gates’ movies in backyard lots.

The High Line means every community now wants to be recognized, argued Gates. “Cities tend to react to what other cities are doing. Models are important.” Mayor, who always want to one-up each other, are “great for us.” And in this day, it’s no longer the product of starchitects that city officials are most interested in, it’s places, added Bela. “Places like Millennium Park now enable cities to compete for talent.” Thomas agreed, adding that Mayor Daley most likely thought, “we can out-do you, we have Millennium Park.” While that park is “not a New York City park,” it works for Chicago. However, Thomas thought many of these big park initiatives are often driven by economic development concerns, not community development.

How Can Public Spaces Become More Sustainable?

In San Francisco’s open space planning process, Bela has been pushing the concept of productive landscapes. “While edible landscapes aren’t a new idea,” so many landscapes in the city are now “deadzones.” Bela hopes to tie the idea of productivity to ecology and create functional landscapes that provide many services. He added that “current landscape management programs are part of the problem.” If local residents were more involved in the stewardship of urban landscapes, you’d see maintenance costs go down.

For Thomas, Prospect Park is already a sustainable landscape. “Olmsted was way ahead and totally off the grid” when he was coming up with these ideas. Cisterns under the park move stormwater in the park through to a man-made lake. She said larger old parks like hers can even handle runoff from the communities around them. There has been some exploration of expanding Prospect Park’s cisterns to accomodate the community’s stormwater. She said with these programs it’s important to educate communities what parks can actually do in terms of environmental benefits.

“Sustainability seems like a low-hanging fruit,” said Gates, but some communities are still not taking advantage of the opportunities. “Detroit could be turning abandoned spaces into urban farms and sell soybeans to China.” However, he did add that “only certain types are interested in urban farming and often they aren’t locals.” With any big idea, it’s important to examine the social components of sustainability. “We need to reconsider the people who live next to re-activated spaces” and have been watching the changes over time. How do they feel?  

How Can Public Spaces Be Better Maintained?

“The National Mall has been loved to death,” said Thomas. Big parks like the Mall and Prospect Park may need to move from capital borrowing or bonding towards making maintenance an annual expense. Also, designers need to be aware in the beginning what the maintenance issues will be and the cost of those. “Park managers need the design understanding of maintenance.”

Bela said temporary spaces can never replace long-term investments in public spaces. Still, around the world, there are different levels of long-term investment available. In Paris, the bike lanes have granite bollards topped with brass. In NYC, in contrast, there are strips of paint. Working with the private sector and foundations may also be a way to finance public space operations and maintenance.  

For Gates, there needs to be a shift away from the “Friends of..” approach. In Chicago, “we have the friends of everything. We are a very friendly city.” Instead, there needs to be a “deep understanding of the fiscal implications of what we do.” Public spaces should be endowed like university chairs.

Is a Strong Sense of Design Important?

Gates thinks the new National Mall projects should have a “strong artistic vision” that “creates tension with users. We need big ideas for these spaces.” A design process like this can’t be about “micro-processes.” To huge laughs, Gates argued that “there are lots of big egos in this room, designers who don’t want their designs thwarted by ignorant community members who don’t know shit about design.” Thomas, laughing, agreed, adding that major public spaces “need a strong design sentiment.” Designers need to “design what we didn’t know we wanted.” However, she added in the case of the National Mall it will be important to “get buy-in from lots of different communities” who interact with the site: the institutions, locals, and tourists.

To sum up, Gates said “ambitious” National Mall designs need not create harmony and “monuments don’t have to be a thing.” Thomas said that any new National Mall designs need to leverage what already works so well. “The National Mall is already a great place that people love. Continue the tradition of the Mall.” Bela told designers to “embrace uncertainty and mystery and tap into inspiration” to locate that powerful, perhaps revolutionary design.

Image credits: (1) Prospect Park / Agaveweb, (2) Parklet / The Bay Citizen

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Washington, D.C.-based musicians and brothers Hays and Ryan Holladay released the first “location-aware album,” a free smartphone app, for the National Mall earlier this summer and then, just recently, an app for Central Park in NYC. Leveraging the global positioning system (GPS) technology of smartphones, Bluebrain serves up hours of music based on the physical location of listeners. As listeners move through these landscapes, they enter different zones, each with a different electronic yet soulful song. For the National Mall app alone, there are some 264 zones. Staying put will turn the song into a loop: a two-to-eight minute segment will simply repeat. Ryan Holliday said: “It’s like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ of an album.” 

The Washington Post writes that the National Mall album keeps you moving and exploring. “Approach the Capitol dome, and you’ll hear an eerie drone. Climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and it’s twinkling harps and chiming bells. As you wander from zone to zone, ambient washes dovetail into trip-hop beats and back again. The music follows you without interruption, the way a soundtrack follows a protagonist through a movie or a video game. When you leave the Mall, the sound evaporates into silence.” 

For the brothers, the National Mall album was a labor of love: “The brothers saw their first concert on the Mall — a Fugazi gig at the Sylvan Theater band shell in 1995.” Also, Hays remember visiting monuments at night and having his first date at the FDR memorial. For the teenage Hays, the National Mall lit-up became a “ancient-futuristic landscape.” Ryan added that “if you don’t think of that as a George Washington Monument, it’s just a really crazy-looking thing.”

After hearing exorbitantly costly quotes from potential producers ($80,000 and up), the brothers finally found Brooklyn-based developer Bradley Feldman, who saw a great opportunity and offered to put in a lot of time, pro-bono. To make the app work, Feldman created “Sscape,” which is somewhat similar to software used to create background music for virtual multi-player game worlds. But within this program, Feldman and the Holladay brothers set map coordinates for each song, establishing their temporal boundaries. In this instance, the real world is like the music-infused virtual game world. The music for each zone is set off as listeners approach.  

The Washington Post says the project felt “magical” and represented a revolution in music. “In an iPod era, where bite-size MP3s have threatened to vanquish the traditional album format, Bluebrain is helping redefine what an album can actually be.”

In addition, the just-released, free 400-song Central Park (Listen to the Light) app got equally rave reviews from The New York Times. As soon as a listener walks through the entrance of Central Park, “it sounds like an orchestra tuning up, a chaotic jumble of wind chimes, electronic moans and discordant strings. Push farther into the park, and a sweet violin melody emerges over languid piano chords.” Then, every 20 to 30 steps new musical themes appear, “as if they were emanating from statues, playgrounds, open spaces and landmarks.”

Different aspects of the landscape are represented in themes, which then layer over one another as you pass out of one zone and into another. “It’s a musical Venn diagram placed over the landscape, and at any time you might have two dozen tracks playing in your ears, all meshing and colliding in surprising ways.”

The brothers decided to go for a distinctly classical feeling for Central Park, sounding warm and mellow for some parts of the park and using symphonic elements to create drama in others. “The melodies are mostly stately, slow marches played on strings or the piano, usually involving a simple two- or four-chord progression, with some electronic chirps, loops and ambient sounds added in the higher registers or rumbling beneath the melody.” 

Also, check out a brief video that explores how Bluebrain created Central Park (Listen to the Light):

The free apps have been downloaded 10,000 times so far. Create your own soundtrack in these iconic landscapes. Go to iTunes to download.

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The Trust for the National Mall announced the kick-off of a National Mall design competition in Washington, D.C., which will be open to established and emerging U.S. teams of landscape architects, urban designers, architects, and sustainable designers. Trust Chairman John Ackridge said the goal of the competition was to make the National Mall, which receives 25 million visitors annually, the “best park in the world.” Caroline Cunningham, President, said the Trust, which is partnering with the National Park Service and is expected to raise nearly $350 million or half of the total budget, is looking for the “best talent” in the world for this multi-year restoration initiative. The Interior Department, of which the National Park Service is a part, has agreed to match any private funds raised, with the goal of bringing in a total of $700 million for the entire Mall restoration project. There are still “critical deferred maintenance” issues — compacted soils, endangered trees, and collapsing sea walls that are being addressed or still sorely need to be.

Cunnigham sees value in taking on three separate design projects in one big design competition. “Incorporating projects together is important for addressing them in a contextual manner collectively in the park itself.” She added that the Mall has a long history with design competitions, and their results have been “integral” to the current shape of the space.

The competition will yield final designs for three main areas to be “respectfully refurbished and rehabilitated” in the next few years: 

Union Square: According to the National Park Service’s National Mall plan, which is the basis of the design competition, the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial will serve as a “focal point of a symmetrical and formally laid out civic square based on historic precedents. The highly symbolic foreground to the U.S. Capitol will be redesigned as a an attractive flexible stage for democracy.” In addition, the space will need to be redesigned so it’s flexible enough to transform and accomodate larger crowds as needed. Part of the design plan involves reducing the size of the reflecting pool in favor of an “interactive water feature, highlighting more sustainable water management practices.” Other changes related to the grade of the site, addition of multi-purpose facilities and restrooms, and places for “recreation equipment rentals.” The idea for a Union Square design competition came out the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)’s Blue Ribbon panel.

The Trust’s specific design competition guidelines zoom in on the details of what designers will be expected to cover in their proposals. In addition to creating a “flexible multipurpose destination that symbolizes our nation and the idea of of – E Pluribus Unum (out of many – one),” the new Union Square will need to improve security along the western edge of the site; demonstrate sensivity to historic context; maintain water as an element of the site, utilize water features in a sustainable manner, and incorporate green stormwater management design elements; improve pedestrian connections between the institutions along the Mall; and build in multi-use facilities and infrastructure within the site.

Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre: The National Mall plan calls for the Washington Monument Grounds, which were recently redesigned by OLIN, to be further updated. Also, the National Park Service wants the “infrastructure to be provided to make them more sustainable.” Part of this effort involves replacing the Sylvan Theatre and nearby restrooms with a multi-purpose facility. “An architectually unique indoor/outdoor visitor services facility” will have cafes and restaurants and flexible performance spaces.

The design guidelines call for a “flexible outdoor space” to be used for a variety of performances from large concert venues to smaller educational programs. The hillside lawn seating area will be better oriented. Again, the designers will need to respect historic sensitivities, address on-site pedestrian circulation and connections to other monuments, and incorporate a range of functions in the facility, including parking, visitor information kiosks, retail, restrooms, and restaurants.

Constitution Gardens: The last major piece of the competition, Constitution Gardens, was originally intended to provide a “pastoral setting for passive recreation,” says the National Park Service. The area is expected to continue to accomodate smaller scale demonstrations and events. The end goal: “a restful, multipurpose visitor destination.” However, many issues with poor soils and pedestrian circulation systems need to be dealt with. In addition, the concrete-lined lake needs to be “reconstructed to be self-sustaining, using a nonpotable water source for filling.” The entire man-made lake is expected to be redesigned as a stormwater management retention basin and part of a larger green infrastructure system. Also, there needs to be new facilities and performance spaces.

The design competition manual adds that the revamped Constitution Gardens will need to “connect with the filtration and pumping system under development for the Lincoln Reflecting Pool to provide clean water.” The new site also needs to address pedestrian circulation issues between the different memorials, “restore and relocate the historic canal Lockkeeper’s House,” and incorporate multi-use facilities.

Donald Stastny, an architect and urban designer, will manage the nearly one-million dollar competition process. He said that the Trust is now working on putting together a high-profile jury and advisory panel. He has also settled on a fairly involved process for the competition:

Stage 1) There will be a call for portfolios, which will include a statement of design intent or philosophy. Here, teams will indentify which of the three sites they want to work on (they can select all three).

Stage 2)
Some 8-10 teams will be selected for each of the three sites. By this stage, the teams will need full technical partners in place. The jury will want to see that real teams that could implement the project are in place.

Stage 3)
Some 4-5 teams will be selected as finalists for each site and the actual design work will begin. The Trust didn’t say how much they would provide teams to create actual design concepts.

All finalists’ design concepts will be on display in April of next year. Winners will be announced in May.

The competition registration period is now open and teams are invited (but not required) to make their way to D.C. for a pre-submittal briefing and site visit later in September. The registration period ends October 8.

Learn more about the design competition and download the design manual.

Image credit: National Mall / Ftsblog.net

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At a conference on livable communities yesterday, Richard Koshalek, Director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. said Diller, Scofidio + Renfro‘s 145-foot-tall sky-blue bubble will inflate itself out of the Hirshhorn’s central plaza by October 2012. The bubble, however, is just one piece in an ambitious new plan for “curating public spaces” within and without, and even beyond, the museum.

The lobby of the museum will be completely redone as a “classroom of the future” that will include “smart furniture and smart environments” for teaching about the role of art in contemporary culture. The current book store will be moved downstairs and nestle among the art, where it will get a new skylight that will provide some sun. “It will be the first bookstore that is part of a museum’s permanent collection,” said Koshalek.

The bubble that will inflate up out of the central plaza and over the top of the building will provide a “seasonal pavilion” in May and October and space for an “educational, cultural and research forum.” Four programs are in the works, including the first on international cultural diplomacy (to be produced with the Council on Foreign Relations); a second one on open-source technology or how technology drives our culture (to be developed with the MacArthur Foundation); a third on “art and destruction, a common theme throughout history” (to be developed with Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study); and the last one on the world of animation, which will feature commissioned works from leading animators. Koshalek argued that these fora need to be “interdisciplinary because that’s how the Museum can reach a broader audience.”

The program on animation will extend beyond the museum and include works to be staged around the National Mall. “The projects for the National Mall will redefine what a cultural institution can do” in Washington, D.C.

The Wall Street Journal notes that the Museum will need $15 million for the plans, including a $5 million endowment, but Bloomberg has already ponied up $1 million and there’s another $1.5 million from the Pearson Foundation, Nokia, and the MacArthur Foundation. In addition to raising the funds, Koshalek will need to navigate the web of organizations that have a voice in National Mall matters.

See images of the bubble.

Image credit: Diller, Scofidio + Renfro / DCist

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Last week, the National Capitol Planning Commission (NCPC) gave its preliminary consent for the National Park Service’s preferred alternative plan for the National Mall, a “comprehensive framework plan” that has undergone a rigorous process of public comment. According to the Park Service, the $700 million plan has received thousands of comments to date. Nancy Witherell, historic preservation lead for the NCPC, argued that the National Park Service’s plan offers “respectful rehabilitation.”

While there is a rich legacy of planning that still guides future development of the National Mall, including the original L’Enfant and McMillan plans, SOM plans leading up to the bicentennial, and the recent OLIN design plans for the Washington Monument, the National Park Service’s new comprehensive framework plan creates a path for moving forward with critical, postponed maintenance work (up to $400 million worth) and future enhancements designed to make the Mall both more sustainable and accessible.

Witherell outlined the major components of the Park Service’s new framework plan:

1) Improve resource conditions
2) Prepare Mall for intensive use
3) Provide desired experiences
4) Address user capacity
5) Provide for physical needs, conveniences, and enjoyment.

Improve resource conditions: This will establish a new “standard quality” across the National Mall, including standards for maintenance and care. Some areas of the Mall are irrigated; others aren’t. There are high levels of use (some 30 million visitors per year), so plans must address both high-usage and low-usage areas in stages.

“Gravel paths, whether you love or hate them, need to be part of the discussion. Perhaps this includes discussion on some sort of paved surface over areas of the grass panels?”

Witherell noted that grass panels on either side of the reflecting pool were heavily worn, sea walls have been degraded, and elm trees are damaged from compacted soils. “Significant infrastructure improvements are needed.”

Prepare for intensive use: The National Mall must accomodate First Amendment marches, demonstrations, and celebrations. Some see the current placement of the reflecting pool as an obstacle in these events. “The reflecting pool currently disperses crowds. For some, it’s a barrier. There are also no bathrooms nearby.”

Across the Mall’s long grass panels, “we examined the damage and found that short events aren’t bad, the mall can recover. However, multi-day events requiring the use of tents, generators, can do lasting damage to the turf.”

Provide desired experience: This includes entertainment, social experiences, educational events. The plan includes replacing the Sylvan Theatre with a more flexible event space. The east pond in Constitution Gardens will also be turned into a destination — like the “National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden.” The model is the “pleasure gardens of Europe.”

Parts of this component of the plan include moving the Lockkeeper’s house further into the landscape (away from the road), and adding in more benches and sitting areas.

Additionally, soils will be re-engineered in spots so they are more resilient for sports.

Address user capacity and balance stewardship and access: The National Park Service hopes to expand bike plans throughout the National Mall so cyclists’ needs can be better met.

Provide for physical needs, conveniences, and enjoyment: Food service is currently dispersed throughout the Mall. Restrooms will be linked to some food kiosks to the north of the National Air & Space Museum. New way-finding and signage programs, including clearer signs at the entrance of the Mall Metro station, will be developed.

Proposed Projects: The plan calls for a range of new projects, including:

  • Re-development of the reflecting pool in Union Square: An international design competition will help generate proposals for the Capitol reflecting pool. The new plan may “retain water, but also make use of hardscape. Perhaps the water is transformable — there could be still / active water elements?”
  • New restroom facilities, particularly for the Union Square area.
  • New space for event trailers so they are kept off the main grass panels.
  • Replacing the Sylvan Theatre with a new multi-use facility.
  • Bike rentals / bike storage infrastructure and expanded paths.
  • Separate bike and pedestrian paths.
  • Canoe / kayak parking along the waterfront.
  • Conservation Zoning Plans: There will be clear areas prioritized as conservation zones. People will be directed out of those areas.
  • Implementation of 2003 OLIN replanting scheme for the Washington Monument grounds: Plans will finally move forward and incorporate the site design for the new National Museum for African American History.
  • Improved circulation: The transportation system will be designed more like public transit, using “optional interpretation, so we can plug-in options.” More bus through-lanes, including access for the D.C. Circulator, will be included, and tour buses will drop off groups in select locations, and then be asked to move off the Mall.  “We are also considering parking meters on the Mall to raise revenue and encourage increased public transit access to the Mall.”
  • Sustainable Resource Management: HOK and other leading sustainability consultants are sampling turf soil and grasses to determine the best way to make the grounds more sustainable and resilient and protect vegetation. The Sustainable Sites Initiative was highlighted as a critical tool for ensuring the Mall’s future sustainability.

Witherell said the Washington, D.C. government is deeply involved in the plan implementation. As one NCPC member noted, Washington D.C. is responsible for the Metro system, permits, and the surrounding neighborhoods, which feed into the National Mall area.

Public Comments:

Nancy Somerville, Honorary ASLA, CEO of ASLA, was first up to speak in the public comments component of the hearing. Somerville said ASLA fully supports the National Park Service’s preferred alternative plan, and added that there “hasn’t been a renovation of the mall in 30 years. It’s fallen into disrepair despite the involvement of the best designers and the work of the park service.”

Somerville argued that restoring adequate funding and creating a true vision for the Mall were critical to its future sustainability. “Repairs shouldn’t be piecemeal. There needs to be a commitment to sustainability, and soil and turf issues need to be addressed.” Additionally, there must be close cooperation among all the government organizations involved. “Planning can’t be done in isolation.” She promoted the redesign of the Union Square area and its connection with the reflecting pool, calling for an international design competition to generate new proposals.

ASLA agrees with the National Park Service’s many initiatives, but opposes the use of interpretive centers across the Mall, instead arguing for a centralized visitor’s center on the mall. Additionally, signage needs to be well-thought out and consider a range of users. “Signage plans also need to be not only 20th century, but also 21st century.” 

Lastly, while there is discussion about paving over the gravel paths, retaining the historic gravel, which provides a “soft walkway” that encourages a “relaxed stroll,” should be considered. In terms of the all the paths throughout the Mall, “one size doesn’t fit all.” Learn more about ASLA’s Blue Ribbon Panel convened to discuss the National Mall.

A range of organizations also gave their support, including the D.C. Historic Preservation League, Downtown Washington, D.C. BID, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, and the Trust for the National Mall. The National Coalition to Save Our Mall is also a “strong supporter” of the National Mall plan but says a “visionary plan, a concept plan, for mall expansion” is still needed.

One Council Member argued that D.C.’s innovative bike sharing scheme (the first in the U.S.) should be better incorporated into National Mall bike infrastructure plans. D.C.’s bike sharing program will soon expand to 1,000 bikes across the city, and a similar, compatible system will develop in Arlington, Virgina, across the river from the National Mall. “We should have a seamless experience for users.” Given D.C.’s bike share units are mobile and solar-powered, they can also be moved in as facilities during peak times or for certain events. “The National Mall can then have more bike tours.”

The comments period on the preferred alternative National Mall plan is open until March 18, 2010. Send your ideas to the National Park Service.

Image credit: National Park Service National Mall Preferred Plan. Conservation Zones Map

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